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What is the manuscript revision process?

Updated: Feb 18, 2021

After you submit a paper, there are only two outcomes: acceptance and rejection. There may be gray areas within each, where the word “tentative” may arise, and that should not be construed as an ultimatum. Even the most experienced writer gets papers returned with critiques, so there is no reason why a newbie should expect any better treatment. Most of the time, even if a paper is outright turned down, the letter will usually state something like “not suitable for our purposes” as the very worst comment. That simply indicates your material does not match the content theme of the publication, and a writer should just move on. It’s a little like fishing; if don’t catch something, move to another location.

But if you get a nibble on the line, you have not yet reeled in the fish yet. “Tentatively accepted” means just that. You and the editor will have to work together to improve your draft, to suit the publication’s needs and to polish your paper for a variety of reasons, mostly for content and quality of the writing style. Changes might be slight for the entire draft, but it is more likely that there will be a few major corrections needed. So, no matter how hard you worked to generate something presentable, perhaps even something you felt quite proud to submit, you should accept the inevitability that the draft will need polishing. Once you have

gotten over that phase, you can move on. Keep in mind that it is very common to take constructive criticism or editorial feedback as negative [1], when that is not the intention. As Jalongo and Saracho [2] put it:

Accept that the act of submitting a manuscript invites critique and that a recommendation to “revise and resubmit” is a positive outcome. Too often, authors allow their feelings to be hurt, withdraw the manuscript rather than make the requested revisions, or fire off an indignant, defensive e-mail to the editor. (p. 20)

Believe it or not, but editors are human. Some will produce comments for revision that are carefully crafted with thoughtful remarks interspersed among the constructive criticism. With such wording, you may not even realize how serious the correction is, and you may actually feel deeply encouraged to help the editor without realizing that they are helping you to help yourself instead. Those are the best coaches in your writing life. Others may offer terse instructions that are direct, unemotional, and almost mechanical in nature. You may almost feel that the editor had drawn a deep breath in exasperation before writing them. But those comments are designed to hone the paper nonetheless, not to insult or belittle the writer. The end goal is the same as the seemingly kindly editor, and there is no sense to trying to picture the editor as an angel or demon. They are merely doing their job.

Manuscript criticism about content can tell you to add or delete material. In the case of the former, take heart that the editor probably realizes you may have skipped over something factually necessary (like a description of the study’s participants) or comparative (for the background or discussion section). They are seeing your paper and its gaps with fresh eyes, and such ideas are meant to flesh out areas for clarity and strength. Criticism can also require that you alter its stance, whether too general or specific, too instructive or narrative, too certain or indecisive, etc. This is when a writer may react emotionally because it feels as if the editor is trying to take control over your writing style. Such is not the case. Rather, you should take this advice as a way to open your eyes to how you write, not what you write. These comments will help you develop as a writer if you let them.

Heed the editor’s critique, but if you feel they made an error, or you have a sound reason to dispute something, you are free to bring these things up. As mentioned earlier, editors are human, so they may make mistakes or be tired or fail to see the direction you attempted to take. Maybe you yourself didn’t put together your points well enough, even though in your mind you saw the intended result. Keep your tone professional and polite, and object if you wish, and you may be surprised if they back down once they truly see your point. In many cases, a compromise can be achieved, too. The revision process, whether you have a kindly or terse editor, should be a joint effort. Adamson and Muller [3,4] have described this human relationship, and a writer should strive to see it as just that, not as an activity pitting them against an editor. Photo credit: Unsplash


Nielsen, S. M., & Rocco, T. S. (2002). Joining the conversation: Graduate students’ perceptions of writing for publication. Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the Adult Education Research Conference (43rd, Raleigh, NC, May 24–26, 2002).

Jalongo, M. R., & Saracho, O. N. (2018). Writing for publication: transitions and tools that support scholars’ success. Springer.

Adamson, J., & Muller, T. (2008). Evolving academic journal editorial systems. ELTED, 11, 45–51.

Adamson, J., & Muller, T. (2012). Editorial investigation of roles and responsibilities in academic journal editorial systems. In J. Adamson and R. Nunn (Eds.), Editorial and authorial voices in EFL academic journal publishing (pp. 83–111). Australia: Asian EFL Journal Press.


Glen served as the chief editor of the JALT CUE SIG journal for a decade. He was also a copyeditor for a science journal for five years. He has been doing scientific proofreading and editing in Japan for over 20 years, including co-editing a book on STEM English to be published in late 2021.

1 Comment

Jeff Moore
Jeff Moore
Mar 07, 2021

This is a great introduction, Glen. Thank you!

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