The Process Of Developing A Publishable Paper In Classics: An Illustrative Example And Some Suggestions

By: William Race, University Of North Carolina-Chapel Hill
Originally delivered at: CAMWS, St. Louis, April 16, 2004


Remarks adapted from a presentation at “Preparing to Publish,” a panel on scholarly publishing organized by The Graduate Students Issues Committee. A version of this paper appears in Classical Journal 100.3 (2005) 301-305.  Permission to display this version has been granted by the author, outgoing CJ Forum Editor Nita Krevans, outgoing Editor-in-Chief Peter Knox, incoming Editor-in-Chief S. Douglas Olson, and CAMWS Secretary-Treasurer Anne Groton.

I first wish to thank Bob Holschuh Simmons and the other organizers for putting together this panel on scholarly publishing in Classics and for kindly inviting me to participate in it. I shall begin by presenting an example from my own experience of turning an idea into an eventual publication and end by offering 10 general observations and suggestions for those intending to publish in this field.

Published articles arise from many sources and take many forms. I want to relate my own experience with one publication, which arose from my teaching about ten years ago and culminated in an article entitled “First Appearances in the Odyssey.” For several years I had taught the Odyssey in a general Greek Civilization course of 40 students. Each time I introduced the epic by pointing out that the first time we see the suitors and Telemachos through the eyes of Athena, we learn a great deal about their characters just by noticing what they are doing and how they react to the appearance of the goddess. I would then add that they should be alert each time a new character is introduced to see what could be discerned about his or her character.

Nothing exceptional in this—merely a common-sensical way of reading narratives. I have always approached literature from the point of view of the writer (I suppose because I always wanted to be one), by constantly asking: why has “the author” introduced this person or topic at this juncture and in this particular way? Then, one semester, almost as if listening to my own words, I began to pay attention to the various ways in which the poet introduced new characters.

Such musings rattled around in the back of my mind until an opportunity (καιρός) arose—and a deadline approached. I was invited to the University of Kentucky and one facet of my visit was to meet with a graduate seminar on Homer. Here was the chance to try out my ideas, so I quickly wrote up about twenty pages and sent them off two weeks before my visit.

Many ideas crowded my mind as I wrote up this draft. One was Aristotle’s observation that the Odyssey was an epic of θος and his prescription that character should be consistent—after all, I was exploring how θος was revealed with our first view of each character and this entailed asking whether or not the subsequent actions of the character were consistent with our first impression. Another was the issue of remembering: I had noticed that memory of the past was an important characteristic of the good characters in the Odyssey, whereas bad ones were forgetful. I also noticed that there were significant absences in several first appearances: Zeus and Athene (with Poseidon absent); Kalypso (with Odysseus absent); Eumaios and Laertes (with their servants absent). Hospitality was also prominent in delineating good and bad characters. I was also interested in the technique of the narrator: were there consistent motifs, patterns, typologies? I noticed that we often “found” people (the operative verb was ερίσκω) engaged in revealing activities when we first saw them.

I tried to incorporate as many of these ideas as I could in my draft. Since, somewhat surprisingly, I had never before published a word on Homer, I struggled like anyone working in a new field. I knew (as most Hellenists do) something of Homeric scholarship, but was, frankly, taking a risk. The students in the seminar were asked to write referee reports, as if for a journal. Far from containing the pronouncements of an expert, this exercise was my request for help. One student’s critique astutely remarked that there were really four papers here. It was clear that all my ideas were not cohering.

It was my good fortune that Robert Rabel was on hand to give me very helpful advice and relevant bibliography, especially regarding narratology, one area of his expertise. I also contacted a former teacher just to see if he knew if anything had been done on this topic. Finally, I happened to meet Steve Reece, who had recently finished his dissertation on what would become The Stranger’s Welcome, one of the best books on Homer in recent years. He kindly read the draft and offered many suggestions, especially additional bibliography. At this point I was encouraged to take it a step further. I submitted it as a talk at the APA in New Orleans in 1992 and it was accepted. The very process of boiling it down to an abstract really helped clarify the essential argument, while preparing the handout brought into focus the most important examples. Then, after letting it sit for an additional few months, I returned to it at the beginning of summer and finally sent off the result to TAPA.

After three months, the reports came back. Referee A rejected it for cogent reasons: I offered no rationale for including some examples and excluding others; I had not clearly defined what constituted a “first appearance” rather than, say, an introduction. Referee B was guardedly optimistic. She or he liked the overall idea, but found the execution inadequate. I was, of course, devastated.

The editor, Sander Goldberg, however, made a crucial—and generous—decision. He offered me the chance to revise it. The prospect of having to re-think so much of the article was far too daunting to face immediately, so, once again, I let it sit for a couple of months. The referees had made me realize that I needed to be both more precise and more thorough. I had originally excluded the first appearances of characters in Odysseus’s narrative in books 9-12 because they did not seem to conform to the patterns I was finding, so I had to figure out why that was happening. In so doing, I came to realize that a different narrative pattern was operating in Odysseus’s narrative from that of the main narrator. That in itself was a minor breakthrough, letting me treat the problem in an appendix so as not to distract from the main arguments.

When I had completely rethought and rewritten it, I sent it off to the editor with a list of all the ways in which I had changed it to meet the objections of the two readers. He then made another sound editorial decision. He sent it back to the favorable referee for yet another evaluation. This occasioned another rewrite, with another letter detailing how I had adjusted the article to conform to the second round of criticisms. Finally, the editor suggested some minor changes of his own and I eventually received the proofs.

Here are 10 general suggestions I recommend on the basis of this and similar experiences (I pass over in silence the times my submissions were rejected by both referees and were accompanied with a polite note of agreement by the editor).

1. Start with primary material and trust your instincts. This is the origin of your original contribution. If you jump too quickly into the secondary literature, it is easy to get lost in a sea of δόξα.

2. Make lists and folders of possible topics based on these insights, observations, and questions that arise in your reading and teaching. You never know when your καιρός will come.

3. Make commitments. Submit abstracts. Give talks. As I mentioned, abstracts and handouts are wonderful tools to sharpen thinking. In fact, for some topics, I begin with the handout, which, like arranging images for an archaeology lecture, provides a clear outline of the subject.

4. Summon up all of your fortitude and faith when facing the initial write-up. It takes guts, but there is no better means to clarify your ideas and insights than presenting them in writing. It takes nothing less than a leap of faith to believe that a convincing argument will eventually result.

5. Don’t try to get everything exactly right the first time; it is impossible and may bring on self-defeating perfectionism. Don’t try to paint a Sistine Chapel; you cannot create a vast masterpiece. Just get as many of your relevant ideas down in writing as best you can.

6. Get help. Check with knowledgeable people to make sure you are not inadvertently duplicating what has been done and to help you locate your work in the wider scholarship. They also can help you focus and cut—or delegate to footnotes—distracting material, however brilliant it may seem to you.

7. Submit your best effort, not the last word. Make sure, however, that the copy is clean, with absolutely no typos, misspelled titles, garbled references, or incorrect Greek or Latin. Whatever else we may be, we are also philologists, responsible for accurate knowledge of these languages.  If you can, get proofreading from two sources: 1) a good general reader to check its readability; 2) an expert to catch the inevitable technical slips.

8. Be grateful for the feedback of referees and editors. In the 25 years I have been publishing, I have been treated very strictly, but fairly, by referees and editors. Sure, there have been (from my perspective) mistakes, misunderstandings, and certainly hurt feelings. Occasionally, a referee was harsher than necessary or simply dyspeptic. But, overall, this system of blind refereeing has done more than any other thing to sharpen my work, clarify my thought, and challenge me to do better.

9. If an editor gives you the opportunity to revise, take it! Meet the referees at least half way. Say no when you have to, but explain why. Provide a full bill of particulars to the editor. If the door is opened, go through it. I have never regretted following referees’ advice as far as I could and have been very well served by their hours of hard work, difficult as it was to face their often dispiriting critiques. Many times I have found that the solution to a criticism simply involved dropping a point or stating it more clearly.

10. The path to publication is long. There are many setbacks and revisions. Do not be discouraged. Even a full professor submitting an article to a refereed journal risks the same rejection you do and, believe me, takes rejection hard.

In conclusion, modify these observations to fit your own work. Seek advice from your professors and trusted colleagues—yes, and from a friend or partner who likes to read good prose. It takes a scholarly village to educate a classicist.