The Art of Manuscript Reviewing: Learning from the Example of Peggy Pascoe
Barbara Young Welke, September 2011
Author's Note: Our profession is at once deeply solitary and yet fundamentally collective. Beyond acknowledgments in books and articles, we have few professional outlets to recognize the largely invisible work of manuscript reviewing that is the lifeblood of our profession and even less training or attention directed toward developing this essential skill. To be a good reviewer of manuscripts takes more than just a willingness to read someone else's work: it is an art.1
Peggy Pascoe did not write down a set of guidelines for manuscript reviewing; she modeled the art in the hundreds of manuscripts she read for others. The 10 guidelines below are culled from reading and reflecting on Peggy's comments on manuscripts by a broad range of authors (myself included), both junior and senior. The explanatory comments include reflections from the authors on what Peggy's comments meant to a particular work and to their careers.
Peggy Pascoe died on July 23, 2010, after a four-year battle against cancer. This essay is a tribute to this aspect of her contribution to the historical profession, We can do her memory no greater honor than to let her be our model on the art of manuscript reviewing and carry on her legacy. (See also the In Memoriam essay about Peggy Pascoe in the November 2010 issue of Perspectives on History.)
1. Begin by recognizing what the author has accomplished
It’s all too easy to immediately dig into what’s “wrong” with a manuscript. Peggy reminded us how important it is to tell an author where she/he has succeeded in matters large and small: acknowledging a compelling bit of prose; complimenting the organization of the argument; highlighting the author’s success in addressing a particularly thorny research question; or, finally, noting the historiographic contributions of the piece as a whole.
Why is it important to focus first on what the author has done well? We all know that even an article, and most certainly every book manuscript, reflects years of work. It is important to acknowledge that labor. But more than this, retaining any sense of what is original, important, and worth sharing in a project that we have lived with for a very long time is one of the highest challenges of scholarly work. “Throughout the process of editing the book and responding to external reviews,” one author noted, “I had much more confidence in the work as a whole, not because Peggy told me it was good, but because she told me what was good about it.” Moreover, by naming what is original and important and why and to whom and to what scholarly debates, a reviewer not only validates an author’s work, but also, often helps authors see things in an entirely new light. As another author noted in evaluating the impact of Peggy’s comments, “Her insights gave me a desperately needed inspiration to tackle the manuscript one more time.” And, finally, support can let an author know that it’s time for work to be launched into the broader world.
Support is not a substitute for honesty. In Peggy’s reviews encouragement never took the place of candor or sharing her expert judgment. Indeed, her support made her candor a gift that could be heard. Near the end of a thoughtful set of comments on an essay to one author, Peggy noted, “Can I be really honest and say I think this essay just doesn’t jell in this form.”
In offering critiques—whether of research, organization, or an argument—never leave the author simply with criticism. So, for example, in the review I just drew from, Peggy went on to explain what she saw as unresolved issues in terms of the audience for the piece, set out in clear terms the specific challenges the author would need to address to achieve the essay’s goals, and then offered an alternative that the author might consider for the piece.
In reviewing work Peggy always explained why she was led to a particular conclusion and then offered suggestions for revision. So, for example, in a review of a chapter in one author’s book manuscript, Peggy explained, “When I started reading this chapter, something about the way you phrased the early pages...”—and here she noted what it was in that section of the manuscript—“made me think that you...”—concluding again with a concrete statement. She then closed, “What you actually seem to mean, though...” and again she summarized what it was she thought the author intended, but hadn’t exactly expressed. Commenting on an element of another author’s work, Peggy noted, “I’m very intrigued with this portrait...,” but then urged the author to make the relationships he was describing clearer. “Here are three suggestions for doing that....” What followed were three, clear as a bell, suggestions, including page numbers.
Peggy’s broad knowledge saved many a scholar—myself included—from embarrassing gaffes. Quoting a sentence from an author’s manuscript, Peggy noted, “Here I think the exact opposite is true.” On a particular point in an article by one author she noted, “This sentence strikes me as true but not as new (in historiographic terms) or surprising (in interpretive terms) as you seem to suggest here... so I’d be inclined to tone it down a bit.” Reflecting on being thus saved, one author noted, “She rescued me from a multitude of embarrassing mistakes, overreaches, improperly framed generalizations, and failures....” We expose ourselves when we ask someone—perhaps especially someone we know or whose work we know and respect—to read our work. Peggy reminded us that advice can and must be given without passing judgment on another’s merits as a scholar and that doing so establishes the deepest of bonds of trust among authors.
Peggy never overreached. Raising a question in one author’s work, she noted that her own reading on the subject might be somewhat dated. And responding to a point in another author’s work, she noted, “I’ve been telling my students for years now that the courts resisted approving protective legislation until much later. Am I just plain wrong about this?” She demonstrated the importance of reviewers acknowledging the limits of their own knowledge on a subject so that an author would know when other counsel might be useful.
Rather than jealously guarding history or particular subfields from interlopers, Peggy’s reviews unfailingly extended a helping hand across disciplinary and subfield divides. She helped chart what for outsiders were uncharted waters including sharing standards of evidence and answering historiographic and research questions. In several places in a review to one author, she noted something along the lines of “that’s a description that sets off alarm bells for historians” and went on to explain why and how the author might rethink the claim.
This guideline is as important as any of the others set out here. Reviewing requires a certain selflessness, not simply because of the invisibility of the task, but because it requires giving of oneself to help an author achieve his or her goals for the manuscript. For example, referring to a part of a manuscript that had not quite come together, Peggy noted, “I think it’s partly because you’re not entirely sure what it is you want to highlight in this section.” And rather than pressing her opinion, she went on to note the competing arguments the author had in play and—as always—to offer a possible solution. As one author remarked of Peggy’s suggestions, “she wasn’t trying to sway my decision, but to help me make my own decision.” If I was to use a medical analogy here, I might suggest thinking of the art of manuscript reviewing as more midwifery than reconstructive surgery.
A senior scholar once related to me a painful story of an adviser who, in suggesting manuscript revisions to a student, set the bar so high that the end result was that the student never finished the book. Certainly we should aim high. But when Peggy read a manuscript and offered comments, she was always mindful of whether it was the early work of a new scholar or the work of a seasoned scholar. The distinctions here are not just in how she spoke to an author, but also in recognizing the “work” that a “first” publication must do, in speaking candidly with authors about the risks involved in pursuing particular arguments, and in being conscious of time.
Peggy’s comments moved gracefully between the reactions of an expert reader and those of the intended audience. Who are the intended readers? Will they be confused, annoyed, put off, or engaged? Peggy’s comments were designed to help the author achieve full, unabated engagement. And in this regard, her comments were full of gems of wisdom relating to the writer’s and the historian’s craft:
Her counsel on avoiding defensiveness: “Whenever you feel the urge to say what the book doesn’t do..., either squelch it or find a way to avoid using ‘not’ or ‘no’ words to describe it. Organize your introduction around the high points.”
And on the task of a book’s introduction: “What the introduction to a book should do is to make a reader (whether layperson or expert) feel that the book is so important that they shouldn’t put it down, even for an instant (and, further, that they would never want to).”
On the work of chapter openings: “The opening to this chapter does a good job of providing a vivid picture of this particular event, and that, of course, is a good thing. But it doesn’t do nearly as good a job of focusing readers’ attention on the central concerns, what I might call the heart, of your work.... Every chapter opening needs to do both of these things at once, and it’s especially important that the first chapter do so, because it’s the moment at which you need to show a strong enough authorial voice to make your readers feel invited into your subject....”
On flow: “I’d like to talk you out of as many of the subsection introductions as I can, since I think that in an essay that already has nine separate sections, all the extra starting and stopping within sections makes for frustrating reading, and, conversely, smoothing out these openings would make the essay read more smoothly.” And, as always, the offering of a concrete model, “Use as your model the wonderfully direct opening you now have in Part 3, section 3, which was my favorite opening paragraph in the entire essay.”
On the relationship of individual chapters to a book as a whole: “[Make] sure that each chapter not only addresses a particular topic and/or makes a historiographic point but also carries its weight as a building block of your overall story.”
After noting the ways in which Peggy’s advice had helped him produce a more “sophisticated rendering of the historical problems at the heart of the book,” one author explained that her comments had done more than this: “In the final revisions of my book manuscript, Peggy Pascoe reminded me of how the mystery revealed to the reader of a book is something altogether apart from the challenges that the historian faces in researching and making sense of sources into a persuasive narrative.” From Peggy he had learned why sometimes “the writer needs to consciously lay bare the unanticipated archival discovery or reveal a twist in the plot, massage and amplify dramatic tension that keeps the reader on tenterhooks.”
And if all this were not enough, Peggy never suggested or even hinted that reading was a burden. Rather, in opening and closing, she thanked authors for the opportunity they had given her to read their work, to learn from them. “It was such a pleasure to sit down to read this paper!” she began a typical set of comments. And while I—and others—certainly always knew that her reading of our work came at the cost of spending time on her own work, her expressions of gratitude felt genuine. Beyond lessening the guilt we may have felt in imposing on her time, what is gained by those expressions of gratitude for sharing our work with her? First, it reinforced what she said in other words, in other places in a given evaluation, that the scholarship had value. And second, it reinforced a message that we would all do well to keep in mind: reading and commenting on the work of others is a vital part of scholarly dialogue; it is how disciplines are shaped.
Reviewing builds fields, relationships, and careers. One scholar’s words here speak for many on the impact Peggy Pascoe had: “I have turned to Peggy for counsel at every major step in my career since then, with questions about presses, job opportunities, and how to shape my first invited lecture. Peggy has always responded the way she did in that very first instance, with pages of feedback that I know she did not have the time to write, with the wisdom of experience and inherent good sense, and with genuine warmth.”
Barbara Young Welke is professor of history and professor of law at the University of Minnesota. Her publications include Law and the Borders of Belonging in the Long Nineteenth Century United States (Cambridge University Press, 2010) and Recasting American Liberty: Gender, Race, Law, and the Railroad Revolution, 1865–1920 (Cambridge University Press, 2001), which received the AHA’s Littleton-Griswold Prize. Welke wishes to thank the many authors who shared with her Peggy’s comments on their manuscripts and for their reflections on what Peggy’s comments meant for their manuscripts and for their careers. The essay is based on a presentation on a panel “The Work of Peggy Pascoe: A Roundtable” at the 2007 OAH annual meeting in Minneapolis
*The editor regrets that because of editorial and proofreading errors, an earlier, uncorrected version of this essay was printed in the September 2011 issue of Perspectives on History. The text that appears here is the correct version of the article.