Updating the Three-Envelope Method for the Digital Age


So you’ve written an article and sent it off to be considered for publication in a journal. You wait. And wait. And wait. And then when you eventually get a response, perhaps it’s a rejection, or a revise and resubmit.

What do you do next?

No one likes disappointment, but academics have to get used to the experience of rejection and figure out ways to manage it. A lot of people find themselves so crushed by rejection or negative feedback on a piece of writing that they set it aside and never return to it again. But one editor’s rejection does not necessarily mean that the essay has no value.

I first learned about the three-envelope method from Michael Moon, who offered this advice in a workshop when I was a graduate student at Duke University. This was back in the early 90s, so we were still submitting articles through postal mail. The three envelope method is this:

As you write your essay, you develop a list of three journals that would be appropriate homes for it. Before you send it off, you label three manila envelopes with each journal’s editor’s name and address. That way, if your article is rejected from journal #1, you can briskly turn around and send it out again to journal #2.

The power of this approach lies in pre-deciding where you think it would be well received, and making it easy on your future (possibly disheartened) self. Of course, if you receive useful feedback for revision, you could revise the essay, but the point is to not spend too long doing so. If you thought the article was good enough to begin with, it’s often better just to send it out again.

In today’s digital environment, most scholars contact editors and submit work via email. So here are some strategies I’ve used to adapt this method to today’s technologies:

  • Write the covering email to each of the three journals, and leave it in your drafts folder in your email software, or

  • If you’re nervous about accidentally sending or deleting a draft message, write the three emails in a plain text editor and save them for the possible day you’ll need them.

Again, the point is to make it as easy on your future self as possible. When you’re suffering the sting of rejection is not the time to be researching a new venue for publication. Do that thoughtful work now, when you’re excited about your contribution.

How do you productively handle rejections? Let us know in the comments!

[Creative Commons licensed image by flickr user Kevin Steinhardt]

Return to Top