First: who sends an essay to a journal without page numbers? Seriously. Thirty-odd pages, no numbers.I mean, okay. I have an editorial background and I'm anal anyway, but in this case these sloppy errors are indicative of the quality of the whole, which isn't even grad-student-y so much as it is undergrad-y: the essay is completely unbalanced, doing shit like providing 10 pages of not-at-all-relevant background information before giving (I'm not kidding) 3 pages of analysis of the supposedly important text that that background info was setting up. The author also has a penchant for just dropping in quotations from famous scholars--quotations that are appropriate enough, but that the author doesn't comment on or adapt or modify, but leaves to speak for themselves (even when those quotations were originally about something, uh, different than whatever he's using them to prove).
Second: who does such a bad job of proofreading that there are typos on nearly every page? And I'm not talking just about errors that one's eye might keep skipping over, like typing "is" for "if," but errors where the sentence was obviously partly rewritten but not double-checked, so that several words are missing or different version of the same verb are left sitting side by side. Or where the author has left blank spaces for the page numbers for a couple of citations. . . but never come back to fill them in.
There is, however, the germ of an interesting idea here. I'm not sure that that idea is true, or provable, or maybe even ultimately all that interesting, but some part of it is, I think, original to the author. So I'm trying to write a review that both says NO WAY NO HOW to the journal editor, but that doesn't totally crush the author. If the essay were completely reoriented to focus on its best 10%, and to actually make its one rather interesting argument, it could be publishable (somewhere, though probably not in this particular journal).
It's a tough line to walk. I feel real compassion for the author, but I'm also just astonished at how bad some of this material is. I believe that it's important for the author to get feedback on the specific flaws in his approach so that he can correct them, but as I'm detailing those flaws I'm aware that I'm taking a kind of pleasure in doing so--and I don't want it to be about me and my enjoyment of whatever minor power I have now that I'm on the other side.
The other thing that's making this difficult is that I know who the author is. When the editor emailed me, he identified the author by name, even though in the editor's actual cover letter and on the essay itself none of that information is provided. This seems to me a breach of the usual blind author/blind reviewer process, which itself makes me uncomfortable--but not so uncomfortable that I didn't immediately Google the author. I discovered that he's a year or two ahead of me on the tenure track, at an institution where I also applied for a job--indeed, I'm pretty sure that he's in the very position that I applied for. This isn't something that makes me envious (the school is more or less equivalent to my own institution), but having that kind of information makes my task as a reviewer both easier and harder.
On the one hand, I know that the author is young, but not a grad student, has presented at some important conferences, but appears not yet to have published anything, and those facts make it easier for me to pitch my comments appropriately. On the other hand, there's also that background *buzz buzz* in my head of, "How the hell did he get that job? How did he even get his dissertation approved?" and all that is not conducive to kindly comments.
In the end, the easiest approach for me has been to pretend that he's a smart undergraduate who has just brought me his first draft of his senior thesis--in other words, that he's someone whose intelligence I believe in, who has the time and the skills to improve, but who also needs some very stern guidance just now.