Writing a paper that gets accepted for publication in a high-quality journal is not easy. If it was, we’d all be doing it! Academic journals publish articles that are well-written, and based on solid scholarship with a robust methodology. They must present well-supported stories and make significant contributions to the knowledge base of the journal’s specific discipline. Often, manuscripts are rejected before even going out to review because they are poorly written or fail to meet a journal’s publication requirements. Publication requirements don’t just mean submission guidelines, which, of course, need to be followed, but also the more fundamental aspects of composing a publishable article.
Here are ten recommendations on how to effectively write papers that will be considered for publication in high-quality journals:
1. Who is your audience? This is the first question you should ask yourself. Is it the experts in your specific field or scientists in other disciplines? Is it the reading public, or policy makers? Each of these audiences will bring different background assumptions or knowledge to your piece, so how you write for each of them will differ. Ask yourself the questions your audience may ask: Why am I reading this? Why should I keep reading this, rather than reading something else, or doing something else entirely?
2. Respect your audience. Do not make them have to work to figure out what you’re trying to say or what the structure of your story is. The people you are submitting your manuscript to are busy people, especially journal reviewers and editors. If your article is hard to read and follow, it makes their job harder than it should be – increasing the likelihood that your work will be rated poorly or rejected if being considered for publication.
3. Outline your ideas. Use this step to get down the order of your ideas, identifying the main and supporting points of your article. Outlining does not have to be in an orderly, linear fashion, if that does not work for you. Using post-it notes, the mind-map technique, or writing on a blackboard are all techniques you can use to ensure your ideas form a coherent structure.
4. Start with your idea, then expand upon and support it. Academic writing should not be like a mystery novel that reveals the outcome only at the end. Effective scientific narratives start from a stated focus, move through a clear structure of support, and bring the story to fruition. The organization and order of ideas should be clear throughout. If you find yourself circling back or repeating details, that likely means the structure of your work needs to be revised.
5. Keep it simple. Just because the topic is complex does not mean the writing should be. Simple, straightforward sentences are better than long, convoluted ones. Exact, plain words are better than vague ones. Do not use jargon or acronyms – especially when submitting to multi-disciplinary international journals. Make sure every word plays a role in presenting your case and that you know the meaning of any unusual words you use. If you are looking to publish in a language that requires heavy translation on your part, seek help from your advisor, colleagues, university writing centres and professional writing services to improve your article.
6. Practice makes perfect. It might seem like a clichéd answer, but it really is the key. Write regularly; practice it as a discipline in and of itself. Writing a high-quality, publishable article requires confidence in your ideas, and practice and skill which takes time to acquire. You can learn to write well, but you need to increase the amount of time spent writing, too. This doesn’t have to be at your desk or in front of a computer, though. Make good use of time spent walking, waiting for the bus, or commuting on the train to think of how you can improve what you are currently writing.
7. Pay attention to good and bad writing. Which academic writers produce work that engages you? Which ones do not? What is the difference in how they present their arguments? What is the difference in how they use words and lay out sentences? Thinking carefully about other people’s writing is a step toward improving your own.
8. Write now, edit later. Some people are able to compose and edit at the same time, but if this is not the case for you, keep the two functions separate. The first draft of your research might be horrible, and nothing you would show anyone else. It doesn’t matter. Get something down. Work on it every day to get more down until you have your story or argument complete. Wait until later to edit it.
9. Give your manuscript ‘drawer time’. This is the time your manuscript spends in the dark of your file cabinet or unopened on your hard drive. This is one of the most valuable tools you can use when writing, because it allows you to become a better editor of your own work. Letting your manuscript sit for a while means that when you come to read it again, you should be able to identify any problems with it.
10. Stick at it. It is undoubtedly true that it is more important than ever for students and early career professionals to develop good writing skills and a thorough knowledge of the journals publication process. However, developing those skills and putting them into practice takes time, so don’t get discouraged. We all had to start somewhere!
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