Academics normally learn how to write while on the job, suggests Michael Hochberg. This usually starts with “the dissertation and interactions with their supervisor. Skills are honed and new ones acquired with each successive manuscript.” Writing continues to improve throughout a career, but that thought might bring little solace if you are staring at a blank document and wondering where to start.
In this blog post, we share tips from editors and outline some ideas to bear in mind when drafting a journal article. Whether you are writing a journal article to share your research, contribute to your field, or progress your career, a well-written and structured article will increase the likelihood of acceptance and of your article making an impact after publication.
Four tips for writing well
Stuart West and Lindsay Turnbull suggest four general principles to bear in mind when writing journal articles:
- Keep it simple: “Simple, clear writing is fundamental to this task. Instead of trying to sound […] clever, you should be clear and concise.”
- Assume nothing: “When writing a paper, it’s best to assume that your reader is [subject] literate, but has very little expert knowledge. Your paper is more likely to fail because you assumed too much, than because you dumbed it down too much.”
- Keep to essentials: “If you focus on the main message, and remove all distractions, then the reader will come away with the message that you want them to have.”
- Tell your story: “Good […] writing tells a story. It tells the reader why the topic you have chosen is important, what you found out, and why that matters. For the story to flow smoothly, the different parts need to link clearly to each other. In creative writing this is called ‘narrative flow’.”
“A paper is well-written if a reader who is not involved in the work can understand every single sentence in the paper,” argues Nancy Dixon. But understanding is the bare minimum that you should aim for—ideally, you want to engage your audience, so they keep reading.
As West and Turnbull say, frankly: “Your potential reader is someone time-limited, stressed, and easily bored. They have a million other things to do and will take any excuse to give up on reading your paper.”
A complete guide to preparing a journal article for submission
Consider your research topic
Before you begin to draft your article, consider the following questions:
- What key message(s) do you want to convey?
- Can you identify a significant advance that will arise from your article?
- How could your argument, results, or findings change the way that people think or advance understanding in the field?
As Nancy Dixon says: “[A journal] editor wants to publish papers that interest and excite the journal’s readers, that are important to advancing knowledge in the field and that spark new ideas for work in the field.”
Think about the journal that you want to submit to
Research the journals in your field and create a shortlist of “target” journals before writing your article, so that you can adapt your writing to the journal’s audience and style. Journals sometimes have an official style guide but reading published articles can also help you to familiarise yourself with the format and tone of articles in your target journals. Journals often publish articles of varying lengths and structures, so consider what article type would best suit your argument or results.
Check your target journals’ editorial policies and ethical requirements. As a minimum, all reputable journals require submissions to be original and previously unpublished. The ThinkCheckSubmit checklist can help you to assess whether a journal is suitable for your research.
Now that you’ve decided on your research topic and chosen the journal you plan on submitting to, what do you need to consider when drafting each section of your article?
Create an outline
Firstly, it’s worth creating an outline for your journal article, broken down by section. Seth J. Schwartz explains this as follows:
Writing an outline is like creating a map before you set out on a road trip. You know which roads to take, and where to turn or get off the highway. You can even decide on places to stop during your trip. When you create a map like this, the trip is planned and you don’t have to worry whether you are going in the correct direction. It has already been mapped out for you.
The typical structure of a journal article
- Make it concise, accurate, and catchy
- Avoid including abbreviations or formulae
- Choose 5-7 keywords that you’d like your journal article to appear in the search results for
- Summarize the findings of your journal article in a succinct, “punchy”, and relevant way
- Keep it brief (200 words for the letter, and 250 words for the main journal)
- Do not include references
- Introduce your argument or outline the problem
- Describe your approach
- Identify existing solutions and limitations, or provide the existing context for your discussion
- Define abbreviations
For STEM and some social sciences articles
- Describe how the work was done and include plenty of detail to allow for reproduction
- Identify equipment and software programs
For STEM and some social science articles
- Decide on the data to present and how to present it (clearly and concisely)
- Summarise the key results of the article
- Do not repeat results or introduce new discussion points
- Include funding, contributors who are not listed as authors, facilities and equipment, referees (if they’ve been helpful; even though anonymous)
- Do not include non-research contributors (parents, friends, or pets!)
- Cite articles that have been influential in your research—these should be well-balanced and relevant
- Follow your chosen journal’s reference style, such as Harvard or Chicago
- List all citations in the text alphabetically at end of the article
Many journals now encourage authors to make all data on which the conclusions of their article rely available to readers. This data can be presented in the main manuscript, in additional supporting files, or placed in a public repository.
Journals also tend to support the Force 11 Data Citation Principles that require all publicly available datasets be fully referenced in the reference list with an accession number or unique identifier such as a digital object identifier (DOI).
Permission to reproduce copyright material, for online publication without a time limit, must also be cleared and, if necessary, paid for by the author. Evidence in writing that such permissions have been secured from the rights-holder are usually required to be made available to the editors.
Learning from experience
Publishing a journal article is very competitive, so don’t lose hope if your article isn’t accepted to your first-choice journal the first-time round. If your article makes it to the peer-review stage, be sure to take note of what the reviewers have said, as their comments can be very helpful. As well as continuing to write, there are other things you can do to improve your writing skills, including peer review and editing.
Christopher, Marek, and Zebel note that “there is no secret formula for success”, arguing that:
The lack of a specific recipe for acceptances reflects, in part, the variety of factors that may influence publication decisions, such as the perceived novelty of the manuscript topic, how the manuscript topic relates to other manuscripts submitted at a similar time, and the targeted journal. Thus, beyond actively pursuing options for any one particular manuscript, begin or continue work on others. In fact, one approach to boosting writing productivity is to have a variety of ongoing projects at different stages of completion. After all, considering that “100 percent of the shots you do not take will not go in,” you can increase your chances of publication by taking multiple shots.