Brush up your writing skills if you want to get published

Well-written academic papers are far more likely to pass editorial scrutiny. Matthew Reisz reports

April 16, 2009

Getting into print is often a crucial challenge for doctoral students and early-career academics hoping to ascend to the next level.

This accounts for the turnout of almost 70 members of the Newer Researchers Network - including experts in bumblebees, children's rights and the novels of Graham Greene - for a workshop on "Academic Writing Skills and Getting Published", held by the Society for Research into Higher Education last week.

The workshop's first session was led by Simon Lygo-Baker, assistant director (policy) of King's Learning Institute at King's College London.

Far too many authors "fail to think of the relevance of what they write about, confuse readers and go off on tangents", he said. "You need to keep things relevant and interesting for an audience."

Even writing for specialist journals required reaching out beyond the very intimate kind of "dialogue" that doctoral students have with their supervisors and external examiners, he added.

The odds can seem daunting. Some editors reject 80 per cent of the material submitted and then publish only 4 to 5 per cent of what they send out to referees.

Yet there are a number of routes that can make "the journey to publication less rocky and more stable", Mr Lygo-Baker said.

Many editors report vast numbers of submissions that read like drafts. They are often badly written, poorly constructed or focus on a topic that is parochial, overanalysed or long past its sell-by date, he added.

Others have no sense of the style of a particular journal, fail to address the major theoretical issues, take far too long to get to the point or offer "conclusions" that do not arise from what has gone before.

Anyone who avoids even these obvious traps should be well ahead of the game, he said.

Mr Lygo-Baker spoke of the personal satisfaction gained from having work published. He joked that there was nothing nicer than walking around with a publication one had written under one's arm and making casual references to it in conversation.

But ambitious academics must also strive to ensure that the people who can help build their careers read and remember what they write, so some of the principles that apply to journalism or thrillers apply to scholarly work, too.

"Give readers a hook or incentive at the start to grab their attention and get them involved," he suggested.

The ending is equally important: "Summarise your central claim at the end, so that people take away something concrete."

'Jump in and start'

In a later session, Rowena Murray, reader in education at the University of Strathclyde and the author of books including Writing for Academic Journals and How to Write a Thesis, turned to the theme of academic writing. The ideal, she said, is for scholars to be able to write on demand.

There is certainly a place for writers' retreats - particularly those operating on the "typing pool" model, allowing short periods of social interaction, rather than one of "solitary confinement" - which provide solid slabs of writing time, she said.

But it is also important to get into the habit of grabbing any spare time and using it to write.

"Snacking" can be just as effective as "bingeing" in getting an article or book written, so it is a mistake to assume one needs a weekend or even a week to write anything half-decent, Dr Murray added.

This, she said, is a recipe for procrastination interspersed with 18-hour writing marathons when one finally manages to carve out some free time.

A key technique, the audience heard, is "writing to prompts", which provide templates to help people "jump in and start".

A simple exercise on these lines demonstrated how much one can achieve in even five or ten minutes if one works within strict guidelines.

By building up their confidence, anyone can develop the behavioural techniques to smooth the path from non-writing to writing, Dr Murray stated, adding that similar prompts can also help to ensure that a thesis or journal article delivers what is expected and maximises its impact.

PhDs, for example, are meant to "internalise the debate" within controversial subject areas.

By consciously drawing on set phrases, such as "Some will argue that ..." or "Possible interpretations include ... ", writers can ensure that they package their research in the most appropriate way.

Yet amid many detailed suggestions, Dr Murray offered one essential principle: if you want to be an effective and productive writer, start writing now. Cutting the grass and cleaning the bathroom can wait.


A few extra tips from Simon Lygo-Baker:

  • Rejection by leading journals is the norm, so get used to it (but listen to any concrete criticism);
  • Do not "waste" too many good ideas in a single article;
  • Book reviewing is a good way to get a writing career up and running, but be careful who you criticise;
  • You don't have to include an invented word and a colon in the title of every journal article.

A few extra tips from Rowena Murray:

  • Use writing to develop, rather than just document, your ideas;
  • Always keep in mind - and make explicit - where your "original contribution" lies;
  • Learn to overcome your inner editor. Fight the temptation to stop and find references for everything as you write;
  • Defer the quality question: rough drafts are meant to be rough.

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