How to Write a Journal Article (in 6 Steps): Step 6 — Fine Tuning

After writing your conclusion, literature review, empirical evidence and introduction, you have a full article manuscript in hand, and it’s time for some fine tuning before you send it off for peer review to your journal of choice. Fine tuning is really about being deliberate and making sure that the whole manuscript works as a piece of sustained argumentation. More than anything else, you want to make sure that your manuscript is consistent. It doesn’t need to be perfect — peer review is there to get it as close to perfect as it can get — so just make sure it’s 85% complete and that there aren’t any huge gaps.

sand-patterns

The biggest challenge in sending a manuscript out for review is coming to terms with it not being 100% complete. But, fundamentally, a manuscript is never done — and it’s up to the peer review process to help you finish it (at least enough for it to be published). An article isn’t a definitive statement, but rather part of an ongoing conversation (or maybe a conversation starter). As such, the burden is just to carry the conversation forward — not to bring it to a conclusion. Accept that an article is never complete, and get ready to send it out for peer review.

With that in mind, here’s the checklist:

1) Make sure that your argument is well articulated and flows throughout the manuscript. Along with that, make sure that keywords that appear in one part of the text appear throughout (e.g. if you’re talking about biopolitics in the conclusion, make sure that it’s in your introduction, lit review and cases). Read it through once on paper or in some other not-easily modified way and take notes on what to fix (editing at your computer can descend into lots of new writing, and you should avoid that at this point). Maybe take a day or two off and read it again. And then sit down to work through the corrections on the manuscript. I tend to find that having someone else read it during this time to be helpful, as I get a little myopic in my reading of my own work after working on it closely for a while. So a fresh reader can be a great asset, especially when it comes to seeing the inner workings of an argument.

2) Verify that there aren’t any non sequitors or holdovers. Hopefully you haven’t done a lot of copying and pasting into the manuscript, which usually increases the number of these kinds of artifacts. In any case, read through the manuscript and make sure that everything you say will be done is actually attended to, and that you don’t make any presumptions of what happened early in the manuscript at late points (look for those telltale ‘as mentioned above…’ and ‘below’). And make sure that you don’t refer to any evidence that isn’t in the manuscript.

3) Check your citations and bibliography. Make sure that everything that should be cited is cited, and that the citations appear in the bibliography. It’s always a headscratcher as a peer reviewer to check a citation that’s unfamiliar to find that it doesn’t appear in the bibliography…

4) Ensure that the manuscript meets the journal’s formatting guidelines. Every journal should have this information posted on their ‘For Authors’ or similar page, including their bibliographic style preference and other style concerns. Make sure you follow these as closely as you can (although sometimes things slip through the cracks — which isn’t anything to worry about), and know that the more closely you can follow them, the more clearly you demonstrate to the editor that you’re serious about publishing in his or her journal and have done your homework. The most important thing here is to make sure that you meet the word limit requirements, usually a little short of target so you have room to revise when it comes time for that.

5) Write your abstract, pick keywords, and write a cover letter. The length of abstracts can vary quite a bit, so make sure you know what you’re shooting for — they tend to be anywhere between 150-250 words. I usually find it helpful to take a summary paragraph from the conclusion of an article manuscript and whittle it down into an abstract. Such a technique ensures that you’re talking about all the things you need to: the argument, the evidence, and the structure of the article. Remember to pick keywords that aren’t in your title (which would be redundant). And prepare a cover letter that briefly states the source (e.g. your dissertation research), intent and word length of the article manuscript. (This all might be worth an additional post…)

If you can, try and do a peer review swap with a friend before you send your article out for review. Make sure that your prospective peer reader is aware of the journal that you’re sending it to and the subdisciplinary or regional debates you’re entering into — you don’t want them to read an article as a ‘general’ reader, since that’s not exactly who you’re writing for. Instead, make sure they’re reading like a specialist. You want to make sure the comments they’re giving you are relevant to your immediate needs, and although a general perspective can be helpful, when you’re targeting a specific journal, such comments can often be a distraction.

So that’s it. Get to work (or keep working), and know that it can be anywhere from 3-12 months to hear back from a journal’s editor. Don’t sit on your hands and wait though, get to work on the next article manuscript

How to Write a Journal Article (in 6 steps): Step 1 — Analyze a Model

Writing an academic article isn’t as difficult as it might seem from the outset — as long as you have enough evidence, a clear sense of the existing literature, and a good model to work from. In this first of several guides to writing a journal article, I want to work through this last element: a good example from an appropriate journal. (This is intended for anthropologists, but it might apply more generally.)

1The first thing to do is identify a journal you’re interested in publishing in. If this is your first article, target a journal that focuses on your subfield or geographical region of interest. Generally speaking, these smaller journals have word lengths of approximately 6,000-8,000 words. These short articles tend to focus on one key idea from your research, and mobilize 2-3 cases to support it. Once you have a significant number of dissertation chapters written, it should be relatively easy to weave together a first draft. But putting something together and making it relevant to the journal you’re interested in publishing in are two different projects. So the best thing to do is to find a good article published in the journal you’re targeting and work from that to get a sense of what the journal is looking for.

A good model isn’t one that comes from a senior academic. Instead, find one published in the last 12-18 months by an assistant professor or someone recently graduated from their Ph.D. program — someone roughly like you. Your model author will also be working from dissertation material, which is significantly different than the kinds of evidence later-career academics work from. Moreover, because junior people are working to position themselves in the field, the burden of their articles is significantly different.

If the editorship of the journal has changed hands since the publication of the article you’re working from, be sure to look at any introductions to the journal that the new editor(s) has written. If the journal is changing its focus or generic form, the new editor(s) will generally make that known early in their leadership.

Once you have the model in hand, read it once all the way through. Then, circle back with a highlighter and read it again. You’re going to need a few different colored highlighters for what’s about to come, and each time you read the article, it will get shorter and shorter…

On this first pass, highlight all of the primary evidence in the article — all of the actual empirical content generated by the author’s research. So for most anthropology articles, this means descriptions of spaces, people and events; it also includes quotes from interviews and other qualitative (and sometimes quantitative) data.

On the second pass, highlight (in another color) all of the secondary evidence in the article, but focus your attention on the content outside of the literature review. This often includes paraphrasing other authors, as well as historical or other anthropological work on the same topic. This does not include theoretical citations.

On the third pass, highlight (in yet another color) all of the argumentative content — the thesis, the topic sentences, and wherever else claims are being made (there shouldn’t be too many in the introduction or conclusion). This may include theoretical citations, especially if the author’s purpose is to argue with a set of theories or theorists.

On the fourth and final pass, highlight (in still another color) all of citations in the literature review section of the paper. Most journal articles should have 1-2 pages where the author is positioning the research alongside other work in the same subfield, other approaches to the same topic, and other research on the topic and subfield in the same geographic region. In some cases these sections can be quite long, but in most subfield and area journals, they’re relatively short.

Once you have this set of tasks completed, you should have a well marked up document. It will provide you with a few things: 1) a sense of how much evidence you need for an article of the same length, 2) a feeling for how much secondary literature you need to engage with, and 3) a scaffold of an argument and its relation to the empirical content that supports it.

With this evidence in hand, you should begin to think about your work and what might be successful at the same scale. Short articles in the 6-8,000 word range usually only have one substantial argument, and use a few cases to argue it. (For an example, you can look at an early article of mine, here.) Generally, your argument can’t get too complicated — you need a well defined problem and interpretation of it for a short article — so it will often be less than a dissertation chapter, or might borrow content from a number of chapters.

Like I discuss in relation to developing a publishing strategy for your early career, often when you’re writing for subfield or area journals, you’re making an argument with the existing literature in that field. So, what does your dissertation research add to dominant approaches to your subfield, area or topic? Just tackling that question is enough for a first or second article, because, in the beginning, you’re trying to do two things: First, you need to get people to pay attention to you, and, second, you need to start putting out articles that you can cite to support later, more complicated arguments in longer, more complex articles… But early on you need tight, short articles that make it clear to your readers what your interests are and what debates you’re contributing to at this stage in your career.

And here is Step 2.

The Elements of Productive Peer Review

One of the most important academic practices to learn is that of peer review — both producing peer reviews of other people’s work, and learning how to read peer reviews productively. And yet, we’re rarely taught how to write generative peer reviews, and even more rarely are we taught how to read peer reviews to improve our work. So, here’s a first stab.

Preparing Peer Reviews

At the outset, I should say that many journals have peer review expectations, and these are embedded in forms that they ask peer reviewers to fill out at the time they submit their peer reviews to the editors. At the most basic, they ask reviewers to evaluate the submission in terms of its ability to be published (e.g. publish without revisions, publish with revisions, revise and resubmit, do not publish). Beyond that, though, most peer reviews are rather free form and are left up to peer reviewers to do with it what they will. That being said, useful peer reviews tend to share some qualities:

Make sure that throughout your review to flag what the author needs to address and what she or he may choose to address. More than anything else, this can really help make the difference between a useful review and one that’s not so useful…

Start with a summary of the author’s argument, as you understand it. This is a pretty good index to the author as to whether or not he or she is conveying their argument, and what, if any, interpretive problems are happening on the reviewer’s end. If the reviewers just aren’t getting it, then there’s a big problem. Or if the reviewers are missing a nuance in the argument, that’s important to see too. This summary needn’t be long, but it should paraphrase the thesis and then cover the argumentation (i.e. the argument is X, which is followed in the paper by discussions of A, B and C). If there are logical inconsistencies in the argumentation, this is the place to point that out. If there are argumentative problems, this section can be much longer — upwards of two pages. But if it stretches beyond that, it needs to be broken into subsections to help the author interpret what to do and where specific problems lie.

The middle section of a peer review usually falls into the realm of free association, which is where the reviewer can spend some time discussing the relative merits and shortfalls of the paper, the paper’s linkage to other existing scholarship, and the overall consistency of the paper. Throughout, it’s important to flag which comments need to be addressed by the author and which are not so critical: it’s fine to go on for a paragraph or two about a pet peeve or some flight of fancy, but if it has little bearing on how the author should be rewriting his or her paper, make sure to flag that (e.g. ‘The author might be interested in…’ rather than ‘The author needs to address…’).

In the middle section of the peer review, it’s worth taking the time to discuss each of the sections of the paper (as the author has it broken down), including a brief description of the section along with some evaluative language (does it work or doesn’t it?). If there are parts of the paper that just don’t work or parts of the paper that really do work, this is the place to point them out. Praising things about the paper is just as important as saying critical things: if one reviewer really likes a section and others do not, it’s helpful to see why that’s the case.

Connecting the article to existing literature that hasn’t been discussed by the author also usually falls into this middle section. Again, it’s important to flag what needs to be addressed and what might be addressed. If an author is making vague references to a body of theoretical literature and would really do well to spell out her or his assumptions more directly, point that out; if an author has a huge blind spot in his or her discussion of relevant literature, point that out too. But if there’s some tangentially related literature that you know but the author doesn’t — and it won’t really have any bearing on the article anyway — make sure to mention that citing that work isn’t consequential, but might be interesting to the author.

The last section of peer reviews usually focuses much more on very specific things that need to be addressed by the author: are there specific awkward or vague sentences, missing citations, bibliographic errors, etc.? This isn’t to say that a peer review’s job is to find syntactical or grammatical problems, but if there are writing issues that interfere with the ability of the paper to be read, these problems need to be pointed out to the author.

The final paragraph of the review should succinctly restate your overall assessment of the paper and outline the major things (if any) that need attention on the part of the author.

It may seem paradoxical, but a really good review can actually be a bad review for an author. I’ve received reviews that say things along the lines of ‘This paper is ready to be published; the author shouldn’t change anything.’ (Usually only after already having passed through peer review multiple times, mind you…) But if the other reviewers are highly critical of parts of the paper, such a blanket positive peer review doesn’t help much. Instead, working through the positives of the paper is more helpful for the author, so that she or he can see why you like sections or the paper as much as you do — if you like things that others do not, it’s vital to see why that is. And, if there’s an editor involved, they’re more likely to be swayed by articulate, negative appraisals than a blanket and vague positive one.

Interpreting Peer Reviews

If you’re an author and have peer reviews that look roughly like what I’ve outline here, there should be very little problem in interpreting them. But, more likely, you’ll have peer reviews that don’t strictly (or even closely) follow this format. The best way to tackle reviews is to read through them and identify those things that reviewers think need to be changed (and thereby isolating them from less pertinent critiques). Often, the best way to do this is to see if there is convergence between readers: are people having similar problems with the paper? If they are, that’s fairly easy to see and address. If they’re having wildly different kinds of problems, it’s worth writing down the criticisms and seeing what the problem lies: is it that they really understand your argument differently? Are they coming from very different interpretive traditions? Sometimes you can address these problems; sometimes, it’s just the luck of the draw. And the important thing here is to isolate what you actually need to address and what you don’t. In not addressing some concerns, it’s important to point out why — sometimes in the body of the paper itself (which may be a way to get your argument more precise).

If you’re preparing to resubmit a paper after peer review, editors will often ask that you enumerate the changes that you’ve made to the text — and which changes you haven’t made and explanations as to why. If you have a list of requested changes, this is a fairly easy document to prepare, as you can list which changes you’ve made, how the criticism has been addressed, and where the change appears in the paper. Doing this can be helpful both for the editor and for peer reviewers, who often want to see that you’ve made the changes that they’ve suggested.