Writing for Scholarly Publication: an Editor’s Perspective

by David Fox Librarian Emeritus
University of Saskatchewan

Not every manuscript submitted to a scholarly journal is a well-constructed, cogently written, polished work of prose. As Editor-in-Chief of Partnership: the Canadian Journal of Library and Information Practice and Research from 2011 to 2014, this writer evaluated more than 150 manuscripts of varying quality, and all of them required some editing or revision. This includes some of my own pieces for Partnership. I’m painfully aware that, as a writer, I’m just as inclined to slip-ups and omissions as anyone else. We sometimes seem to be blind to our own mistakes. That’s why we need editors. It takes many passes and many different eyeballs on a page to make it as clean as it should be.

When it comes to editing manuscripts, you can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear, but with a bit of effort you can usually produce a pretty serviceable pigskin wallet – and that’s often good enough for publication. Manuscripts from first-time authors, authors with a limited command of English, and authors not familiar with the conventions of academic writing need more than the average amount of editorial work, but I’m proud to say that at Partnership we rarely rejected a manuscript due to deficiencies in the writing alone. If the author had something interesting and important to say, we worked with that author to make the article publishable. Faulty methodology is another matter. Editors can fix bad writing, but we can’t fix bad research.

Below are some tips on writing for submission to a scholarly journal based on my experience reading manuscripts at Partnership. A lot of this advice may seem obvious to readers of this blog, but many of the papers I reviewed overlooked some of these points. Journals are typically juggling a number of manuscripts simultaneously under tight timelines. Anything that interrupts or slows down work on a manuscript may delay its publication. Attention to the following suggestions may expedite acceptance and processing of a submission.

What to write and where to submit?
• Pick an appropriate topic. To justify publication, a manuscript must have something new and interesting to say to the target readership of the journal. At Partnership in recent years, the most frequently cited articles have dealt with the adaptation of new technologies, particularly social media applications, to library functions; development of new services, including services to specific communities or user populations; new scholarship and publishing models; and new approaches to traditional library competencies.
• Pick an appropriate journal for your topic. What audience are you trying to reach? Is your topic of wide, general interest or narrow and specialized? Read the “purpose and scope” notes associated with potential journals to determine whether your submission will be a good fit for the readership.
• Where possible (and it’s almost always possible), choose an open access journal. Remember that every time you publish behind a paywall, a kitten dies!
• Work must be original, not previously published, and not simultaneously submitted to another publication. If you are considering submitting something to a scholarly journal, don’t pre-post it to an open access repository or conference Web site. If an identical or similar version of your paper can be located via a Google search, then it has essentially already been published and will probably be rejected.

Pay attention to publisher’s guidelines
Journal publishers tend to be fairly strict about adherence to style guidelines. This is in order to promote consistency of presentation from article to article.
• Pay attention to your publication’s instructions for authors re. manuscript length, spacing, etc.
• Follow your publication’s guidelines for bibliographic style and citation format. If the publisher’s instructions call for APA style and you submit your paper in MLA, Chicago, or some other format, it will likely be sent back to you for revision, and you will lose time.

• Write with the reader in mind. Avoid jargon, colloquialisms, and unexplained acronyms (unless you’re sure the audience will understand the reference).
• Adhere to the conventions for scholarly writing:

-Cite your sources. Every fact, idea, opinion, or quotation borrowed from another author needs to be documented (MLA 165). The editor cannot do this for you.
-Write clear, precise, simple, and straightforward prose.
-Use formal English (What is Academic English?). Avoid conversational language, e.g., “great”. “Fun” is not an adjective!
-Write in the third person. Avoid the use of personal pronouns: I, my, you, your. Refer to yourself as “the author”, “this researcher”, etc.
-Avoid using contractions: won’t, doesn’t.
-Exercise caution when expressing opinions and outcomes: use “may”, rather than “is” unless completely certain of your claims.
-Unlike creative writing, the passive voice is often appropriate in academic prose.

• Master basic punctuation and grammar. Poor grammar and punctuation, although fixable, conveys a negative impression to the editor and will require more time and effort by the copyeditor. In reading manuscripts at Partnership, it was astonishing to find that many librarian authors do not seem to have a good grasp of the rudiments of punctuation. In future blog posts I will discuss the most common punctuation mistakes and how to avoid them. It’s important for librarian authors to master these basic skills. Insistence on following standard punctuation rules is not just pedantry. Good punctuation helps to convey meaning, to avoid confusion, and allows a manuscript to be read more quickly and efficiently.
• Avoid word repetition. Use a thesaurus!

Prior to submitting your manuscript…
• While working towards a submission deadline, make sure to leave time for quality control.
• Have one or more trusted colleagues read your paper for clarity and comprehension before submission. This is especially advisable if English is not the author’s first language. If your closest colleagues don’t understand what you’re trying to say, then the average reader certainly won’t.
• Have another colleague with a good eye for detail proofread your work for spelling accuracy, typos, and word omissions. Sometimes it’s difficult to see one’s own mistakes.
• Leave time for revisions based on your colleagues’ suggestions.

• Assume that you will be asked to revise your manuscript. Editors rarely accept a manuscript without asking for changes, and peer-reviewers almost always suggest revisions. Don’t be discouraged by constructive criticism.
• Do take seriously the comments of peer-reviewers as peer-review usually results in substantial improvements to a manuscript; however, reviewers of the same paper can sometimes have conflicting opinions, and some advice they give may be off the mark (Soule 14). A good editor will evaluate the fairness of reviews and decide which comments to share with the author, or recommend which comments the author should particularly focus on. Remember that ultimately you are responsible for the integrity and coherence of your own work. Make those recommended changes that seem appropriate and sensible, and let the editor decide whether your revisions are acceptable.

A writer’s best friends are a thesaurus, style guide, and punctuation and grammar manuals. Keep them within easy reach on your desktop (either physical or virtual) and consult them frequently!

Works Cited
MLA Style Manual and Guide to Scholarly Writing. 3rd ed. New York: Modern Language Association of America, 2008. Print.

Soule, Daniel P. J. , Lucy Whiteley, and Shona McIntosh, eds. Writing for Scholarly Journals: Publishing in the Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences. Glasgow: eSharp, 2007. Web. 6 March 2015. http://www.gla.ac.uk/media/media_41223_en.pdf

What is Academic English? The Open University, 2015. Web. 6 March 2015.

This article gives the views of the author(s) and not necessarily the views of the Centre for Evidence Based Library and Information Practice or the University Library, University of Saskatchewan.

2 thoughts on “Writing for Scholarly Publication: an Editor’s Perspective

  1. David,
    the officially accepted writing style highly depends on the discipline. It is an important factor for librarians to remember because of the interdisciplinary nature of our field and the likelihood that librarians will publish in journals specialized in fields other than library and information science. One of the examples that came to mind when I read your post is based on my experience with trying to get rid of the 1st person writing style among library school students at San Jose State University. I still thinking a neutral style is preferable, partly because my background in a filed in which anything else would be unacceptable. I have however ‘discovered” that in the humanities writing in the first person is apparently widely acceptable. Look up some of the leading journals and you will easily find examples.
    Thank you for your post.

  2. Yelena, Thanks for your comment. It appears that we both have a preference for scholarly writing to be in the third person. However, I can well believe that some academic journals and even some disciplines today accept articles written in the first person. At Partnership we published Viewpoints (opinion pieces) and Profiles (biographical sketches) written in the first person, but preferred to see our peer-reviewed research articles use the third person. That is the traditional, formal style of academic writing, and I believe it adds to the tone of objectivity that should characterize a research article. The author shouldn’t be drawing attention to her/himself. It’s not about the author: it’s about the research. But that’s just my opinion, and maybe I’m old fashioned!

    Standards are constantly evolving, and I agree with you that one should try to be aware of and adhere to the prevailing style for a particular discipline.

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