Begin with the end in mind – 5 strategies to remember when writing your article
This weekend I completed two tasks closely linked in the academic writing process. I both submitted an article for blinded peer review and completed my first blinded peer review of someone else’s article. And I learnt a few things that I want to remember and thought you may find them helpful if you are in the early stages of the academic writing process. That being said, I think some of these strategies will also be applicable to other professional writing areas from white papers to blog posts.
1. Write for one person to read
Before you start writing your article you want to have a good idea of what journal you will be submitting to. And you would be wise to spend some time reading other articles that are similar to yours that they’ve published recently (it’s easy to find these by searching within the journal for a similar population or better yet, research design). This gives you a good idea of what they expect from articles and what they are willing to publish.
Each journal knows who they are publishing for and their reader can be considered like an ideal customer in retail. Just like businesses are advised to advertise to their ideal customer, I think authors should write for their ideal reader. Think about who they are, why they are reading your article and what questions may come to mind. This will help with the language you use (or don’t) and the information you make sure to include in your introduction and discussion section.
For me, my ideal reader is a clinician who works with children with autism and is interested in improving social outcomes for school aged children. I know this person has some information, and some gaps in their knowledge that I need to help them to understand so they can get the most out of reading my writing. I also want to make sure I don’t ignore large areas of other research relevant to my study or make claims that are beyond the scope of my study (cause my ideal reader is a pretty smart cookie and they can spot bullshit when they see it – I don’t want to lose my credibility or waste their time).
2. Make it easy for them to follow along
Do you remember Disney sing-a-long songs? They were like karaoke for kids but without the late night desire to embrace Bonnie Tyler or poutine. If there is one thing I think we can all agree on it’s that Disney knows what they are doing. Help your readers follow the bouncing ball throughout your article. Make it easy to connect the sections of your introduction to your research questions, follow it through into your analysis and results section (this is where a lot of people can get lost so make it easy for them to not only understand what you are reading but trust your results and conclusions because they can follow your analysis).
3. Make it easy for them to find
In our modern days of SEO and online databases you’re doing yourself, your writing and potential readers a disservice if you aren’t spending time on your title, abstract and keywords. I made a commitment to myself to write out 10 different headings and 10 drafts of my abstract before I sent them to my co-authors for revisions. And by the third version I had already improved both significantly – they flowed better, were easier to read and more accurately reflected what the article was about.
Ask yourself the question: Would this abstract convince my ideal reader to spend money to get access to my article? They are your ideal reader remember – someone you are writing this article for.
If the answer is no or reliant on a complicated algorithm involving cost of access to small cup of coffee ratio, hourly wage of Target workers and the land speed velocity of an unladen European swallow then have another go.
4. Know the steps involved in submitting your article
There are very helpful and often very detailed authors instructions for submitting to different journals. These include formatting and upload requirements and it does take time to get your article into the exact format and different documents they want. This is often after you’ve already spend hours formatting it and following the APA guidelines and whatever Equator network checklist fits best (my research is in the health sciences and I’ve been investigating interventions so this is what is relevant to me, but you might have other guidelines that are recommended in your field).
Even after you’ve followed all of their instructions on their website and all your t’s are crossed, tables reformatted and i’s dotted when you go to actually submit your documents there is likely to be some random surprise you didn’t know was coming that will take you half a day to sort out! I am not being melodramatic. Submitting an article has always taken me way more time than I thought it was going to.
My best advice here is to log in before you are ready to submit to the journal website and get familiar with what their process is. Don’t worry, there is always an option to review everything in a pdf proof before it gets sent to actual editors or reviewers, so nothing goes out until you are ready. And if you are working with co-authors allow yourself a week when providing updates on when something will be submitted and try and get as much information from them about their contact details, ORCID numbers etc early in the writing stage.
5. Give feedback you would be happy to say to someone over a cup of tea, in comfortable armchairs
I’m waiting now for feedback from blind reviewers having just submitted my own feedback. I wanted to be proud of my feedback, and trust that the person receiving it would be able to take it on as something they could improve, address and wouldn’t be so overwhelmed that they felt like this was not worth their time.
Thinking back to examples of feedback I’ve had in the past I wanted to avoid vague questions of “so what?” (although I asked myself that a number of times reading it so obviously those scars run deep) or nit-picking about proof reading. I reminded them about who they are writing for and where possible provided suggestions of alternatives, instead of just saying this should be different. But this was difficult to balance with not wanting to rewrite it how I would have written it myself.
Ultimately, I reviewed my review the same way I review my own writing (if you can follow that sentence you get a gold star). I asked myself – who am I writing this for? How can I make it easier for them?
My feedback was something I would have happily said to someone, with encouragement, over a cup of tea in comfortable chairs at a local café with random artworks and homemade cakes on display. It recognised the person behind the writing who has already had so much to learn to get to this point. And although they may not feel it all the time, has the tenacity to keep going with the revisions they still need to make.
This lens is one you may want to apply to the next lot of feedback you give — or receive. Even if it wasn’t written that way we can certainly choose to interpret it as encouraging and designed to make our writing and our learning process better.
Any other strategies you keep in mind from the beginning of your article writing process? I’d love to know!
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