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The most important writing tool

Hello. It’s me again, Ken. Dr. B. says that anyone who has polluted the journals as much as I have should have at least one more tip to offer, so here goes…..

Twenty acres, a tractor, and a toolbox, that’s all we had and all we needed. When the old John Deere broke down, we just grabbed the toolbox and put it right. Writing’s no different. Just keep a few tools…and know how to use them.

I keep a dictionary in my toolbox, but that’s because I’m such a poor speller. I don’t trust my computer speller because it doesn’t always know which word I’m trying to spell. But I’m sure you are a better speller, so let’s skip over the dictionary and go straight to my most important tool, the journal. That’s right; the journal itself is my most important writing tool. I use it like a carpenter uses a blueprint. As a couple of my friends like to say, “It works for me.”

Here’s how to use it. First, know what you want to achieve, both professionally and personally. Then pick out a couple of journals that match these goals. For example, if one of your goals is to earn tenure, choose a national or international refereed journal. If you are in a hurry to get published, choose a journal with an acceptance rate of at least 25 percent. What’s that? How do you know the acceptance rate? That’s easy. See one my June issue Kappan articles. If your journal isn’t included, check Cabbell’s directories of publishing opportunities or just call the editor’s office and ask for the acceptance rate. Next, choose a second journal published for the same audience, and preferably one with the same citation style (APA, Chicago, etc.) Read every article in each issue. This is never done any more and it could ruin your reputation, but it won’t kill you.

The most important thing to look for is a section titled Author’s Guidelines or Suggestions to Authors. Here, the editors answer questions that we don’t even know to ask. It’s the mother load. When you find it, put one finger on each sentence and leave it there until you have done what the editor told you to do. No, you’re right; it isn’t nuclear science, but I’ve written several physics grants and all of them were funded. I’m 99.9 percent sure that it helps to follow the rules and do it right.

While I’m trying to remember the second most important journal section to look for, think about the people who read this journal. A quarter-century of research tells me that the most common mistake that leads to rejection is failure to know the journal and its readers.

Now I remember the second most important thing; it’s about themes. I’ve just surveyed 40 journals, and about half of all the articles in these journals last year related to a theme; so there are plenty of themes to choose from. But, you ask, why themes? You see, on average, editors receive only one-third as many manuscripts for themed issues. My background as a math teacher tells me that this means that simply by writing to a theme you can increase your acceptance rate by over 300 percent. That payoff isn’t half bad, for doing nothing.

Now I recognize you. You are the one who attends my writing workshops and tries to find an exception to each of my suggestions. Right now, your mind is thinking, “We are told to write what we know and care about. What if there are no themes on my topic?” It’s simple; align your topic with a theme. The principle is the same as with grant writing. I wanted money to create a performance-based teacher education program and none was available. But I found a request for proposals to address teacher burnout. So, I created a performance-based program that addressed teacher burnout. It was funded for a half-million dollars.

Mr. B. says my time is almost gone, so let’s look for a journal section titled, Call for Manuscripts. This publishing business is a buyer’s market. On average, these editors receive five times as many manuscripts as they have space to use; some reject 19 out of every 20. But when you see a Call for Manuscripts section this means the odds are reversed. They actually need your manuscript. So help them out. Now, make your manuscript look and sound like the articles in this journal. Make it about the same length as those articles. If your journal’s articles have sub-headings, tables, charts, and references make sure yours does, too. I believe that when you make your manuscript read so much like the articles in the journal that the editor and reviewers forget they are reading a manuscript, that’s when you get accepted. Good luck!

Kenneth Henson a Fulbright Scholar and a National Science Foundation Scholar, has written and co-authored more than 300 national publications. His 50-plus books include five books on writing for publication and two Phi Delta Kappa fastbacks (monographs) on this topic.

Editor’s Note: This article will be published in a new book by New Forums, Inc. in Stillwater, Oklahoma, entitled, It Works for Me, edited by Hal Blythe and Charlie Sweet.