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Commit to submit: 5 Steps to journal publishing success

Want to submit that article you’ve been working on for years?

In my work with Academic Coaching & Writing, I’ve worked with many authors who have done substantial research toward a journal article but haven’t quite been able to put it all together and get it out the door. This delay often stems, at least in part, from a nagging fear that their piece may be rejected. To greatly improve your article’s chance of successful publication, consider taking these five steps.

1) Plug Back in to the Critical Discourse

Especially if this is a project you’ve been working on for a long time, it’s vital to reconnect with the critical discourse around your topic in your field. Look over your research notes or draft and pull out key words to use as search terms. A review of the primary databases in your field can reconnect you to the critical discourse. And consider this time-saving tip. Instead of trying to read every article, just read abstracts of all the new work. Then identify the few articles that interest you most for a good, close read. Attending a conference in your field can also help you see patterns across more recent scholarship.

2) Review Recent Issues of a Few Target Journals

The database search from step 1 will reacquaint you with journals to which you may want to submit. Assess the fit between recently published articles and your draft’s subject, scope, and methodology. Also, take a quick look at who is on the journal’s editorial board and identify how the backgrounds and perspectives of editorial board members relate to your own approach. This step can help you cross some journals off your list and prioritize others for submission. Of course, it does take time to look closely at several issues of a journal and think critically about how your article compares to recent publications there. But spending this time can spark helpful revision ideas and greatly improve your chances of submitting to a truly appropriate journal.

3) Analyze Lots of Recent Abstracts in Your Target Journals

Once you have found the journals that best fit your topic and approach, take a closer look at abstracts from the last year or so. Rather than reading only for content, notice also how these overviews are written.  Paying attention to the rhetorical moves common to abstracts can help you see the bones of your own project and get greater clarity on the best way to present it.

For each abstract you read, identify which sentence or two describes the author’s central claim or findings. Then consider how that central claim is articulated. How do the authors characterize the type of contribution they are making with this claim? For instance, are they identifying a new question or offering a new answer to an acknowledged problem in the field? Or, are they filling a gap in the literature? Those, of course, are just a few of the kinds of claims that motivate articles.

Other questions to consider include: How do the authors situate their work vis-à-vis issues in the critical discourse?  How do they express what’s at stake in their argument or why it matters?

4) Draft or Revise Your Own Abstract

Now you’re ready to you sharpen your own abstract so acquisition editors can see at a glance how your article fits with their journal. To start, jot down how you want to make the rhetorical moves you’ve just noticed in other abstracts. How will you define your topic and locate it in relation to debates in your field? How will you briefly point to your methodological approach? How can you convey why this topic matters? And last, but not least, what’s the best way to clearly articulate your article’s central claim?

5) Shift Your Perspective

One of the last steps to getting your article out the door is to practice shifting your perspective on your work from researcher to reader. To write and place successful articles, you need to be able to see your argument as a reader might. For instance, what does that reader need to know in order to see why your argument matters? The best way to gather information about how audiences are likely to react to your work is to share it with a few people. Presenting at a conference is often a good way to take your argument for this kind of test drive. But, if your time or travel budget is strained, consider more informal ways of getting a sense of what resonates with readers and what may not be clear yet in your article.

If you share your draft (or exchange drafts) with a friend or colleague, make the work easy for them by clearly stating the issues on which you’d like their opinion. If, like many authors at this stage, you simply want to know if this draft works, ask your reader for two things: to flag the points that seem cogent to her and flag passages where she lost the thread. Remember, readers can always tell you which passages they had to read several times to understand or where they were unsure of your meaning. Then, it’s the author’s job to clarify the prose. Typically, this last round of revision requires authors to better signpost their key points and offer clear segues between analysis of different kinds of evidence or between different points.

In my experience coaching authors for over a decade, writers who follow these steps often hear back fairly quickly from their target journal that their piece is moving forward to peer review. Typically, those readers suggest some improvements. Pay attention, though, to what the acquisition editor stresses in the letter accompanying this request to revise and resubmit. Often, she will give you a sense of what’s most important from the journal’s perspective for you to address.

This is a long and sometimes winding road to publication, I admit. To avoid being overwhelmed, try setting aside several hours a week and taking just one step at a time. My clients tell me that once their article is out there, attached to their name, they are glad they went through this thoughtful and meticulous process.

Amy Benson Brown is professional writing coach who works with academic authors through the organization Academic Coaching & Writing (ACW). Her work with authors is informed by her experience as a teacher of writing and developmental editor, her training in co-active coaching, and her own continuing practice as a writer. Her publications include a book of literary criticism, two edited collections, several academic articles, and a book of poetry.