Notes (and I mean notes) on

 

WRITING AN ARTICLE

and getting it published

Introduction

What is an article worth ? According to an American study now a decade old a single authored article published in a reputable journal is worth $80,000 over a young academic's career.

As the founding editor of the African Archaeological Review, published by the Cambridge University Press, editor of other journals and books, and as a scholar published in 21 journals, I am qualified to offer advice.

It is not elitist to suppose that there is a real academe out there interested in real things, and that the vast majority of authors want to contribute to the sum of knowledge, and not JUST to get brownie points towards appointment or promotion.

The urge

You have something worthwhile to say, so how to go about it ?

a) If it's out of your thesis, discuss with friends and supervisor what to choose and to which journal to send it,

b) if it is something new:- first concentrate on what you have to say and only later on the vehicle in which it will be published.

Especially in the latter case, unless you are superhumanly organized and foresightful, your article might turn into a monograph or merely a note, so follow your interest and your instincts until the document begins to assume a definitive shape. Then think about its destination.

Choice of journal

Journals have to survive, and therefore are in competition for the best articles in their field. Few are in reality the preserve of a controlling mandarinate – and they aren't the best.

Some good journals actually have a hard time getting enough good papers. Look out for new arrivals in your field, published by a good university press and with a reputable editor. I have on occasion telephoned editors to ask whether a paper on a certain topic is likely to be of interest, and have had useful, and positive, advice. (Watch out for the page charges levied by some journals.)

Admittedly there are political aspects; if the editor of the journal is also head of the department to which you have applied for a job, the sending of an article is in itself a message. But in my experience students and junior faculty spend altogether too much time worrying over academic politics, when they could be using that time for improving the quality of their thought and writing.

In general the message, not your sending it, is the message, and
the message defines the range of journals.

But there is a process of interaction; a slight change in emphasis can often open up a whole new range of journals, transforming a piece of limited interest to one of wider significance (often important in the case of things published from the thesis).

It is true that the journal your article appears in does send a message to deans and appointment committees.

So shoot high, take advantage of their editorial expertise.

Be prepared to lower sights if necessary, but don't be put off by a turndown; learn from it.

I certainly did when my first significant article, written in a hurry after my thesis, was declined by an academic journal, and for all the right reasons. On the only other occasion I met with refusal (from Africa), the article was accepted (by Man, a journal of at least equal prestige). As noted above and despite the redundancy: it is often worth phoning the editor of a journal to discuss a potential submission.

On the other hand I have been turned down several times when trying to sell semi-popular articles (what the French call haute vulgarisation), and have withdrawn a paper in protest against editorial policy. This has kept me poor but honest, and I will go on trying as I still feel that scholars have a responsibility to keep the public, their paymasters, informed as to their activities.

Writing the paper

is different from producing it (vide infra)

Stendhal used the following Jesuitical quotation at the start of a chapter in The Red and the Black: "Language is given us to conceal our thoughts." This is true of politics and war, and may be true of love, but should not be of scholarly papers.

Communication is the watchword for writing,

craftsmanship for production.

Communication means getting the message across (once you have decided what it is) to a specified audience (and you should devote considerable thought to what that audience is).

It does NOT mean:

leading the reader through the tortuous mental processes that you went through to achieve your results,
blowing your own trumpet, or
claiming membership in a trendy school or group, either explicitly or by use of a particular jargon.

It does mean that in writing a paper you are starting a process quite new and different from the research itself, that of getting people to grasp your ideas who have not lived through its intellectual generation, who are not familiar with your assumptions or methods, nor with the terminology/shorthand/slang/jargon that inevitably accumulates in the process of development of a complex idea. In order to do this, you have to stand outside your work. This seems especially difficult in the case of figures, which far too frequently embody hidden assumptions or have implications unintended by the author. A picture is said to be worth a thousand words, and in a 1000 words you can confuse almost everybody.

Despite the awful example of certain trendy French gurus, it is still fashionable to write English clearly. While the reader should have to think as she reads your work, nothing else should stem the flow of ideas. This is largely a matter of style and production, but it is worth while (especially when presenting a paper in the ephemeral atmosphere of a conference) to ask yourself, 'What should the reader remember of this paper three years after hearing/reading it ?', and to write it accordingly.

The title: papers with joky titles are forgotten – except perhaps for the joke – and the author with them. "Subincision -- vagina envy or kangaroo bifid penis envy ?" was a good title only because that was precisely what the paper was about. Keep titles short, simple and to the point. Not "Contextualizations in Post-processual Epistemology" but "The Archaeology Workbook." "Why pots are decorated" is one of my good titles, while "Lost in the third hermeneutic? Theory and methodology, objects and representations in the ethnoarchaeology of African metallurgy" is overboard – but I can still change it in proof!

The text: I don't propose here to repeat the good advice on writing style given in such essential (and cheap)manuals as Northey, M. 1983. Making sense , or Strunk, W. & E.B. White (numerous editions). The elements of style.

The secret of good writing is INTELLIGENT READING.

(I read Fielding's Tom Jones for punctuation when finishing my thesis.)

Some do's and don'ts.

Do assist the reader with headings and sub-headings.
Remember that paragraphs should be units of meaning, not just of text.
Maintain internal coherence and consistency:

- make your own style sheet -- arrowhead or arrow head or arrow-head? Choose and stick with it!
- cross-check tabs and text, figs and text, place names on maps and in text, etc., also
- check, by ticking them off, all refs in text against those in the bibliography and vice-versa.

Keep by you:

A big English dictionary. Best deal is the Compact Oxford English Dictionary (The full 12 vols [less supplements] is frequently available in two tomes (plus magnifying glass) for a very reasonable price if you join a Book Club (and remember to get out of it again before you have failed to decline a raft of books you don’t want and aren't suitable as Christmas gifts for your Aunties).

Roget's Thesaurus to find that word you know exists but can't put your finger on – infinitely more valuable than anything that comes packaged with a Word Processor.

W.H. Fowler's Dictionary of modern English usage, Oxford U.P., is infuriating but great fun. Best kept for bedtime reading. There's also an American version.

Don't be satisfied with the first draft of a sentence, para or article. I often have to turn around the sentences that I first write backwards. Large chunks of the paper may need to be moved around as it progresses. One advantage of computers.

Don't hold back on criticism of others' work, BUT always assume that the originator of the nonsense you are longing to tear to pieces today will turn up tomorrow and become your best friend -- or even benefactor. Generosity pays off; no one likes snotty toads or invites them to super-duper conferences in far away tropical paradises.

Always get others to read through your stuff before you send it in -- and give them time to do so. If they don't understand something, do accept that it has to be made clearer even if you think they are really dumb.

Brevity takes time. When you reread a paper after a few days, you will be able to cut [out] words, phrases, sentences, and probably paragraphs. Do so. Then do it again. And again.

And some specifics:

Acknowledgments: be generous but not effusive in giving credit where credit is due, and DON'T forget the people who funded you. And why bother to say, "However all errors are to be attributed to my miserable self" -- especially when we all know that Bill Gates is ultimately responsible?

The Abstract: Sometimes I think it might be best to get a knowledgeable friend to write it for you, and thereby find out whether his interpretation mirrors your intentions. You won't be so lucky, so do it yourself but when the spirit moves (though never as an afterthought), finalizing it when you have completed the text and had time to reflect on its significance. Abstracts often evolve with the paper. Remember, the reader is asking -- why should I read this paper? Publications are ever more numerous. The abstract gives you a precious chance to tell people what is really significant in your work. Don't bullshit and do give a concrete summary of your results. Never include sentences like, "The significance of these results for current theory of immune regulation is discussed."

Producing the paper

The journal defines the format. Follow the format; it’s amazing how few authors read the instructions or really look at articles in earlier numbers of the journal. As few in fact as students who take trouble over presentation of exams.

So check the formats of title page, headings and subheads, figure and table references, citations, footnotes, single or double quotes, etc., etc., etc.

When in doubt refer to a basic source such as The Chicago manual of style (University of Chicago Press, numerous editions). There are several other Chicago style manuals, including one on preparing electronic MS which I haven’t read, but, as I edit this in HTM, wish I had.

The right format does make a difference -- it may encourage the editor to work with you on a paper that she sees something in but which has weaknesses; or it may get a good article moved up into an earlier issue. Earlier promotion or at least merit increment!

But don't attempt in what you submit to copy the look of the journal precisely.

Double-space everything and especially references and footnotes … except tables.

Don't fuss over pristine copy; your paper reaches the printer marked up by the editor, the copy editor, and the designer, so why not by you so long as it is neat ? But watch out if they are demanding camera-ready text!

If you mark up your MSS, follow the conventions for proofing text.

Foreign words: it is quite extraordinary the talent most authors have for misspelling or otherwise messing up anything that is not in English: names of plants, quotations, etc – and of course it is a statement of disrespect to other members of Homo sapians sapien or proof of your ignorance and lack of interest. So triple check.

Figures: check whether the journal has a limit on numbers of figs. Do take trouble over layout, scales, etc. Find out how they want you to prepare figures (do they prefer cetain fonts?). Save yourself time and trouble by NOT putting figure captions ON the figures, but together at the end of the text. Captions may refer to the text but should always be meaningful in themselves. Use different typefaces for different sorts of things: e.g., for topographical features, modern towns and roads, and ANIMAL DISTRIBUTIONS. The figure should display its own internal logic. Note that nowadays the journal or press may be willing to accept figures in CorelDraw, Powerpoint, or other electronic format, and adjust them to the style of their journal or your book. But, and this is critical, insist on approving all figures in proof. Otherwise you will discover that Murphy’s law rules in this area.

Tables: these can give the reader terrible problems and you must make extra efforts to ensure that they are self-explanatory and quick to assimilate. I hate tables with numbers rather than names of variables across the top and down the side. Why should I have to go back and forth between text (on a different page) and table in order to understand it? Note that the printer will also have problems with tables; they are usually what comes back most mangled. Make it easy for them too: lots of horizontal and vertical lines. If they are full of zero values, put them in or use dashes to lead the eye across.

The bibliography is supposed to allow the interested reader to track down your thoughts. Let it do so efficiently. Give needed information, e.g., a page ref for a critical statement, and not just a ref to the 1000 page volume in which (you are almost sure) it occurs. But you don't have to cite everything that is even vaguely relevant or forms part of foreseeable readers' background knowledge. Nor the latest fashionable tome in your discipline just to show off that you have read it (especially when you haven't). As for format, I strongly recommend buying a bibliography/database program like ProCite that comes with 100s of built in styles. Then, if your contribution is turned down by the Canadian Journal of Chemistry, you can reformat the references for resubmission to the Journal of Chromatography in two clicks of a mouse.

When the review comes back

It’s a judgement call whether to argue with referees or not. Reasoned, polite arguments are sometimes effective; it’s never worth fighting an outright rejection. By all means write a scathing letter to the ignorant, petty-minded, vindictive arseholes who savaged your brilliant research; then file it. A week later, you will feel better, retrieve your paper, swallow your pride, and get advice. You probably chose the wrong journal. NEVER zap it from your hard drive in disgust (without your subconscious making sure there is a .bak file).

Envoi

I don't know how it is in your discipline, but in archaeology I regret to say that conference speakers frequently go overtime. This is both sloppy and arrogant. Similarly I'm sorry to say that many would-be authors regard the editor as their servant to whom they have merely to put a half-formed outline of a half-baked idea, for him or her joyfully to take on the tedious (to them) task of turning it into a published work. No way! Satisfying a pride in craftsman/personship ('craft' is briefer and better) may require long hours at the computer, but it does pay off in salary, reputation, and self-respect.

The fact that (horrible phrase) you have reached this page suggests that you already know this, so good luck and remember:

Sincerity, modesty and hard work really do pay off in the long run. Intelligence and imagination help. The message matters.

And don't forget to order twice as many reprints as you think you will need.

Good luck!

Nic David