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Writing to impress the critics: make your article delicious

posted Jan 10, 2017, 5:14 AM by Ellie Phillips
Jill L Grant

Writing to impress the critics: make your article delicious

If you have research results to share or significant ideas to test you probably find yourself thinking about how to craft an article that can survive the daunting process of peer review and thereby make it into print. Getting your work published is certainly possible – if you deliver what journals and their reviewers expect in scholarly papers. As you prepare your work, keep your potential reviewer’s concerns in mind. Your success depends on capturing the reader’s attention with a well-organized, coherent, and engaging presentation. (When you are trying to understand what the journal invites reviewers to think about, visit the Planning Theory and Practice page on ‘How to write a referee comment’ )


As you refine your work remember that few scholars can write a good article around a vague, general, or shop-worn topic. A scholarly article needs to say something interesting, useful, and original. Your article needs a ‘hook’: that is, a key theme or question to guide you in mustering evidence and organizing the presentation towards a specific end. To make sure your article meets these tests, journals send your work out to two to five reviewers or referees with expertise in the field. An article reviewer is invited to be a critical reader who pays special attention to the content, style, and contribution of your paper. To earn a good review you need to satisfy the reader’s appetite. It may help to think about your article as if it was a meal, and the reviewer a food critic.


The appetizer: A strong abstract whets the reader’s appetite. The abstract provides a clear and succinct summary of the key contributions and main findings of your article. Your abstract may place the paper in its context (geographic, theoretical, or empirical). Its quality needs to be ‘five-star’ because it sets the tone for what follows.


First course: Like a soup course, your introduction needs to be flavourful and hearty. Introduce the context or setting of your work in a way that allows a mix of ingredients to blend in ways that generate interest in your theme. Clearly lay out where your paper may be heading. What is your key question? Why is it important? How will you approach it? Your literature review, like the wholesome bread accompanying the soup, gives the reader something to chew on as you establish the scholarly context and merit for your work. Before leaving the introductory sections, briefly describe your methods with crisp, simple, and clear explanations of what you did, when, and how.


Main course:  The body of your article provides the substance and evidence needed to explore your research question with original material that satisfies the hungry reader. Usually this will be the most ‘meaty’ portion of the work, perhaps taking up 40-60% of the article. While an article format limits how much evidence you can present, you need to offer sufficient and appropriate material to illustrate the arguments you are making. Everything included should be relevant; everything directly relevant should be included. Offer hearty analysis, not mere description.


Time for dessert: Finish with a rich conclusion that connects your findings back to the literature to show how your contribution adds to knowledge or raises new questions for further exploration in the field. Avoid simply restating what you have already said: that rarely satisfies a reader. Think about the ‘so what’ questions: what important lessons come out of your work (for theory, for practice, for knowledge)? How does your contribution advance understanding?

Cut empty calories: As you prepare your final manuscript for submission, consider trying to cut the word count by at least 10%. Go through and remove every unnecessary word, phrase, sentence, paragraph, or section. Avoid empty phrases, self-indulgent commentary, and rhetorical flourishes. Make your prose active and engaging. Wordiness is your enemy. If you make your article ‘tasty’ and ‘nourishing’, people will come back for more.


Embrace the reviews


Reviewers have expertise in fields that the editor decided were relevant to your paper. Indeed, a reviewer may well be among the authors whose work you cite. If your paper advertised ‘health food’ but switched to ‘cheese-fries’ part way through, expect the reviewer to notice. Stay focussed. Reviewers will not appreciate distractions. Make sure your paper has a logical flow and is clear, concise, and concrete.


Receiving a negative review can be difficult, but resolve to treat reviewers’ feedback as a gift. Reviewers put a great deal of thought into how to respond to the work they read. They are established scholars who share their wisdom and experience with you. Embrace their feedback, even when it may be critical.


If you get an invitation to revise and resubmit your article, pay careful attention to the reviewers’ comments as you return to your work. You may not agree with everything the reviewers say, but learn from the advice. The second review will not likely go well if you do not make substantive revisions to correct the imperfections in your original draft.


If you get a rejection letter, don’t give up. If you believe you have something substantive to offer then revise the work to address the concerns that reviewers raise, and submit the revised paper to another journal likely to find your theme of interest.

Jill Grant is a Professor at the School of Planning at Dalhousie University, Canada. Jill is an Associate Editor of Planning Theory and Practice.