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Academic publishing query letters: should you bother? by Joanna Hare

Joanna Hare is currently a Subject Librarian at City University of Hong Kong. As a research-practitioner, Joanna’s interests include information and digital literacy, research support for Humanities and the Arts, and innovative models of customer service. She continues Dave Hare’s series blog posts in the AcWriMo 2016 series.

dave_3_1As a librarian, I often attend presentations by representatives of academic publishers about ‘how to get published.’ These usually cover broad, basic advice like checking the journal’s scope before making a submission and using the correct academic style. One thing that is mentioned is to ‘pitch’ your article to the editor directly via a query letter. Book authors use query letters and academics can use them too. These letters typically include a brief (usually one to two paragraphs) synopsis of your academic writing, which is then sent to the journal’s editor asking if it is something they might publish. You can see a sample here.

Query letters are work. Thinking about them prompted me to reflect on whether they are actually worth the effort and if the letters actually do lead to higher publication rates. To find out, I contacted the editors of a few of the highest ranked Communication journals according to the Scimago Journal Rankings (SJR) and asked them about their thoughts on query letters:  

Steve Jones, editor of New Media and Society, does not mind receiving query letters. However, he makes it clear that he ‘cannot “pre-review” manuscripts on the basis of a query, which is something writers often seem to want’. Jones adds that ‘there is no advantage to sending a query letter, ultimately, unless an author is truly uncertain about whether a manuscript’s topic is or isn’t a fit with the journal.’

Jonathon Hess, editor of Communication Education, is ‘happy to get letters from people who are familiar with the journal… and are asking about specifics that couldn’t be answered by looking online.  But general emails pitching papers for which it’s clear the author has no familiarity with the journal aren’t a good use of my time.’ Hess goes on to say that if after reading the journal’s scope statement the author is still unsure if their work is suitable, he would ‘prefer that she or he just submit the article rather than sending an inquiry.  It’s much easier for me to see the paper and offer a clear response than to try to guess based on a description. I screen most submissions within a week, so authors will find out promptly if the paper doesn’t fit or isn’t strong enough for review.’

Tuen A. van Dijk, editor of Discourse Studies, says he does not receive query letters that often, which is perhaps due to his journal’s practice of pre-review: ‘prospective authors get an automatic reply when they submit a paper, in which they are asked to pre-review their own paper on the basis of very detailed criteria of the journals… so they already know what kinds of paper we publish or not.’

Rasmus Nielsen, editor of The International Journal of Press/Politics (IJPP), says ‘the majority of the query letters I receive are not very helpful, because they either (a) reflect that the author has not actually read the journal, or just consulted our aim and scope or (b) is trying to flog a sub-standard manuscript. A minority of query letters are interesting and useful for me, but in that case almost always reflect the fact that the author already knows that a given manuscript may not be a good fit for IJPP.’ ’

So, what should you do?

It is clear from these responses that if you only do one thing before reaching out to an editor prior to submitting your article it is:

Read the journal’s aims and scope first!

An editor’s receptiveness to a query letter has a lot to do with personal preference, with most stating that they do not mind receiving letters. However, it is critical that you demonstrate that you have an understanding of what the journal is about. You can make this clear in your letter (for example, ‘I have read your journal’s aims and scope and my work fits these guidelines for reasons A, B and C’).

If you are not already very familiar with the journal you are submitting to, I would recommend going further than reading the aims and scope to reading several of the articles published in the journal. This will give you an idea of the writing style and topics covered, and how your article would fit in an overall volume. Referring to specific articles in your email to the editor is also evidence that you are familiar with the journal and committed to publishing with them.

A caveat: in my experience it can be worth reaching out to the editor for advice on writing an article if they are producing a ‘special edition’ of the journal, such as a special topic or an edition dedicated to a recent conference. The scope and type of article accepted for special editions may be slightly different and the editor might be able to guide you in a direction that is more likely to lead to publication. But of course, check the website to make sure this information isn’t already easily available!

Thank you to the editors who provided valuable advice for this post.


A simple start to a publishing strategy: journal lists by Dave Hare

Dave Hare is currently a part-time lecturer at City University of Hong Kong. His research work concerns film studies, specifically contemporary cinema stereoscopy. This is his second blog post in the AcWriMo 2016 series.



So, following last week’s post, you’ve decided to use AcWriMo to finalise and submit your work to a journal. The next thing to do, according to almost every academic blog ever, is to create a ‘publishing strategy’ or ‘publishing agenda’. You can read about strategies and agendas here, here, here, here, here and here, and also here (and basically everywhere else*).

Publishing strategies don’t always come about in the prescribed way. For me, it was made clear in a job rejection email that I wasn’t being considered for a position because I didn’t have enough Arts & Humanities Citation Index (A&HCI) and Social Sciences Citation Index (SSCI) publications. I knew that I needed more work published, but I applied for the job anyway and (Surprise) got rejected. The upside of that downside was that I got specific feedback on how to shape my publishing strategy: to look to journal ranking lists, which university departments obviously use to gauge job candidates (as well as a bunch of other stuff, as in exchange knowledge, apply for funding grants, evaluate staff performance, build careers etc.).

There are issues, however, with this type of publication strategy. Tseen Khoo, one half of The Research Whisperer blog team, discussed a few of these issues in a post back in 2014. She concluded the post with the thought that ‘you may still end up “publishing to appease” every so often, but don’t let it be your life’; which is to say there are particular times to focus your attention on journals that others favour. For me, given the response to my job application, the time is now.

For the uninitiated, journal ranking lists are LONG. The A&HCI, for example, is almost 200 titles across multiple fields of study. So, you need to start by filtering out irrelevant titles. A friendly academic librarian can help you with this task; I know, because one helped me. Here is a summary of that librarian’s advice:

  • Step one: Create a spreadsheet to list the journal titles you are going to target for your publications. The spreadsheet should include all the relevant information about the journals you plan to target, such as the name, links to the Aims and Scope, recommended article word counts and a ‘Notes/Comments’ column for any extra details about the vibe of the journal.
  • Step two: Skim the title lists to identify titles relevant to your field. My field is contemporary cinematic stereoscopy, so keeping my outlook broad I selected any titles that seemed to be about film or media studies, as my work spans both aesthetic and industrial aspects of contemporary cinematic stereoscopy.
  • Step three: As you find a title that seems relevant, visit the journal website and find their ‘Aims and Scopeinformation. This should tell you if your work will fit in the existing scope of the journal. Add any titles that seem promising to your spreadsheet. At this stage be prepared to be both disappointed and surprised: you may find that the well-regarded journal you were hoping to publish in is actually not ideal, while the scope of journals you are less familiar with might end up being the perfect fit.
  • Step four (optional): Email the editor/s of the journal/s and ask if your work sounds appropriate for their publication (more on query letters in the coming weeks). Suffice to say this email should be short and to the point, with a brief description of your work. A typical response to this email will (1) note that your work is interesting and (2) that you should submit it for consideration, providing that (3) you have followed the journal’s style guide. It may not provide too much information, but it might just help you decide which journal you’ll submit to first.

After following these steps, my list included about 25 relevant journals, five of which stood out as being clear targets. In addition to these, I also included journals that might be useful for future research. Now, I am ready to get on with the task of editing, re-writing, and proofreading. A quick note for those AcWriMo-journal-writing peeps that already have a publishing strategy: Your target journals may have posted a recent call for papers, redefined their aims or have a new editorial board. A quick check to see if journals have changed is a good idea before settling down to write.



Forming a publishing strategy (or agenda), conducting research into a journal index, and creating lists, all count toward your AcWriMo success as well as the goal of journal article publication. If you’re doing these tasks, please share your experiences on Twitter and Facebook using the AcWriMo hashtag.

*because the interwebs is loaded with academic blogs talking about strategies … including this one.

Tempting Titles by Professor Helen Sword
helen sword book cover

helen sword book coverProfessor Helen Sword (The University of Auckland) is the author of the hugely popular Stylish Academic Writing. Below is an excerpt from her book which offers her top 10 tips on titles.

1.  What first impression do you want to make on your chosen audience? Remember, your title announces your intention to be serious, humorous, detailed, expansive, technical, or accessible—possibly several of those things at once. Double-check that your title matches your intention.

2.  Take a look at the publication list on your curriculum vitae. How many of your past titles contain colons? In each case, can you clearly articulate your reason for needing both a title and a subtitle?

3.  If you use colons frequently, try crafting a colon-free title. As an extra challenge, see if you can come up with a colon-free title that is both engaging and informative.

4.  If you seldom or never use colons, or if your titles are informative but not engaging, try out the “catchy: descriptive” trick. First, formulate a snappy but appropriate title (for example, “Snakes on a Plane”) to go with your not-so-snappy descriptive subtitle (“Aggressive Serpentine Behavior in a Restrictive Aeronautical Environment”).

5.  Next, ask yourself whether your title would still make sense without the subtitle. In some situations – for instance, a disciplinary conference or a special issue of a journal, where the context may supply all the extra information that is needed – you might find you can get away with just “Snakes on a Plane” after all.

6.  Identify some typical titles in your discipline and analyze their grammatical structure: for example, “The Development of Efficacy in Teams: A Multilevel and Longitudinal Perspective” becomes “The Abstract Noun of Abstract Noun in Plural Collective Noun: An Adjective and Adjective Abstract Noun.” Now see if you can come up with a title that does not use those predictable structures.

7.  For inspiration, find an engaging title from a discipline other than your own and mimic its structure. No one in your discipline need ever know.

8.  Make sure your title contains no more than one or two abstract or collective nouns. (Many academic titles contain seven, eight, or more!) Abstract nouns (analysis, structure, development, education) and collective nouns (students, teachers, patients, subjects) have a generic, lulling quality, particularly when they occur in journals where the same noun is used frequently, as in a criminology journal where most of the titles contain the nouns crime and criminology.

9.  Avoid predictable “academic verbs”, especially in participle form: for example, preparing, promoting, enforcing (law); engaging, applying, improving (higher education); rethinking, reopening, overcoming (history); predicting, relating, linking (evolutionary biology).

10.  Include one or two words that you would not expect to find in any other title in the same journal. Concrete nouns (piano, guppy, path) and vivid verbs (ban, mutilate, gestate) are particularly effective. Proper nouns (Wagner, London, Phasianus colchicus) can also help individualize your title and ground your research in a specific time and place.

Weekly Wisdom: Brought to you by the Letter G

BoxesConsider being generous. Awhile ago there was a discussion about Tweeting during conference panels and whether doing so was making scholars’ research public outside of their established intentions. Academics are generally trained to be very protective of their ideas, their data, and their scholarship: there’s a reason for the term “intellectual property.” The inverse would be to apply the ideas of generosity and publicness to scholarship.

Michelle Moravec conducts her scholarly work in open places, inviting engagement and comments from others. She notes: “Writing in Public is my small contribution to making visible the processes by which history making takes place. I draft all my work in documents shared with readers for comments and critique.”

Author and artist Austin Kleon makes a similar pitch. His latest book is titled Show Your Work: 10 ways to share your creativity and get discovered. Kleon encourages readers to “think about your work as a never-ending process, how to build an audience by sharing that process.”

What might you gain from being generous with your scholarship?

Publishing online and outside of a discipline by Tony E. Adams

publications_imageTony Adams is Associate Professor and Chair of Communication, Media, and Theatre at Northeastern Illinois University. For more information about his work, visit www.TonyEAdams.com

I write this blog from the perspective of someone who has the privilege to publish in a variety of outlets—my institution does not rank or evaluate the best journals; citation counts do not matter; and we do not use external reviewers for retention, tenure, or promotion. As such, this blog may not be of much interest to academics working at research institutions or at institutions where specific journals matter. Here, I offer my experiences with the limited aspect of disciplinary publishing, the benefits of open-access publishing, and writing about research practices and methods.

On a job interview for a mid-size, public university, I asked the interviewers about tenure requirements.

“If you publish three articles in the nationally sanctioned journals, you should be okay for tenure,” one interviewer says.

“I don’t publish in our nationally sanctioned journals,” I reply. “Most of the time, they do not welcome qualitative research, especially research that uses ethnography and autoethnography.”

“You’d probably get tenure if you published six articles in the regionally sanctioned communication journals,” the interviewer continues.

“I don’t publish in those journals either,” I say. “These journals also do not welcome ethnographic and autoethnographic research.”

Our interview ended.

Of the 11 nationally sanctioned, disciplinary journals—those journals sponsored by the National Communication Association—only two are open to ethnography and autoethnography, my primary methods for research. If I want (or need) to get published, and if I want (or need) to be published in nationally sanctioned publications, then I immerse myself in a highly competitive publishing process. While I suppose not being accepted for publication in these journals may have some indication about the value of my work to/for the communication discipline, I also believe that many of the discipline’s journal editors are against particular methods before they would even review my submissions. By trying to publish ethnographic and autoethnographic scholarship in more traditional, social scientific outlets, I may exhaust myself in a pointless task.

In April 2014, I had a conversation with a colleague about the citation count of “Autoethnography: An Overview,” a 2011 article I co-authored with Carolyn Ellis and Arthur Bochner published in the open-access journal, Forum: Qualitative Social Research. My colleague could not believe that this article alreadyhad more than 200 citations (as of this writing [September 2014], it has more than 300 citations). Further, while I believe that any of my disciplinary journals would have rejected the article especially since these journals focus on content—the findings of research projects, and not necessarily on how to do (communication) research, the article already has more citations than many of the articles published in these journals in the last two decades.

I am most pleased with this citation count because I believe it is an easy indicator that people at least know of the article. And the reason I publish is not to expand my vita or because I am required, but rather because I want to offer  work that is (hopefully) of use to others. I also believe that the open-access journal helps with the citation count—unlike more traditional, disciplinary articles, the article is not locked behind a library database; anyone can access it free of charge.

Further, the article may be of interest to many because it talks about a research method rather than a disciplinary-specific topic; it could be helpful for anyone doing ethnographic and autoethnographic research, not only communication researchers.

I want my writing to be read. I feel as though I am wasting my time publishing work without any reason. I like to engage research and to provide other researchers with new conceptual material and support. At some institutions, the journals in which I publish might not be the most credible according to often-ambiguous and elitist standards, but I find it more important that my research is engaged by others.

I recognize that some people do not have the privilege or luxury to publish outside of disciplinary journals, and I recognize the privilege I have in working in and being tenured at an institution that does not require me to publish in so-called “prestigious” publication outlets. If you are privileged to be on a tenure-track position, and if you are at an institution where journals matter, maybe wait until tenure and promotion to publish or meet institutional, tenure requirements for publication and then, post-tenure, publish in other outlets. At the very least, I think we should all do our best to have different conversations about publishing—about recognizing possible limits of disciplinary journals, the benefits of open-access publishing, and the importance of research methodology and practice.

Publish and Publicise, or Perish: The Importance of Publication Impact by Mark Rubin

This guest post is from Mark Rubin, a senior lecturer in social psychology at the University of Newcastle, Australia. You can visit his ImpactStory profile at: http://impactstory.org/MarkRubin or follow him on Twitter @MarkRubinPsych.

I’ve recently conducted an “Introduction to Academic Publishing” seminar for PhD students at the University of Newcastle and the University of Canberra. During the seminar, I spend some time explaining to students the new emphasis on publication impact. Publication impact is the influence that scholarly publications have on other scholars and the general public, and it is becoming more and more important in academia. Below, I consider some of the ways in which publication impact is making an impact in the research world.

Measuring Researchers
The quality and quantity of a researcher’s publications provide a key measure of their research productivity. Consequently, publication track records are often used to determine whether or not researchers get hired, promoted, or funded for their future research. In addition, at the institutional level, the quality and quantity of a university’s publication output help to determine its international reputation and the amount of funding that it receives based on national research performance reviews. So, there are several reasons why researchers find themselves and their research outputs to be objects of measurements.

Tape Measure

© Lambda Chi Alpha Fraternity, Tape Measure, Creative Commons

The ethos of “publish or perish” has been around for a long time. However, in recent years, this message has become more articulated, and it now takes into account the impact of researchers’ publications. In particular, researchers are now told that they must not only publish their research but also get their publications acknowledged by other researchers and society at large. In practice, this means that researchers need to get their publications (a) cited in the work of other researchers and (b) discussed in traditional and online media. To help achieve a greater scholarly and public impact, researchers must promote and advertise their work as much as possible. In this respect, the message has now become “publish and publicise, or perish!”

Publications Need to Make a Big Splash!

A Little Trick

© Nathan Rupert, A Little Trick, Creative Commons

Measuring Publication Impact in the Scholarly Literature: The H Index
The concern about impact in the scholarly literature explains the growing popularity of the h index, a metric that is used to quantify not only the number of articles that a researcher has published but also the number of citations that these articles have accrued in other scholarly work. My own h value is currently 12, meaning that 12 of my 33 research publications have each been cited at least 12 times in other research articles.High impact researchers are expected to have h indices that are at least as large as the number of years since their first publication. The h index is not without its critics, and some have argued that a more comprehensive assessment of publication impact should take into account a broader array of alternative impact metrics, or altmetrics, that include more than just citations in scholarly work.

The H Index

Wooden Brick Letter h

© LEOL30, Wooden Brick Letter h, Creative Commons

Altmetrics platforms such as altmetric and impact story count the number of times that scholarly articles are mentioned in both the scholarly literature and online social media and websites such as Twitter, Facebook, and Wikipedia.They can also measure the number of times that online articles are viewed, bookmarked, liked, and downloaded on document managers such as Mendeley and Citeulike. Like the h index, altmetrics has its critics. However, if used wisely, altmetrics can provide a useful tool for assessing publication impact.


© A J Cann, Altmetrics, Creative Commons

“Facebook for Researchers”
In an effort to increase their scholarly impact, researchers are now advertising their work on professional social networking websites such as Academia and ResearchGate, which have over 12 million researchers signed up between them. Researchers can follow other researchers in their area and be notified about their activities, including when they publish new articles. These sites also allow researchers to publish self-archived versions of their research papers that other users can then access, further increasing their citation potential.

Research Gate Logo

By ResearchGate [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Funnelling News of Research Outputs: Research Blog Aggregators
Modern researchers are also blogging about their work. I do this myself and, although it takes a bit of time to prepare each post, I really enjoy turning a dry research abstract into a more accessible and appealing piece for my blog. Like many other researchers, I feed my posts through to research blog aggregators like ScienceSeeker and ResearchBlogging. These platforms funnel posts from many different research blogs into a single stream of the latest research.

I think therefore I blog

© Marsmettnn Tallahassee, I think therefore I blog,Creative Commons

Open-Access = Greater Impact
The drive to publish lots of highly cited and publically-acknowledged articles also helps to explain the rise of open-access journals. Unlike traditional journals, open-access journals publish articles 100% online rather than in print and, without the associated printing costs, they are able to accommodate a greater number of journal articles. For example, PLOS ONE published 23,464 articles in 2012, making it the largest journal in the world!

Importantly, the appeal of open-access journals is not only their ability to publish more publications, but also their ability to make those publications more accessible to readers. Unlike traditional journals, which tend to hide their content behind subscriber-only paywalls, open-access journals make their content freely available to everyone with internet access. This has the effect of increasing publication impact by increasing citation rates among scholars as well as online discussion among the general public.

Open Access (1)

© Research and Graduate College Graduate Studies Office, Open_Access_PLoS, Creative Commons

Hello? Can Anyone Hear Me!?
If a tree falls in the forest and there’s no-one around to hear it, then does it make a noise? I can’t answer that one I’m afraid. But I do know that, nowadays, if a researcher publishes an article in a journal and no-one views it, downloads it, cites it, or Tweets it, then it certainly doesn’t make an impact!


© Sue Langford,Trees, Creative Commons

Hackademic Guide to Networking: Tip Off the Press
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Hybrid Pedagogy’s Jesse Stommel and our very own Charlotte Frost continue their Hackademic series with a new set of hints, tips and hacks focused on academic networking.

TIP OFF THE PRESS. Sometimes you’ll organise an event or publish a piece of work that has obvious impact beyond your academic field alone. When this happens make sure you talk to your university’s marketing and press team. Work with them to draft a brief and to-the-point piece of text you can send out — press-release style — to relevant news outlets. It might be that you’re organising an event that will benefit the local community so make sure the local papers know about it well in advance. If you can make life easy for them as well by presenting them with text that pre-empts their questions you’ll increase your chances of the event/project being written about. If your work has real national/international impact then it’s really important you work closely with the press team not just to make sure you get press but also so that they can protect you and your intellectual property (no matter how you choose to license it, whether with a Creative Commons license or a more conventional copyright).

 Academic work is seldom a fame-game, but it’s always worth publicising important work because it will be bring prestige to your university and give you added kudos in your department (not to mention it may well build an audience for your work and help sell books etc) and that can lead to bigger and better grants. Jesse writes more on this subject in his article, “Promoting Open Access Publications and Academic Projects.” There, he writes, “Our work has value, and it’s safe to openly admit that. In fact, at this moment in education, championing what we do should be a major part of what we do.”


Hackademic Guide to Networking: Hone Your Elevator Pitch
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Hybrid Pedagogy’s Jesse Stommel and our very own Charlotte Frost continue their Hackademic series with a new set of hints, tips and hacks focused on academic networking.


HONE YOUR ELEVATOR PITCH. Learn how to describe what’s very broadly at stake in your work. This can take years of practice to get good at — and it’s especially hard to do straight after completing your PhD — but we don’t have years (we usually need to hone a pitch before the PhD is even finished), so here’s a cheat. Imagine you have to convey the life or death importance of your work (and that your life actually does depend on getting the message across). What would you say? Instead of being lost in the intricacies and jargon of your field, you have to tell someone — anyone — just why your work matters. This sort of thing is often described as an ‘elevator pitch’, a short teaser you could recite to the most important person within or outside your field in a short elevator trip.


Hackademic Guide to Networking: Have a Privacy Policy
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Hybrid Pedagogy’s Jesse Stommel and our very own Charlotte Frost continue their Hackademic series with a new set of hints, tips and hacks focused on academic networking.


HAVE A PRIVACY POLICY. Being an academic often means doing public work. Even if you see yourself as more of an introvert, research is about sharing and opening up dialogues in the classroom and beyond. Social media intensifies this so it’s worth working out how to approach social media platforms in advance and maybe devising a clear policy for yourself. For example, a Facebook post about LOLcats or a casual comment on Twitter about a heavy weekend’s drinking might not be things you want to add to your professional persona. Whether you have friended colleagues on Facebook or not, even with privacy controls, you can never guarantee these things won’t come to light elsewhere. With that in mind, you might like to consider firstly which platforms you are likely to use to communicate with colleagues and peers and which are for close friends only and second, lock down the privacy on the ones you want to be personal. Then decide what you are happy to talk about in public. Savvy social media users appear to be very open and friendly but are often extremely careful about what they do and don’t share. It might be useful to brainstorm a policy for yourself on paper, which you can keep handy to periodically remind yourself what you’re comfortable with.


Hackademic Guide to Networking: Have a Business Card
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under this licence: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/2.0/deed.en_GB

Hybrid Pedagogy’s Jesse Stommel and our very own Charlotte Frost continue their Hackademic series with a new set of hints, tips and hacks focused on academic networking.

HAVE A BUSINESS CARD. It might seem strange for two Twitter-obsessives to suggest something as old-fashioned as a business card but what we’re really promoting is being multi-modal. Business cards remain useful ways to leave your details with somebody, especially if you’re easily connected with your card – the physical trace can work in ways different from our virtual presence. Also, you’ll find that different cultures respond better to different forms of networking/self-promotion. For example in Hong Kong, where Charlotte lives and works, business cards are considered an essential networking convention (even human beatboxes carry them). There is even a ritual to receiving a business card and reading all of its details before continuing to talk to the person who gave it to you. Today it’s quick, cheap and easy to get a stash of cards so the only thing to think about is how to present yourself. You might keep your card very minimal, you might go for lots of visual or textual information, you might even include a word cloud rather than job description to better represent your academic interests. And, if you are indeed a Twitter-obsessive, don’t forget to include your Twitter handle.

Hackademic Guide to Networking: Buy a Domain Name
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Hybrid Pedagogy’s Jesse Stommel and our very own Charlotte Frost continue their Hackademic series with a new set of hints, tips and hacks focused on academic networking.

BUY A DOMAIN NAME. This is relatively simple. If you don’t own your own domain, buy it now. You don’t necessarily even need server space or a website to put up. In lieu of anything more elaborate, simply forward your domain to your work profile or Academia.edu page. Eventually you might build a blog or substantial website and use the domain for that. The point is to start laying claim to your online identity. You’ll be glad you did as your career grows, because you’ll have an easy-to-find web presence with some history that will help your work show up in google searches.

Writing Your Journal Article in Twelve Weeks: Week Eight

Content_WritingEllie’s posts on Writing Your Journal Article in Twelve Weeks will be back after a holiday hiatus. See you again in January!

Ellie Mackin is a third year PhD student in Classics at King’s College London, and is working through Wendy Belcher’s ‘Writing Your Journal Article in 12 Weeks’ while attempting to finish her thesis.

This week was all about opening and concluding the article, and the irony of the situation is the number of times it took to start writing this blog post.  I wanted to open with a joke, to emphasise the ‘good opening’ point, but I’m not very funny and I couldn’t think of anything.  So instead, I will just open by saying that this week I learned that I’m good at something.  Title writing!  The first task this week was to revise your title, making sure it’s not too broad or too vague, that it names your subject adequately, that is at least hints to your argument, that it contains keywords that are searchable, and isn’t overly dense.  It should, I learned, also include a verb.  I only had to insert three words (‘an examination of’) into my title to make it conform to these rules, and so I’m pretty happy with that.  I think it’s important to have a title, even a working one, that reflects what you’re doing and can keep you on track a little bit.  I have written my PhD with that in mind, and I’ve already previously revised my title the week we did the argument alterations.

The next two days of tasks were all about rewriting your introduction, and that’s where my elation fell flat.  My opening sentence is yawn-inducing boring.  It didn’t fit into any of Belcher categories (anecdotal, subject, critical, significance, historical and argumentative) but instead was vague and said nothing.  Certainly not ‘gripping,’ which is the next exercise.  Needless to say my answer to ‘Could my first sentence be more gripping?  If so, how could I accomplish this?’ didn’t fit into the box provided in the book.  One thing my opening sentence does do is introduce basic information about my topic, which apparently a lot of young writers forget to include.  So, at least the information is useful and usable.  Just perhaps not right at the start.

I don’t do any of the things Belcher suggests: stating my argument (that comes around sentence eight, roughly – so well into the introduction), I don’t identify my position in relation to previous research (which is something that I need to work on in all my writing!), but I do provide something of a roadmap of my article (although this does come in the introduction, and probably doesn’t need to be right up the front for my article).  So, over the next two days I did a lot of work on my introduction and fit all of these things in.  My opening sentence probably still needs a little bit of work, but that can happen.

The next day’s task involved revising the abstract, related literature review and author order (only relevant to those producing multiple author papers).  We have done a fair amount of work on the abstract, and I am pretty happy with how mine looks at present.  The advice is to go back and repeat the week 2 revision tasks, which I did, and have updated my abstract to take in the changes I’ve made over the past few weeks.  My related literature section is a constantly evolving thing so I didn’t do too much work on it.

Finally, the week concluded with the conclusion.  I’m a particularly weak conclusion writer (so I have been told) and so I really took the opportunity to go back and re-read my article, making notes about my argument (which has been tightened up significantly during this process).  This, I’ve discovered, is where I need to point to the significance of my article to the wider field, and so I’ve introduced that information into the conclusion.  All in all, I’m not 100% happy with the conclusion, but that will come with a bit more work.  I hope.

Writing Your Journal Article in Twelve Weeks – Week Seven
By Aadityasardwal via Wikimedia Commons

By Aadityasardwal via Wikimedia Commons

Ellie Mackin is a third year PhD student in Classics at King’s College London, and is working through Wendy Belcher’s ‘Writing Your Journal Article in 12 Weeks’ while attempting to finish her thesis.

Evidence.  A daunting word, and one that can mean so many different things.  I have my own system of categorising primary evidence depending on the source of the material (for example, an inscription is just primary whereas a medieval manuscript of a classical-period play is still primary, but less so, and a textual edition is even less primary than the manuscript – it’s a pretty loose system).  This week was all about evidence and fittingly Belcher began not with what evidence is but what the types of evidence are.  She covers qualitative, quantitative, historical, geographical, textual and artistic evidence, finally asking you to identify the types of evidence that you use.  I actually found this not only interesting but enlightening.  It’s not that I didn’t know that the different evidence existed, but I’d never considered anything  beyond the ‘primary’ ‘secondary’ and ‘tertiary’ categorisations, and thus had – in a way, but not consciously – lumped statistical data with historical data.  Probably because I use the latter and not the former, I had never considered what function the former actually plays in some research.

The next section is about writing up, and like last week it was split into ‘Social Science’ and ‘Humanities.’  I read though the Social Science, but not in depth, so I will mainly talk about the humanities section.  This was split into two sub-sections ‘close readings’ and ‘cultural studies.’  As what I do straddles the divide between the two sub-categories I didn’t favour one approach over the other but worked equally on both.  Belcher took these two sub-categories from what she describes as the two common theoretical positions in literary criticism.  I found her comments about each of these sections to be, in hindsight, obvious – but I don’t think I would have been able to list these as poles of theoretical approaches before I read this section.  Under close readings she discusses meaningful quoting, brief summerisation, ‘large picture’ referencing, and – I think most importantly, though she doesn’t emphasis it – careful selection.  That is, not trying to undertake too large a portion of text, asking the text ‘why’ or ‘how’, not ‘what’.  She also, interestingly, notes that you should limit your footnotes or endnotes, stating that more and more journals are asking for these to be limited.  I would have thought this would be in the author guidelines for any particular journal, and at this stage might be unnecessarily restrictive, but I’ve never come across this idea in my field, so perhaps it’s more relevant in some disciplines than others.  The second section of this is for cultural studies, in which she says, straight and to the point, ‘avoid biography’, ‘avoid simple politicising,’ and ‘deploy theory, don’t replicate it.’  Most interestingly in this section was her instruction to avoid the discussion of intentionality.  I really like this notion and I try very hard not to discuss what I think the author is trying to convey or intends to say, so I felt like I was slightly ahead of the game on this one (for once!).  All in all, this was a useful exercise to think about the way that I use evidence.

The second day’s exercise was to discuss evidence in your field.  The book asks you to make a few appointments to talk evidence, but I didn’t do this.  I have lunch and drinks with colleagues on a fairly regular basis and thought it might be best to discuss here.  We came up with some interesting things, including a discussion of the way that we all view primary source material in our field (which is Classics/Ancient History, and so primary sources can be of somewhat dubious origin in some cases).

I had fun and games with the third day’s task, which was to print out a copy of your paper and go though it paragraph by paragraph and pick out your evidence, determine whether it’s clearly presented and make a note if it doesn’t have a clear progression, ‘explanation power’ or is logical.  My margins were full of little notes, which helped over the next two days when I went through and tried – sometimes with more ease than others – to correct these passages.

Finally, there is the revision of the whole document, to take in the changes made.  My article is looking a lot different than it was at the start, and I’m really pleased that I saved a copy (though this was unintentional at the time, I admit!) at the start, so that I can look back and see how far I have actually progressed.  I’m feeling good this week, even though it’s the end of AcWriMo, my writing has never been better!

Writing Your Journal Article in 12 Weeks – Week Six
By Aadityasardwal via Wikimedia Commons

By Aadityasardwal via Wikimedia Commons

Ellie Mackin is a third year PhD student in Classics at King’s College London, and is working through Wendy Belcher’s ‘Writing Your Journal Article in 12 Weeks’ while attempting to finish her thesis.

 Half way!  That’s right, things are finally starting to happen and my article is taking shape! This week was all about structure, and although I thought it was going to be a boring (albeit necessary) week, it actually turned out to be very interesting.  The explanatory text for this week began with types of structure – what Belcher categorised as ‘micro’ and ‘macro’ structure.  That is, the structure of your overall article and the structure within each paragraph.  This started with five basic ‘organisational structures’: description, sequence, causation, problem/solution and comparison:  I’m not sure what effect knowing this has had on my writing, but it certainly has made me a better reader this week, because I’ve been concentrating on identifying these structures within other texts I’ve been reading (and, in fact, I wonder if this whole process is not just making me a better writer but a better reader and researcher as well – I certainly notice things differently and read more carefully than I did before…). Belcher then goes though article structures, and I have to be honest, I didn’t read the ones aimed at Social Sciences (although perhaps I will go back and read them), but skipped straight though to the Humanities-themed structure.  This is a very useful part of the book, and if you do nothing else then read though this section (Humanities is on pp. 180-182.).  Not only does Belcher give the general structure but she gives an example of how the structure works in an actual article (it would be interesting to go though and read the article with the structure in hand and see how this works.  I should have done this, probably, but I’ve been so busy this week as per usual). We then go though ways to solving structure problems, including prompts asking if you could use more subheadings or summary, if you use an appropriate structure, if you present your evidence properly, if your main argument appears in each paragraph and, if not, should you include it more, and whether you could develop your examples more successfully. The next main task is to outline a model article.  I used an article I was about to read anyway, instead of the suggestion to read the model article that was identified in week one.  I’m not sure if this was more or less successful than it could have been in the circumstances, but I got a lot out of the exercise, both in terms of what I got out of the article and being able to identify what worked and what didn’t in the model. Finally, before getting to your own article, Belcher asks you to outline your article using the examples outlined.  And then, you guessed it, you have to implement the structure. This wouldn’t be a blog by me if there wasn’t at least one confession, so here it is: I am rubbish at editing.  And this was no different.  I struggled big time with this task, but I got there.  My article needs a lot more revision, and the two days that Belcher put aside for this task weren’t enough for me, so I will have to take this though into the weekend as well. I have taken away some really valuable lessons from this week, and lessons that are more widely applicable than just for my article.  I’m going to create a structure map of my thesis, as a whole and chapter by chapter, and see if I can improve it using Belcher’s system. All in all, an interesting and useful week! Hope AcWriMo is treating everyone well.

Writing Your Journal Article in 12 Weeks: Week 5
By Aadityasardwal via Wikimedia Commons

By Aadityasardwal via Wikimedia Commons

Ellie Mackin is a third year PhD student in Classics at King’s College London, and is working though Wendy Belcher’s ‘Writing Your Journal Article in 12 Weeks’ while attempting to finish her thesis.

I can’t believe I’m almost half way through the programme now, and my article is starting to take shape and I am starting to feel good about writing – both the article and more generally, which is lovely.

This week has been crazy.  I ended the week pretty close to having a full first draft of my PhD, which I’m hoping to submit in two weeks.  Some parts are a lot closer than others but it’s coming together and I’m feeling confident about it.  As a result I was glad that this week’s tasks had a lot of reading components, because I knew I wouldn’t want to do too much writing other than my thesis.  That’s also why this post is a little bit late.

This week started with a pep-talk that I really needed, the gist of which is DON’T FEEL GUILTY!  Don’t feel guilty if you’re not working as much or as hard as you ‘think’ you should be working, because that guilt makes it even harder to get going.  In that vein I’m going to share with you my answer to Belcher’s request this week to write something positive about your own writing: ‘My prose is improving, my editing is improving, my ability is improving. I’m not there yet, but writing is not as scary as it used to be.’  Okay, so not the overwhelmingly positive gush that it could be, but considering how I felt about writing in the week one tasks, I think I’m made some pretty significant improvements.

This week I went through revising the relevant literature, by first learning about the types of literature that there are: original (or primary, of which I have a fair amount!), derivative (or tertiary sources, or ‘classroom’ articles, encyclopaedias, etc. – should not be used!), contextual (for background information on the context of your topic), methodological, theoretical (both, I think, self-explanatory), and related literature (that is, scholarly work that is directly related to your topic.)  Belcher then goes into how to read two specific types of literature: theoretical and related.  Honestly, I wish I’d read the section on reading theoretical literature six years ago before I started my undergraduate thesis.  My life would have been a whole lot easier then and now.  One tip in particular, which I’m sure many students (and scholars) feel inadequate when and if they do it, is using reference books.  I know this from first-hand experience of reading Kant and needing not only a book to explain the book, but a book to explain the language used in the book explaining the book!  An interesting suggestion from Belcher is to read biographies of the theoreticians, which I had never considered but is actually a great idea!

Belcher moves on to how to read related literature and this is a much longer section, understandably.  Belcher suggests that you limit your reading.  This goes against what we’re always told, and what many scholars feel they need to do, but it does make sense.  She suggests several ways of limiting research, and states that your article doesn’t need to be the comprehensive last-word on your topic.  Next she talks about finding your way into the scholarship and how to start the conversation – the analogy here is that you wouldn’t walk into a party and just start talking about yourself, you need to engage first.  I found a lot of this stuff common sense, but it’s always a good thing to revise (in fact, that’s a pretty good way to describe this whole week, particularly the section on avoiding plagiarism, which is always good to remind yourself of!).

For the first time in this process, I found the tasks to be a little bit tedious.  I understand the point of going through citations, but seeing as I started with a piece of writing that was fairly comprehensive anyway I found it a bit over the top.  One of the tasks (‘Identifying and reading the related literature’) was something I’d done pretty recently, and I am the kind of person/researcher that adds in new information and references as I find them, so my article is fairly up to date.  Finally, I am not the sort of reader that appreciates an extensive literature review in an article (certainly some literature review is good, but too much just eats into the article’s own argument) and so I found the drafting of a literature review that I probably wouldn’t use most of a bit over the top.

The week certainly made me think about some things that it’s good to review, but so far this was, I think, the least successful week.  Perhaps if I didn’t have so many other things going on I would have appreciated it more.

Hope everyone’s AcWriMo is going well!