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Academic publishing query letters: should you bother? by Joanna Hare
D-41-notes

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.

dave_3_2

A simple start to a publishing strategy: journal lists by Dave Hare
D-41-notes

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.

https://www.flickr.com/photos/internetarchivebookimages/14594792869/

https://www.flickr.com/photos/internetarchivebookimages/14594792869/

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.

https://www.flickr.com/photos/usnationalarchives/3903230097/

https://www.flickr.com/photos/usnationalarchives/3903230097/

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.

Storify for Dec 11 #AcWri chat hosted by Dr Jeremy Segrott
Screen Shot 2016-04-06 at 12.48.39 PM

Weekly Wisdom: Brought to you by the Letter Q
Boxes

BoxesQuestion your questions. Your research question is the first step to putting your ideas into action. The process involves forming viable research questions that address what interests you, indicate a trajectory for your research, and make a contribution to the field. Yet the first questions you articulate may not be the final questions you answer. Throughout your research, be sure to question your questions. Are you asking the best questions? Might your research take a novel approach if you ask it another way? Does your question have an easy answer? Does it get you where you want to go?

 

Weekly Wisdom: Brought to you by the Letter O
Boxes

BoxesOn over-organization. Workshops, books, planners, webinars, retreats–everywhere you turn, someone is promoting a new method for organizing your workflow and your life. It is not difficult to be persuaded by a hard sell trying to convince you that a new product will be just the thing to transform your life. Many academics go from one planning system to another, looking for the right software, hardware, or paper system to match their scheduling needs. Unfortunately, those investments of time, energy, and money spent on transferring your information to a new system and learning its quirks can drain the time and energy you might spend on writing and research. Organization is key to successful writing, but over-organizing can be a terrific distraction.

Weekly Wisdom: Brought to you by the Letter N
Boxes

BoxesNoticing: a nip of mindfulness. One of the important concepts in practices of mindfulness is noticing. This can be useful in situations where it is difficult to get started writing, where the process becomes frustrating, and where distractions lead you away from the work you would like to be doing. If you find yourself out of sorts, take a moment and notice what you are doing, how you are feeling, and what you might wish to be different in that moment. Noticing is a basic first step to getting to where you want to be. An analogy for road travelers: it’s not until you realize that you are lost that you pull over and look at your GPS, your map, or ask for directions. Then you can reset your course.

 

Weekly Wisdom: Brought to you by the Letter M
Boxes

BoxesHave a meeting. Rather than have a meeting about your project, have a meeting with your project. Maybe you’ve assigned a pet name to your research project, or otherwise seen that it has some anthropomorphic qualities. Imagine that your project has a persona. Fix it a cup of coffee or a cup of tea. Write an agenda if it would be helpful. Then you two can talk. What’s going well? Where does Project need more help? How has Project been successful? What resources can Project benefit from? What are your concerns? What do you need from Project? How can you help it along? It’s best recommended to not have this project meeting in public spaces…and you both might appreciate some privacy for your discussion.

Storify for June 11 #acwri chat
Weekly Wisdom: Brought to you by the Letter L
Boxes

BoxesGet to know your librarian. Researchers have few better allies than librarians, who are themselves trained to conduct research broad and focused, using any and all available sources. Good librarians love good challenges, so they are not only tremendously helpful but may also share your enthusiasm for finding an obscure document, a new theorist, or a new direction for your project. Librarians are also among the leaders at the forefront of digital humanities.Your campus librarian can be a great resource for promoting your scholarly work and helping you develop digital projects.

 

Weekly Wisdom: Brought to you by the Letter I
Boxes

BoxesBe inspired. This may seem like an impossible request for those of us who struggle to come to the page and begin writing. However, where inspiration appears difficult, it can be made simple. Imagine your positive outcomes. Imagine your success. Imagine yourself deeply engaged in the flow of writing and thinking, and how satisfying that feeling can be. Some of us are inspired by process, others by product. Figure out what works for you and imagine yourself in a space where your goals are easily achieved. It may seem far-fetched, but it can also be inspiring.

Weekly Wisdom: Brought to you by the Letter D
Boxes

BoxesDetermination. For its multiple meanings and applications, determination is a helpful quality to consider in writing and research. On the one hand, determining precisely what you want to accomplish is a first step in bringing those goals to fruition. On the other hand, approaching your work with a sense of determination and drive can put you in a frame of mind that pushes you toward completing the goals you set out to accomplish. To determine what you can accomplish in a particular block of time, figure out what the best measure is (word count, page count, time committed) and set realistic, manageable goals.

 

Weekly Wisdom: brought to you by the Letter A
Boxes

BoxesMake Arrangements. Making, arranging, organizing: creating the spaces in which you write can be a first step to starting a new project, finishing a forgotten one, or moving forward with work already underway. How you arrange your space can make a difference in your comfort level–physically and otherwise. Being mindful and deliberate about how you make arrangements might lead to a more engaged writing experience.

Storify of 22 January Twitterchat
Weekly wisdom: tips and tweaks #64 by Linda Levitt
Diorama_-_19_(8126284371)

Diorama_-_19_(8126284371)Create an emergency. Noting the similarity between “emerge” and “emergency” inspires some word play that leads to creative thinking about deadlines. Many writers will agree that deadlines can be a strong motivator: when you finally reach the point where you absolutely must get your writing done, there is little choice but to put everything else aside and focus on meeting that deadline. Now imagine creating a microdeadline that is an emergency: I absolutely must finish this paragraph/abstract/outline/chapter before I do anything else. On deadline, we’ll excuse ourselves from obligations to family and friends, let the call go to voice mail and let email go answered. What might emerge if you create a small space of no contact with an urgent deadline for yourself?

 

#acwri chats will return on Thursday, January 22 at 8:00 BT (3:00 ET)!
twitterwritte

Htwitterwritteost Pat Thomson will moderate a discussion on the challenges of setting and meeting academic writing goals. Everyone is welcome to join in with their questions and insights about productivity in academic writing. At this time of year, many writers are trying new approaches and making new resolutions; in this chat, we will consider why those resolutions are so hard to keep. Are we setting unrealistic goals? Are we saying “yes” to too many non-writing activities? Are we trying to find time to write without giving up anything else? Are we sticking with writing approaches that haven’t worked well for us in the past? Are we getting discouraged by the lack of immediate results? Are we assessing our own writing too harshly? One thing that we know often hampers attempts to develop new habits is trying to do it alone. While writing is often a solitary task, we can still gain solace from a community of other writers. The #acwri chats are a way of building that community and creating a space for writers to share their experiences with all facets of academic writing. Please join us on January 22 to be part of this valuable forum. In addition to questions and comments about goal setting, we welcome suggestions for topics for future chats.

To learn more about the history of the #acwri hashtag, read this post from Anna Tarrant. And to learn more about the #AcWriMo hashtag, read this post from Charlotte Frost.