How to Avoid Being Published

July 30, 2014

I enjoyed Maureen Pirog’s recent piece "How to Get Published," which is filled with common sense and good advice. Back in 2009, I too posted some publishing tips. I wish I could report that things have gotten better since then, but alas, from what I've observed with several journals, magazines, and newspapers with which I'm associated, writing in the humanities remains dire. Want to avoid being published? Here’s how.

Takeaway point: If you’re not a writer, you’re not a player. Once upon a time, a great researcher but weak writer could find developmental editors to spin gold from dross. Those days are gone. Now even prestigious presses suffer from boiled-to-the-bones staffing, but even if that were not so, bad writers would have a problem. Today’s journals can afford to be choosers, not beggars. In the starkest terms, there are too many articles chasing far too few outlets. The fastest path to non-publishing oblivion is to submit an unreadable manuscript.  Do any of the following and you’ll be lucky to get more than a one-line rejection email:

Demonstrate your illiteracy. I despise competency exams, but I’m warming to the idea that professors should be tested before hiring. One professional should not be embarrassed to read the prose of another, and I’m not talking about intellectual disagreements. I can attest with certainty that there are men and women standing in front of American classrooms whose prose is worse than that of the weakest undergraduates. The problem goes beyond the use of clichés, jargon, malapropisms, text-speak, or colloquialisms. There are people in the profession who have no idea about sentence structure, punctuation, grammar, or syntax – rather unpardonable for humanities faculty. I lack the power to hire or fire, but I can (and will) choose not to plow through fifth-grade prose.

Assume your research is so important that it speaks for itself. Most researchers convince themselves their topics are earth-shattering, though few are. Maybe you really do have a hot topic other scholars long to read. Fine, but many is the time I’ve advised the following: There is an important story to be told on this topic, but probably not by this author. Clarity, concision, and audience are basic communication tools. If an editor has to become an archaeologist to discern your point, your manuscript is probably DOA – like one I once perused that didn’t mention its purported main subject until page 17. One simply cannot write as if everyone knows, cares, or is familiar with the intricacies of your topic. Above all, one cannot write as if a roundtable discussion is in session and a moderator will connect loose threads.

Disrespect the profession. Academic debate has long been an arena of contentiousness and, on occasion, hard feelings. If rancor has a place at all, it is surely on the conference floor, not the pages of a journal or book. It is one thing to point out the flaws of another’s research, but another matter entirely to (attempt to) wage personal vendettas in print.

Ignoring foundational research is another form of disrespect – a problem growing as the internet generation comes of age. There is a distressing tendency to ignore non-digitized works in the humanities, which is most of them before 1996. Someday, perhaps, everything will be online, but that day hasn’t arrived. It surprises me to review a manuscript way outside of my specialties and find that I am more familiar with discipline-defining works and basic concepts than the researcher. Such omissions generally make me suspect that the author’s overall research is weak, and more often than not that's the case. Can you imagine, for instance, a study of New England Puritanism that misidentifies John Winthrop? I can!

Disrespect the journal. An editor’s easiest cull kill is the submission from someone who has clearly never seen a single issue of the journal. Journal names don’t always tip off the content contained therein. Several history journals with which I’ve worked receive a surprising number of submissions from scholars who think they are literary journals. I presume the opposite is also true. How hard is it to look at a sample journal to become familiar with its content and character?

Scholars also disrespect the journal if they ignore submission guidelines. Sometimes they send cover letters stating their intent to do so, as if they simply don’t believe they can’t use Modern Language Association citation style, double space block quotes, underline article titles, or confine themselves to a word limit. I have no problem with a scholar asking to go over the limit, or asking for clarification of a style. But do not presume.

If you really want to disrespect journal personnel, treat them as if they are akin to a maid service that will clean up any mess you leave behind. Submissions usually have to pass four levels of muster. First the editor-in-chief glances at it to see if it’s appropriate for the journal at all. Next it gets passed to one or more readers to assess whether the paper has enough merit to justify more attention. If so, it will probably be vetted by subject experts. Steps two and three usually suggest revisions, which must be completed before a paper goes to step four: copy editing. 

Read enough rough manuscripts and you come to recognize the difference between a weak stylist and someone who can’t be bothered to make a work presentable. The issue goes beyond basic proofreading, which is actually very hard for most people to do. (Full disclosure: I’m among those who can proofread and edit the works of others, but not my own.) Readers and copy editors expect to encounter typos, dangling modifiers, subject/pronoun disagreement, and other easy-to-miss mistakes. That’s not the same level of sin as verbatim repeated passages, half-page run-on sentences, a complete absence of transitional sentences, pages of digression, disconnected non-narrative lists, or prose that reads more like class notes. Flunk step two and you’ll never make it to three.

Each year, more humanities papers are rejected than are published. Rejection is not the same as an indictment of one’s writing or research. How to tell? If your rejection notices are terse and succinct, you need to rethink your life; if you get split commentary and suggestions, consider revamping and trying somewhere else.  But I must repeat my earlier assertion: If you’re not a writer, you’re not a player. No one expects you to write like Charles Dickens, but you are expected to do better than the illiterate orphans that populate his novels.
 

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