As the editor of a scholarly journal, I'm often asked how people can increase their article’s chances of publication. Over the past five years, I’ve read a thousand readers’ reports and written hundreds of decision letters. I’ve noticed patterns of omission and consistent problem areas. I have learned what peers read for and where their critical emphasis often lies. I also know that most academics occupy the double role of being both writers and evaluators.
So when I conceived of this article, I thought it would be useful to reach beyond my own observations. On Facebook, I asked my colleagues for “useful tips/editorial feedback that you’ve been given or that you have given to others.” They, in turn, offered their two cents. (Thus all the people quoted below shared their comments in that social media venue. I am grateful to all.) Interestingly, almost all the comments were ones I had seen before in peer-review reports. This crowdsourced advice loosely illustrates that, while subfields may vary, what readers seem to value as publishable scholarship often shares certain features.
My advice here is aimed at scholars of all levels and not just emerging ones. We all need to work on finding optimal ways to communicate our research. Successful articles share certain elements that make them a pleasure to read and shepherd through the process: a strong argument, a clear logic of organization and an audible authorial voice, for starter. My comments are ordered in three categories: 1) before submission, 2) the article itself and 3) after you receive a report. Almost every point begins with a comment, in bold, that I have made in a decision letter. None of my points will be particularly earth-shattering -- and some are downright obvious -- yet every single one comes from having had dozens of submissions that do not follow it.
No. 1. Follow submission guidelines. Seriously. Every journal has citation guidelines and word limits. If it says MLA 8, follow MLA 8. Submitting with another style and a note saying, “I’ll change it later if accepted,” signals that you don’t actually see the paper as a good fit in the journal. Similarly, the solution to a paper that is well over the word limit is not to submit it with a note “allowing” the editor to trim it, or saying that you’ll work with the reader’s reports and cut it if it is accepted. The solution is revision before submission.
No. 2. This paper has too many typos and grammatical errors to go forward to peer review. Submit polished, professional work. University of Alberta professor of English and film studies Julie Rak simply asks us to “write as clearly as you can about complex things.” Let the ideas give weight, not the sentence structure. Do not just assume that copy editors will fix it for you. While finding typos is oddly satisfying, I don’t really relish fixing comma splices.
No. 3. Peer review is not problem solving. It is a mistake to submit your article because you are stuck and really looking for feedback. This is where you should share drafts with trusted friends or colleagues. It is not the job of the editor or peer reviewers to break your impasse.
No. 4. Do you know the audience of the journal? A good rule of thumb is to submit to the journals you read and cite most often. You are already participating in their ongoing conversations. You will also know approximately what level of expertise and knowledge your readers might have. My colleague Judith Paltin, assistant professor in the department of English language and literatures at the University of British Columbia, says this: “I’m working on a review right now in which confusion about audience is really evident. The article would neither satisfy specialists, who would be irritated by the extensive foregrounding of seminal scholarship, nor a more heterogeneous audience who still has to wade through a lot of other voices to hear the author’s argument. In short, stop putting other people’s voices ahead of your own as an author.” I absolutely love the final point here.
No. 5. Sharpen your abstract. Spend time polishing the abstract that you submit with the article. It should summarize the article’s intervention, spell out the core research questions and note the central objects under consideration. The abstract is the article’s first impression. Make it snappy. If you can’t articulate your argument and your contribution to the field clearly in the abstract, you might not have been clear enough in the article, either.
The Article Itself
No. 6. How would you assess this article? We ask peer reviewers to consider the following criteria in their assessments of articles for my journal: soundness of scholarship, quality of style, coherence of argument. You should ask yourself about these categories before submitting your paper. Be honest.
No. 7. Who cares? According to Patricia Badir, professor of English at UBC, you should “let your readers really see how this text or issue interests you: What’s paradoxical? What’s puzzling? What’s surprising?” In the same vein, I can’t stress the significance of “So what?” enough. Life is short. Why should I spend an hour reading this article? I want to know the answer in the opening paragraphs. We all teach students to ask these two fundamental questions. We should keep asking them of our own work.
No. 8. You need to hook the reader. I often write this statement in decision letters as I send back articles with a request to make the introduction more immediately engaging and to show why it is urgent at the outset. Ask core questions up front. Is it imperative that people read your work? Why now? Epigraphs are your good friends. Take a bit of time in the opening pages to emphasize your contribution to the topic or field. Note that the knowledge gap -- “no one has done this, so I will” -- is never enough.
No. 9. The logic of organization in this article is unclear. Katja Thieme, instructor in the department of English language and literatures at UBC, points to the value of “establishing a sense of trust in the project that there isn’t just the big bold argument or claim or question that the article asserts, but also and right away, at the beginning, a clear road map.” If written in a way that is not simply a cataloging of what is to come, the map can lead to the wonderful sense of “aha! I see the logic of where we are going. Let’s go!”
No. 10. Who are you writing for? As Professor Mary Bryson of the department of language and literacy education at UBC notes, “interdisciplinary work by definition needs to imagine and build its own audience.” If you are imagining an audience, imagine out loud.
No. 11. Who are you in conversation with? While your original article is not a place for an extensive literature review, it is a good place to demonstrate what ongoing conversations you are jumping into or scholarship you are building on. This should be a tight page or three, not half the article. Lorraine York, Distinguished University Professor at McMaster University, looks for “a confident sense of intervention” and notes that “in the most successful articles I read, I feel the excitement at joining that conversation and potentially steering it in a fresh direction. At the same time, that previous conversation shouldn’t overshadow the author’s voice.” Self-confidence doesn't mean posturing or arrogance. It does mean that you believe that you have something significant to add. Also, note that textual interlocutors sometimes come to life. There is a chance that your peer reviewers will come out of your own works cited list. Are you being fair in your articulation of their ideas?
No. 12. Clarify your citational practices. Here I ask my three favorite questions: Who speaks for whom? Who listens? Who profits? Sandra Tomc, professor of English at UBC, tells us that “the willingness to cite scholarship is probably most important” in her assessment of articles. If research articles are incursions into continuing conversations in the field, whose voices are being heard? As Bryson reminds us, “cite minority voices.” Look at a variety of perspectives -- don’t just cite the usual suspects.
No. 13. Stop putting other people’s voices ahead of your own, as Paltin says. Avoid name-dropping, particularly theorists. If the work of Jacques Rancière is central to your argument, by all means bring it in. But don’t just cherry-pick a term (“what Rancière calls ‘X’”) without a discussion of where Rancière coined the term, how he uses it and to what end. Is it really worth the necessary space to use the term? If it is, super. Can your voice be heard in the cacophony of theorists?
No. 14. Reader A is concerned that there is not enough critical engagement with existing scholarship on X. Critical engagement is key here, not just citation. The first thing I do when assessing a new submission is to check the works cited and ask how the author has tracked existing scholarship, how up-to-date (all from 20 years ago?) and historically deep (all from last year?) their references are, how extensive their research is (all online? All from one collection?), and how they have entertained a range of views (counterarguments, existing criticism). Then I read to see how in-depth their interaction with the scholarship is.
No. 15. Make room for sustained intellectual and analytical engagement with quoted material. It is the author’s job to take the reader through the implications of the passage/case at hand and to relate it to the developing argument. Don’t be afraid to slow down and dig deep into the primary or secondary material. Your original voice will come through here.
No. 16. Avoid theme spotting. Enough said.
No. 17. This paper is overly ambitious. Your article is not your dissertation in synopsis or a preview of your upcoming book. Significant contributions to scholarship can be minute and still have impact. As Hannah McGregor, assistant professor in publishing at Simon Fraser University, says, “It is fine to grapple with your subject matter and not solve everything.” Polished does not mean closed down. Further, associate professor of English at UBC Robert Rouse notes that, for him, a great article is one that “moves my understanding along.” Really, that’s what we are trying to do: move understanding along. It can be incremental. That’s how knowledge is mobilized in the long run.
No. 18. What do you want your reader to remember the most? (Hint: this is likely your contribution to the field.) Conclusions are not just summaries. At the end of an article, you need to make sure that your reader leaves with a takeaway message/point/question. What brief notes would you make if reading your own article? Again, be honest.
After the Report
No. 19. We won’t be moving forward with your article. The majority of articles receive a decision of revise and resubmit (RR) or rejection. You weren’t turned down, your paper was. Try not to take it personally.
No. 20. Both readers have given you detailed and careful feedback. Contrary to popular belief about the dreaded Reader B, in my experience the vast majority of peer-review reports are sent with the intention of moving scholarship along. I wish more people could see the effort and generous spirit many colleagues put into their reports, reports that are often only viewed by the editor and the writer. Sharing this generosity is actually the best part of being an editor.
No. 21. You are welcome to request that your article not go back to Reader B upon resubmission. My previous point notwithstanding, not all readers are wonderful. If you don’t think the reader gets your article or is unfair, feel free to request not to send it back to them.
No. 22. Take the readers’ reports as advice. Reports are advice to the author, not nonnegotiable instructions. Peer readers are well-qualified experts, to be sure, but they have spent hours with the work that you have spent months or years on. Mainly, they are signaling places of confusion, contradiction, omission or points that need clarification or elaboration. Do not completely rewrite according to the recommendations of a single report and in the process lose your own voice. Your name is on the article, not the name of the anonymous reviewer. You have to stand by it.
No. 23. Let me know what you’ve done. Upon resubmission, if RR, I recommend including a letter to the editor noting the changes you have made, listing the suggestions you have taken up and explaining the ones you have chosen not to engage.
No. 24. Why didn’t you read the peer reviewers' recommendations? If a reviewer suggests reading something, you must read it. The recommendation signals that they think you are missing a key part of the conversation. You have to listen. If it doesn’t fit, then let the editor know in the revisions explanation letter. More articles get rejected on the second round by the original reader with the comment that “they didn’t even bother to follow up on my recommendations and the holes are still there” than with any other comment.
No. 25. Onward! Everything we do is a work in progress. If your article is accepted, you still have to work with the editor to polish and tighten it. This will take many hours. If it is RR, then breathe deeply and dig in to the reports. If rejected, read the reports and try to find the valuable suggestions for improvement before submitting elsewhere. Early in my career, I put an article in a drawer after a stinging decision and time passed. It is still not published, and I regret that. If your paper is rejected, take it as a sign that the article is not ready yet, and don’t give up.