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Nothing is more daunting than pressing “send” on your first scholarly articles. It’s even more overwhelming when your institution doesn’t offer any internal support—and you essentially feel alone.
Some scholars are lucky enough to receive help from their faculty development office or work in collaborative mentoring programs, such as the group detailed in this study, but that isn’t the case for many academics. Most work on their articles independently. Some create their own writing groups; others share their work with spouses, partners or friends.
While it’s great to create or join a writing community, those are long-term projects. If you’re pressed for time, here are a few tips for improving your article on your own.
Read your work aloud. You may feel silly announcing headings like “Abstract” or “Literature Review” within earshot of any other people nearby, but this exercise can be incredibly helpful for picking up typos on the page. Your word processor will highlight major errors, such as a missing “u” in “Conclusion,” but its spelling and grammar-check features may miss less obvious mistakes, such as inconsistent verb tenses across sentences.
This is especially important if you’ve changed your citation style in the drafting process. For example, MLA 9 requires the use of present tense when discussing literary works. This advice column run by the MLA Style Center uses the following example: “Othello is a play by Shakespeare.”
APA 7, in contrast, requests the use of the past or present perfect tense when discussing completed works. That example sentence above would need to read, “Othello was a play by Shakespeare.”
Because both versions of this sentence are grammatically correct, your word processor won’t flag it as an error. To catch this kind of inconsistency, you’ll need to rely on your eye—and perhaps your voice, too.
The practice of reading aloud to catch errors has been well vetted, but if you want to learn more, check out this 2022 study in the Journal of Applied Research in Memory and Cognition.
Batch your reference list. Among the scholars I advise, reference lists and bibliographies inspire the most dread. It’s easy to overlook a comma or use italics instead of roman type. Combine these complicated formatting rules with vague feedback from peer reviewers, such as “Reference page needs formatting,” along with short turnaround times, and feeling frustrated often crescendos to feeling overwhelmed.
One way to beat that sense of being overwhelmed is to batch your reference page by citation type. For example, take one afternoon to check only book citations. Check the capitalization, the year, the publisher information and so on, and make sure everything is ordered and formatted correctly.
The easiest way to do this is to split your screen or use multiple monitors. On one side, pull up your reference page. This is where you’ll work. On the other side, put up an example citation, preferably from the citation style website. That makes it easy to see, at a glance, the correct format.
To avoid losing my place as I work, I like to highlight the full reference page to start. Then, as I check each individual citation, I remove the highlighting. That way, I never lose my place, even if I’m pulled away from my desk unexpectedly.
Once you’ve worked your way through the first citation type, take a break. You’ve earned it! Depending on your deadline, that break could be 10 minutes to grab a snack or talk to a colleague, or it could be a full afternoon or day. Either way, look at something else for a bit to give your brain a break.
When that break is over, look at the next citation type, perhaps journal articles. Then look at your websites. Move through each category until you’ve worked through the full bibliography.
Batching like this lets you focus on one set of formatting rules at a time. If you try to move through your reference list alphabetically instead, switching between articles and books and websites, it’s harder to keep track of all those formatting rules. A lot of evidence suggests that human beings aren’t great at multitasking, even at tasks in which they’re otherwise skilled. (See this NPR article about pianist Jacob Frasch for an anecdotal example.)
In other words, keep things simple for your brain, and tackle one type of reference at a time.
Batch your in-text citations, too. While we’re on the topic of multitasking, let’s talk about trying to edit article content and in-text citations at the same time. A study in Cerebrum called the effects of multitasking “multicost”; it can be tough to check for content, spelling and grammar while also confirming the style of your direct quotes and in-text citations.
To lessen this juggling act, consider reading your article once just for in-text citations. On this pass, don’t worry about anything else. Here are a few formatting concerns to consider as you read:
- Do your direct quotes have both opening and closing quotation marks? (Worth noting: your word processor likely won’t notice if one is missing.)
- Have you used “et al.” where appropriate? Does “et al.” have a period after the “l” and not anywhere else?
- Do you have any block quotes? Are they formatted appropriately?
- Does your citation style use parenthetical or superscript citations?
- For parenthetical: Do your in-text citations include the appropriate information? (Author name(s), publication year, publication, page numbers and the like.)
- For superscript: How are they numbered? (Order of appearance, alphabetically or however else.)
Again, this step is particularly important if you’ve changed citation styles in the drafting process. Take your time here.
Tackle tables, figures and formats carefully. Just as journals use different citation styles, they also have various formatting conventions for tables and figures. Those style preferences are easy to overlook, because tables and figures aren’t text and may therefore feel less crucial to your article. But it’s still important to get the formatting right.
The first thing to do? Look at the journal’s submission and manuscript guidelines.
That sounds simple. It may even sound insultingly simple, but in my time organizing university conferences and editing magazines and literary journals, more than half of the submissions I received were about the wrong subject, misaddressed or incorrectly formatted. Some were all three.
Such errors are frequent enough that when the Journal of Manipulative and Physiological Therapeutics published an article on common errors in submissions, it included among its list tables, figures, references and, of course, formatting.
Although nothing can guarantee publication, making a good impression will never hurt. The best way to do so is to find (and follow!) those formatting guidelines. This is especially important with tables and figures, which will be very visibly out of place.
Formatting requirements can be found on each journal’s website, usually in a sidebar or header. The Sport Journal, for example, has an Information for Authors page. There, the editors specify width and height requirements for figures, recommended file types, numbering conventions, and minimum resolution. They ask that all tables and figures be included in their own section at the end of the manuscript, following the references.
While you might expect that formatting requirements differ across disciplines, they can also vary drastically within a single field. In exercise science and sports management, the Sports Innovation Journal at Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis does just that. Unlike The Sport Journal above, the submission page for the Sports Innovation Journal provides fewer guidelines regarding tables and figures—except for one major deviation. They ask for all tables and figures to be embedded within the article text, where the author wants them to appear. The Journal of Science in Sport and Exercise, alternatively, asks for figures to be submitted separately.
The same fluctuations occur in humanities journals as well. American Literary History asks for both high- and low-resolution versions of each figure. The American Studies Journal asks for just one version of each, at the highest dpi possible, sent separately.
These varying requirements mean that formatting is important for authors who are submitting a manuscript that has been previously rejected by another journal. The chance that both the first and second journal will have the same formatting guidelines is nearly zero. You may be tempted to rush the submission process, but it’s worth your time and energy to confirm that your manuscript is aligned with the journal.
In the end, will a peer reviewer reject your research based solely on a dropped quotation mark or erroneous citation? Probably not. But spending a little extra time editing can help you feel better about pressing “send”—knowing that you’ve crossed every t and that your hard work has been presented in the best possible light.