Avoiding some early errors in academic writing

By chance, I’ve done a lot of mentoring lately about academic writing. Earlier I posted about rejection. This post is just a collection of random n00b-type things that I’ve found myself explaining to students a lot. Now I can just direct them here bwahaha

Disclaimer: My experience with academic writing and publishing is primarily within applied social science journals related to public health, social work, medicine, psychology, systems science, disability, and engineering. I can’t speak to how to write an effective paper in other fields such as philosophy or the humanities.

I. Pick a journal before you start

Before you start writing, the single most important step to take is to pick your journal. DO NOT just sit down to write something. Every journal has specific types of articles they will take, specific formats for those articles, and a specific scope or spin that they are interested in publishing. Not only will this give a structure to work within which makes things easier, it will save you time because you will not need to rewrite the article after you pick the journal.

To consider when picking a journal:

  • Where do you want the paper to be published?
  • Who do you want to have read it?
  • Where do you think it will have the most influence / do the most good?
  • Which journal scopes fit your aims?
  • Which journals publish the type of paper you want to write?
  • Which journals publish papers on the type of research you have conducted or the type of methods you have used?

Pick the highest impact journal that you have a chance of getting into.

II. Understanding an article type and writing to its format.

After you pick a journal, look at what that journal lists for article types. Find the one that matches what you want to write, and then read the instructions very carefully. For the journal Autism in Aduthood (AIA) which I edit for, these appear in a table under the heading “Manuscript Types and Word Limits.” AIA includes short descriptions of each article type and word limits in the table. After the table, AIA provides highly detailed specific instructions for each paper type, including specific internal structures. Many journals provide this information in their “For Authors” sections. If you are not sure which article type would fit what you’re interested in writing, it’s okay to contact the editor and ask.

After you pick an article type, go to the currently published issues of the journal and read other articles of that same type. That will help show what, exactly, the editors mean and are looking for in those types of articles. Again, you can also contact the editor for clarification if the examples don’t help.

III. Academic writing style

A. Don’t use clichés and colloquialisms. For example, “paint a picture” or “It can be seen…”

B. Don’t use language that makes assumptions about the reader. For example, “clearly,” “obviously,” “easily,” “it stands to reason,” etc.

C. Don’t use overly complex language, which can obscure meaning or hide clarity. Bigger words are not always better words. Flowery language will also steal from the word count you will desperately need to report your work and makes your points, and it make the paper hard to read. (Disclaimer again: some fields may be more agreeable to flowery, complex language–applied social science and health literature is typically not).

D. Do not under-state or over-state things with your use of language. Own your own work with strong verbs. “We did this” not “We attempted this.” Do not make strong statements about the world without a citation. “All people do this.” Really? ALL of them? You know this how? “Most people” is a much more accurate statement unless you have a citation that backs up the strength of the statement. Likewise, your findings, though they may be powerful and compelling, are never absolute because science is not absolute. And there are limitations to every study. Unless it’s a mathematical proof, the findings are never “This proves that people…” but “This shows that people like those in our study…”

E. Write in active voice unless the journal explicitly instructs you not to. Passive voice obscures the actor, and makes things harder and more boring to read. DON’T say, “The interviews were conducted.” DO say, “Our research assistant, who is also a member of the community, conducted the interviews.” See how much more important information is given in the active voice! Using active voice does not “bias” the science; it gives greater transparency to the science.

IV. Writing for an academic audience

A. Know your audience. In the case of AIA one is writing to autism researchers. The audience knows basic research methods, they are used to reading academic papers, and they expect particular structures to those papers. They know what autism is and, while they may not have a nuanced view of it from inside, they understand its nuances better than researchers from other fields. Some of readers may be autistic themselves. Some may be autistic-rights and strengths oriented. Some may be heavily medical-model. They are interested in learning something new in the field of autism and adulthood, with which they are already familiar. This will greatly influence choices about where to spend time explaining things in the paper. Other journals will have other audiences–if I’m writing for a systems science journal I may need to spend more time describing what autism is than if I’m writing for AIA, but for AIA I will need to spend more time explaining systems science concepts.

B. There is a difference between writing for teachers and writing for academic journals. When you write for teachers, you need to prove your knowledge–you’re trying to demonstrate that you learned the things they wanted you to learn. When you write for an academic journal, you can assume that your audience already believes you know what you are talking about, and is already familiar with basic research methods and ideas. For example, we all know the implications of a convenience sample on the generalizability of a study. It doesn’t need to be explained. You just need to say, “we used a small convenience sample” and the reader goes oh, okay, results could be different in a large, random, population-based study where people who have no interest in the topic are participating. The places to spend word count and provide deeper explanations are novel ideas. For example, my study on autistic burnout had to spend extra time discussing what that term was and why we were studying it as it previously was not represented in the literature.

IV. Use outlines and standard structures. Seasoned readers expect certain structures. It helps us more easily read and absorb the meat of the article. Some paper types have pretty consistent structures no matter what journal they’re for, like original research papers or reviews (maybe I’ll post those structures later). Other academic paper types, including theoretical papers, are a bit more fluid but not tons. Most start with necessary background to understand why the topic of the paper is important and why the work reported on in the paper needed to be done (gaps in the current state of the science), then they get at the meat of the new work that’s being reported on, and then conclude with a summary of what was learned followed by an in-depth look at how it changes the state of the science. AIA’s Insight pieces are an exception, and, as more literary works, do not have a set structure. Use structure to make your writing process easier, and also to increase your chance that the journal will be interested in the paper. We want to see novel findings and ideas, not experimental writing (tho that may not be true of a literary journal–or of our Insight pieces!–but knowing the usual rules will help you know when and where to break them).

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