It’s disheartening, going through the toils of writing your research into a paper and having fellow authors, supervisors and journals demand major revisions. It can takes months to account for those corrections, and still end in rejection. It stirs up serious impostor syndrome. We’re told overcoming this leads to being a better writer, something every academic strives for when published papers are the knife to our bread and butter. Therefore, my latest failure felt like a requisite opportunity to list what I’ve learnt:
Pick your journal early: This allows me to read papers from that journal to gauge the writing style, assess the lengths of different sections, see how much detail they expect, and mimic it. Therefore, be judicious about your journal selection, submitting to one which has an ethos and audience that aligns with your work lest you be told you research “is not very interesting to our journal audience”. It can be resourceful to look at the journals that have published the papers of your literature review.
Have a fancy title: I’ve been accused of having “inaccurate” and “vague” titles of “inordinate length”, thus my less than catchy blog post titles. Try something short that still details exactly what your research is about. Be aware whether your research qualifies as a study, demonstration, case analysis, illustration or some other subtype, and state this blatantly.
Careful with language: Avoid strong and causal language, such as “most”, “best”, “resulting in”, “due to”, “because of”, even with robust evidence to back it up. Words that tilt even slightly towards the realm of technical should be elaborated on to show you have the audience in mind. In my case these were “users in coproduction”, “cultural validation” and “false positive scores”.
Justify absolutely everything: I once stated participants were given 24 hours to decide if they wished to participate and was asked “Why 24 hours?” In one introduction I’d referred to how certain assessments produce inadequate results and was asked to define “adequate”. Even if reciting globally renowned facts don’t assume it’s universal consensus. Everything requires references and it’s better to over justify than under. Journals can always suggest toning down on evidence later.
Methods wrought with details: Define your methods and its individual elements, especially when using nonstandard or relatively new methods. I utilised cognitive interviewing and was asked to provide a description on what it was and why it was the preferred method of choice over the options available. It’s also helpful to provide a line or two on the authors’ backgrounds to show how they match to your sample or are qualified to conduct the research.
Cautiously present data: When I selected extracts from the transcripts of 25 participants to report results I chose the most descriptive and fascinating ones, without realising they only spanned across 9 participants. This looks incredibly biased. I also once stated my sample was representative of my target population because I’d covered a range of ages and educational backgrounds, evenly across gender. But unless I could quote population statistics and match my sample to them, the word ‘representative’ should never have left my keyboard. I’m also conservative with tables- they’re useful when summarising but if information can be confined to an easy to read paragraph they may not be needed.
I hate Discussions: I technically know what a sufficient discussion entails- reiterating the meaning of your results and its implications. Yet, I remain atrocious at them. So I try to think of it as writing what you did, what you’re glad you did, what you wish you didn’t, and what you can do next: summary, strengths, limitations, future directions.
It’s not you, it’s your research: Journals are not solely critiquing your writing. My rejection acknowledged a “well written” manuscript that highlighted flaws in the methods, which is harsh to come to terms with, since it’s easier to write a manuscript than rerun a project. Maybe you go back to the drawing board. Maybe you store away this critique to inform how you design and conduct research in future.
Defend yourself: As omnipotent as we assume reviewers are they may question what you’ve already answered within your manuscript. Be prepared to fight…by writing “a sternly worded letter”. Prepare covering letters to accompany resubmissions, taking reviewers’ comments and providing an explanation, supplementing with manuscript extracts that answer their questions. When one reviewer said “the reason to do this is unclear” in reference to my work, I quoted a huge paragraph from my manuscript that explained the reasons for doing the review. This, happily enough, is the paper that got accepted!
Back to basics: I got called out for placing a semi colon instead of a colon before a list- minor error. I also forgot to include the references cited in a table- major error. Either way, proofread for spelling, grammar, citations and references. Don’t be afraid to reread papers or books on writing style, and read high ranking published papers in general to get that grey matter in tune with academic writing.
Or join me while I book myself on yet another “Introduction to Academic Writing” workshop.