Getting published. It’s an honor for the writer. It contributes to the literature. It’s great for professional development. It’s also a process that, while not terribly complex, does carry with it an element of mystery. Here are seven suggestions offered to take some of the mystery out of getting your writing into print.
1. Consider your motivation. Why do you want to write for publication, anyway? Are you in a job where publications are expected? If you’re like most of us in administrative or student service oriented jobs, getting published is probably not in the job description (and likely not even included in “other duties as assigned!”). So, consider your motivation. Many times we feel the urge to write for publication as a response to an external stimulus. For instance:
- A colleague suggests that a piece we’ve written might make a good article
- A professor writes a nice note at the bottom of a grad school paper we have labored over
- A conference program we have presented is particularly well received
- In the middle of a planning meeting for some project at work, someone says, “You know, somebody oughta write this up!”
While an external stimulus might be necessary to get us started, finishing the job will often require meeting an internal need, one that satisfies us. Like:
- Making an enduring contribution to the literature on a topic we’re passionate about. Conference presentations are a bit ephemeral. You have a handout, people might take a few notes, the session could be taped. A written piece is much more tangible. Another writer can more easily reference it. Plus, you can send it to your Mom!
- Writing as professional development. Organizing ideas for an article that eventually appears in print stretches our abilities and engages our minds in a way that little else does – it can take professional development to a new level. And, it can separate your resume from the rest of the bunch!
2. Write about what you know. This seems obvious, but would-be authors often get stuck at the start. They cannot seem to settle on a topic. What’s implied in Suggestion #1 is explicit here – look for topics in your day-to-day professional activities. If you’re sending significant amounts of time on a particular task or project, there’s very likely a publication or two (or probably ten) that is dying to get your article and publish it.
This just makes sense if you think about it. Many residence life projects are often problem solving in nature, dealing with issues involving students. If you and your staff are wrestling with a problem, you can bet that someone else at another campus is too. The stage is set then for sharing your efforts with others so that they can learn from your experiences. What better way to share than by writing an article for publication? Students are better served as we share our good ideas, and our failures, with each other.
3. Target the publication and understand its needs. There are thousands of outlets for your article – department newsletter, university newspaper, regional association magazine, national association newsmagazine, trade journal, refereed journal, webzine, etc. Each has its own audience, its own style, its own length limits, and its own deadline. More importantly, each publication has a need for articles, particularly yours!
One basic difference between publications concerns editing. Refereed publications, like journals, typically assign manuscripts to two or three editorial board members for what is called a masked review – the identity of the author is unknown to the reviewers and the reviewers are unknown to the author. The reviewers submit comments to the editor who passes them along to the author. On the other hand, the editor of a non-refereed publication handles all of the editing chores usually without the help of a board.
Many authors approach the process of writing and submitting an article as if the publication has some hidden agenda to not print anything. The exact opposite is true. Publications need good articles. Editors of most publications familiar to residence life professionals are hungry for well-written articles on timely, interesting subjects. The trick is to match your topic with their need while writing in the proper style.
Unfortunately, there is no short cut to understanding the needs of various publications. The only way is read them…thoroughly. Another quick hint: Contact the editor and ask her what articles she needs for the next few issues. You will probably get a lengthy list from which you can pick a topic.
4. Once you understand the audience, write for them. As you read various publications, you will begin to get a sense of what they like to print. Consider the extremes.
A refereed journal will be explicit about the proper style – American Psychological Association (APA), Modern Language Association (MLA), Chicago Style. Each journal will list the style it follows and other important information on a page typically called “Guidelines for Authors.” While style manuals are available in the reference sections of most libraries, the easiest way to learn how to write in the proper style is to use an article from the journal you’re targeting as a guide.
A journal will also expect a thoroughly researched piece of work with citations to support the research. Long sentences, complex paragraphs, and specific language are usually needed to express the sophisticated ideas that are expected. Often the piece will go through numerous drafts and will be reviewed by several members of the editorial board along the way. The process can take a year to 18 months. That’s OK, because the journal may only publish four times a year.
On the other hand, a professional association’s newsmagazine probably publishes once a month. Its articles are shorter, written with a more active style with compact sentences and simpler paragraphs. The style is more journalistic, designed for readers with limited time and a need to get the major points right away. The time between submission and publication is much shorter as is the sensitivity to deadline. Editing is relatively quick and painless if it happens at all.
Journals and newsmagazines are but two examples of the variety of publications designed to meet the needs of vastly divergent audiences. Different audiences lead to differing expectations for manuscripts. An effective writer understands the differing needs of specific publications and writes for their specific audiences.
5. Submit a polished, completed article. Nothing drives an editor closer to the brink than receiving an article that reads like a first draft from an author who has apparently never read the publication prior to submitting the piece. Occasionally, authors will attempt to use a publication’s editorial review process as a way to turn their mess of straw into a cache of gold. The problem here is that, as in alchemy, the process is likely to yield more disappointment than satisfaction.
Editors of refereed publications review articles before sending them to the editorial board. Manuscripts that will clearly need a lot of work will be sent back to the author rather than on to the board. If the manuscript is particularly needy, the editor may suggest that the piece be sent to another publication. At worst, the manuscript will be rejected without comment. The disappointment here is that your promising idea gets sidetracked for want of a little additional effort.
Departmental newsletters and association newsmagazines, because they spend a little less time on the editing process, can produce a result even more risky for the author of an unpolished manuscript. What if it gets published anyway? If the reader is left wondering how in the world the piece ever made it into print, the publication and the author share responsibility. The publication can redeem itself with the next issue. The author may not have another opportunity.
Use all of your resources to get your article into the best shape possible before submitting it. Show it to colleagues. Let your supervisor read it. Read it to your spouse or significant other. Read the piece out loud and listen for awkward phrasing. There is a lyrical component to writing that often can often only be discerned by reading aloud. Consider the feedback you receive and use it to improve your manuscript.
6. Pay attention to feedback from the editor and follow the suggestions. Editorial feedback is a given with refereed publications and is likely from a non-refereed publication with a wide audience. The rule here is straightforward: If the editor takes the time to provide you with specific suggestions on your article, follow them to the letter. If an additional reference is needed, provide it. If an alternative paragraph construction is suggested, incorporate it. If something is unclear, contact the editor to try and understand what you’re being asked to do.
If you do differ with the editor, have some perspective on the issues you raise. Nothing is gained by entering into a protracted argument with the editor over marginalia. Remember that the goal is to get the article into print, not win a TKO on some obscure editorial point.
7. Meet the deadline. The quickest route to a Post It on your card in the editor’s rolodex or a spot at the top of the e-mail nickname directory is to meet (or beat) an agreed upon deadline for an article with a well-written piece that needs little extra work. Understand that there is usually some flexibility on a deadline; it is a rare editor that doesn’t build in an extra day or two. Taking advantage of that flexibility, however, will raise a red flag and make it less likely that you will be asked to submit anything else.
If you can’t meet the deadline, at least let the editor know. If you need some extra time, you can often get it. But you have to give the editor enough lead-time to make the decision.
Is there really any mystery to getting published? Although there are no guarantees and no foolproof recipe for landing an article in the publication of your choice, using these seven suggestions and staying flexible can greatly improve your chances of seeing your words in print.
Submitted by Dr. Dale R. Tampke, Director of Assessment, Ohio University