How to Write a Journal Article
Return to the Academic Writing Improvement Centre
So you have completed ground breaking research and you want to share it with the world! Getting published in a prominent academic journal is a great way to go. But this is no easy feat. In fact, it is usually a lesson in persistence, diplomacy, patience—and tolerance for failure. Journal space is prime real estate for academics looking to make a significant contribution within a chosen field. It doesn’t hurt your profile as a recognised authority either. So to get published, you must first get noticed for all the right reasons. Here, we tell you how. Before we get started though, there is a key box you need to tick. What is the conscious rationale backing your desire to get published? Every academic dreams of being in print. But ‘fuzzy’ uncertain reasons for chasing publication will show in your work and decrease your chances. Before getting your article publication-ready, consider these questions first:
- Who is going to be interested in your work?
- What contribution does it make? Original, novel or additional findings are key.
- What does your work tell us that we don’t already know? Perhaps you believe that conventional wisdom is mistaken about a particular subject or requires some serious gap-filling.
- How certain are you of your theories?
If you can confidently answer these questions, your article has a great shot at being publication-worthy. So unlock your publication potential with three keys to success for every part of the process!
Choose the right journal
Never underestimate the power of choosing the right journal! The difference between publication success or failure starts here. You’re certainly spoilt for choice when deciding which journal to pitch your article to. The key is to choose the one that best speaks to your intended audience and represents your work. Your three keys to success here are:
- Audience: Choose a journal whose readers will gain interest and value from what you have to say.
- Reputation: Be sure your target journal is reputable. Clinching publication in a controversial or dodgy journal will put a severe dent in your industry cred. So always hitch your wagon to respected journals.
- Style: Every journal has different style and submission guidelines. So your article must be tailored to match. Be sure your target journal accommodates your chosen style, be it review paper, empirical research or other. Alternatively, tweak your piece to fit your journal’s specific submission requirements.
A final word to the wise: steer clear of journals sporting a high rejection rate. You could be setting yourself up for a disheartening ‘no’ that could have been a ‘yes’ from another journal.
Get savvy about submission
There is tough competition to win publication. Journals have their choice of a wide variety of work. Make your target journal’s submission guidelines your bible for presentation. Then go above and beyond. Prepare your article to stand out from the crowd with word perfection and an airtight pitch. Your three keys to success here are: Cover letter: Editors are time-poor so most will reach straight for your cover letter. Fail to captivate at this point and your actual article won’t even get a look-in. Compile a short yet compelling cover letter highlighting the key points of your work.
Conventions: Academic writing is intensely convention-rich. Staying true to standard and journal-specific presentation principles lends integrity to your work—helping you win editor confidence. Remember, many journals will publish your work online as well as in print. So upholding their particular style guidelines will help your article get noticed. Start by honing a clear and meaningful hypothesis or research question, grounding your article in sound concept. Build on this with a thorough title, abstract and keywords. Bear in mind that your article may spur and be relied upon for further research. So be sure you outline detailed and trustworthy research methods that can be replicated. You know your research inside out now, but your editor and readers are exploring it for the first time. Lead them through your exciting findings with logical flow and cohesive ideas. Give clear analyses, discuss your arguments and results and use tables to help readers understand your concept. Sum everything up in a tightly woven conclusion. This is no place for new evidence but should not merely repeat your results. Give readers a clear indication of the possible research limitations involved. And of course direct them to the potential impact of your findings. Here is where you truly prove a significant contribution to your field.
Compliance: Errors are a glaring deflection of your article quality. They will annoy editors, cost you publication opportunities and do your reputation no favours. So ensure you have used correct referencing format, remained within prescribed word limits and clinched all necessary permissions. A final word to the wise: edit and proofread your article to perfection. A fresh, trained pair of eyes is the best ‘finishing touch’ you could give your work. Ask an academic friend to proofread your work and offer objective feedback. Or engage a professional academic editor—a small investment that can offer great publication advantage.
Making your final cut
Seeking publication can be a cut-throat business, but never plan for rejection. Instead, guard against it when doing your final pre-submission review. Your three keys to success here are:
Content: Journal editors will invest some time in polishing your work for publication if they consider it worthy. But where your work falls short of publisher aims, objectives and standards—you’ve had it. So meticulously cross-reference your article against journal guidelines. Use articles already published within your target journal as a quality benchmark too.
Quality: Make your writing style work hard towards clinching publication. Ruthlessly strip out:
- Confused, ambiguous or vague writing
- Lacklustre or unoriginal focus
- Unsubstantiated or uninformed subject matter
- Confidentiality or ethical breaches
- Unnecessary wordiness or length
Watch out for insufficient statistical analysis, primary research or substance too. Remember, the main attraction of your work for any editor is an original contribution to your field. So while paring back style glitches, take care not to prune substance.
Balance: Every article will carry some level of risk for journal editors. They accept this as part of the publishing territory…to a point. High risk articles have low publication chance. Typical high risk articles are those converted from complex documents such as theses or reports. The sheer labour of customising these documents into journal article format often leaves room for subpar formatting or focus. So go for a low risk article to take your best shot at publication. These are generally linked specifically to your chosen publisher through:
- Being custom written for this particular purpose
- Referencing previous material published
- Engaging in current debates being covered
Revisions & rejections
Submitting your article for publication is an exciting yet nail biting time. Consideration processes vary between journals, though generally four outcomes are possible:
- Desk rejection: this least favourable outcome means your article hasn’t made it to editorial or peer review. You’ll have to heavily edit your manuscript to satisfy your publisher or consider approaching alternative editors
- Conditional acceptance with major revisions: substantial work is needed to achieve publication—but good news. Your target journal feels your basic article premise is sound. You’ll receive helpful recommendations from the editor or peer reviewer to get your work publication-ready
- Conditional acceptance with minor revisions required: you are almost there! All you need to do is take on board editor or reviewer suggestions. Your work should then be accepted at your next attempt
- Accepted without any changes: the holy grail for academic writers! This rarely achieved outcome means you’ve produced publication-ready work at first pop
You are understandably proud of your article. So revisions can be challenging to handle—rejections even more so. Yet both offer valuable feedback that moves you closer to your end goal: publication. Your three keys to success here are:
- Don’t lose heart: First submissions almost always attract heavy revisions—even outright rejection. This absolutely does not mean your work is not of a high quality. Rather, you are on the brink of publication and have some skills to polish first. Keep your end goal in sight and keep working towards it. You’ll get there!
- Use constructive criticism to your advantage: Editor and reviewer comments can be one of your most valuable assets in pursuing publication. Read these over thoroughly and get a firm understanding of what’s being asked for. Revisions can take a while, but every published author goes through this. Follow feedback to the letter and clearly show you’ve incorporated suggestions into your article. Can’t meet a requested change? Give your editor a compelling reason why not—it may be a debate you win.
- Review your options: Sometimes rejection can be a case of ‘it’s not you, it’s them’. Perhaps you targeted the wrong journal and could try submitting to another. Alternatively, your article focus may need tightening up. Or fixing one specific problem could be enough to get your work over the line. Outright rejection is not the end of the story. Persistence and patience pay off in the publication stakes. A final word to the wise: don’t give up. Getting published can be a long and bumpy journey but the destination is well worthwhile. Have confidence in your research and writing, take feedback as support and learn as you go. Every published author has gone through the same process and lived to see their work in print.
Making it into print
Congratulations! If you have persevered, fine-tuned your article and been accepted for publication, the hard work is over. All that’s left for you to do is sit back and see yourself in print and online.