I have been writing academic papers for more decades than I care to admit, and I have had more than my share of success if you define success as getting papers accepted in peer-reviewed journals. People sometimes ask me for advice about publishing their work. That has me reflecting on what I see as the secret to successful academic writing.
Professors who work in research-focused universities are under tremendous pressure to publish in peer-reviewed outlets in their fields. A professor’s job is to not only teach students about their discipline, but to contribute to that discipline. Most of what professors teach is the byproduct of their own and others’ scholarly writing. Further, there is pressure to publish in the most prestigious peer-reviewed journals, such as those on the Financial Times Top 50 list for business school faculty. Because there are a limited number of these “top-tier” journals, competition to get one’s work accepted is fierce. In my field, top journals accept only 5-6% of papers that are submitted for publication after peer review.
The Secret to Successful Academic Writing
Writing an academic article is largely about story telling. The elements that make for a good piece of fiction can be found in a good piece of academic writing. When I write a scientific report about our research, I begin the paper by introducing the characters (variables) and then tell the story of how the characters (variables) interact. This often means weaving a tale of how I think events unfold over time and why. I establish the backstory (theoretical framework) and tell the story of the study that we conducted. When I write, in my mind I am telling a story. I want it to be logically organized and to flow from sentence to sentence and paragraph to paragraph. The words set a pace that should keep the reader’s interest.
The Five Cs of Academic Writing
There are five elements to your story that need to be kept in mind as you write. Your story should be:
- Coherent: I good story is clear and easy to follow. It does not get bogged down in unnecessary and tangential side-tours that do not advance the story. It is important to get the organization right so there is a logical flow. This can be challenging as some stories are about complex things with many elements. Good writers figure out the best way to organize complex elements that typically build from simple to complex in a logical way that is not confusing. Advice from my college creative writing professor was that elements should not come out of nowhere. He noted that if your character takes a gun out of a desk drawer to shoot someone in Chapter 4, you should have put that gun in the drawer in Chapter 2. I see this often violated in research reports where the analysis described in the Results section does not follow the story told in the Introduction section. Suddenly there is a model tested or a control variable included that was not previously mentioned.
- Compelling: The opening paragraph needs to make the case that your story is important and will be worth the reader’s time. By the end of that paragraph the reader should know what the story will be about. This is the paragraph I usually spend the most time with because it sets the tone for the remainder of the paper. Once I have the first paragraph down, it is easier to write the story as I know where it is going.
- Concise: Good writing is not overly wordy. It remains lively and to the point so the reader doesn’t get bored and frustrated that it took three paragraphs to make a point that could have been done in one. Be respectful of your reader’s time and balance the amount of detail that is needed with keeping the story moving along. Do not use multiple examples where one example is sufficient. Just because you think of it (or wrote it) does not mean it has to be in the final product.
- Convincing: You need to make a convincing case for your arguments. I work in a scientific field where much of what we do in our writing is make claims. I claim, for example, that people who are dissatisfied with their jobs are likely to engage in certain behaviors, such as quit their jobs. To be convincing, I need to support my claim with evidence. I often see articles in which the authors state a claim and then merely add a citation to someone’s work at the end. To me this is not particularly convincing as it does not advance the story by explaining what it is in that cited work that supports the claim.
- Creative: This is the most difficult of the Cs to achieve, but academic fields reward people for proposing novel ideas. The novelty can be in the issue that is addressed or in the method used to address it. I have found that a good approach is to “borrow” an idea from another field or to adapt a concept from one context to another. A textbook editor once told me that the secret to a successful textbook was to be evolutionary not revolutionary. The same holds for writing academic articles—you need to be different enough so it advances the field without being so different that people in the field cannot relate to it.
Academic writing can be competitive and navigating the system of peer-review can be discouraging. Peer reviewers can be harsh in their criticism as their role as gatekeepers is to be sure that published work meets reasonable standards. The secret to successful academic writing is to communicate your research and scholarship in a clear and compelling way to maximize the chance that your peer reviewers will see its value.
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