Writing for Successful Publication: Advice from Editors
Henson, Kenneth T., Phi Delta Kappan
Since 1979 I have been holding workshops on writing for publication to help professors prepare manuscripts for journal articles and books. Each year I offer about a dozen such workshops on college campuses across the country. In addition to drawing on my own long experience as an academic writer, I derive much of the information for these workshops from a simple one-page questionnaire that I use to ask journal editors the questions that I think would-be contributors to their journals would most like to ask. The information that appears in Table 1 comes from a mailing to 59 journal editors; 54 of them responded, for a 91.5% rate of return.
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Workshop participants often ask, How do I know to which journals to direct my manuscripts? My answer is really quite simple. I tell them first to decide what goal they wish to achieve and then to choose a journal that matches their goals. Some people write to share their knowledge with as many people as possible; they need to publish in journals with large circulations. Some wish to write for university professors and researchers. These writers should not be writing for journals that are read primarily by practitioners.
The audiences for the journals I surveyed range from as few as 250 to as many as 165,000. Two-thirds of the journals have fewer than 10,000 readers, and most of those have circulations of 5,000 and under. Two-thirds of the contributors to the journals are university personnel.
Nearly all of the journals in my survey publish at least some articles that report on research of some kind. For 20% of the journals, at least 80% of the published articles report on research. Clearly, the inclusion of some research data is an important aspect of most professional articles accepted for publication. However, when writing for journals whose audiences consist largely of practitioners, you should avoid the formal research article format.
The reward systems of some colleges and universities dictate that their faculty members publish in "refereed journals." Since what it means to be a refereed journal varies widely from journal to journal, I have devised a simple three-point scale to reduce the confusion. I assign one point to each of three criteria that I consider important in refereeing. If manuscripts are regularly sent out of the editorial offices for review by peers (or if an editor regularly uses a combination of in-house and field-based review), I assign the journal one point. If the reviewers do not know the name of the author or the institution with which the author is affiliated, I assign the journal one point. If the journal furnishes its reviewers with a rating instrument with which to evaluate manuscripts, I assign the journal one point. The total for each journal is the figure reported in Table I under the heading "Refereed."
Fifty-two percent of the journals in my survey scored a full three points on my refereeing scale; 80% scored at least two points. A full 93% reported some degree of refereed status. Since the previous survey two years ago, three formerly nonrefereed journals have become refereed journals. I should note that merely meeting these criteria does not insure quality. Moreover, an author whose purpose in writing is to pass on practical information might best meet this goal by publishing in a nonrefereed journal that is read by a great many practitioners, while a researcher who wishes to advance the basic knowledge in his or her discipline might better achieve this goal by publishing in a refereed journal with a smaller number of readers who are primarily researchers.
Perhaps the question that aspiring writers ask most frequently is, What is the acceptance rate of a particular journal? Acceptance rates among these journals range from 5% to 90%. Two-thirds of the journals reject at least two-thirds of the manuscripts they receive, and one-fifth reject at least 90%. Still, another one-fifth of the journals I surveyed accept at least half of the manuscripts submitted. …