"If the smartest person in the world cannot learn to write,
then she won’t be a successful academic. Period."
Look HERE for help with publishing articles. This page is about publishing in general.
6 lessons from a prolific academic author
If you haven't yet published, then convincing a journal to accept your article might feel as impossible as discovering a new continent. You can float around in uncharted seas all day long, but how do you actually make that terra incognita materialize on the horizon?
To demystify the process of getting a paper into a top journal, we spoke with Jeffrey Bilbro, Ph.D. Before Jeff became Assistant Professor of English at Spring Arbor University, he racked up more publications than probably any other graduate student in human history: seventeen, most of them in his field’s top journals. Here are six lessons we learned from Jeff.
1. Take yourself seriously
Starting today, approach your research and writing just like a top scholar in your field would do. Hunt down obscure manuscripts, get archivists on your good side, model your essays on those in the journals where you want to publish, and submit your articles persistently and methodically. It’s never too soon to take this approach; Jeff published the very first paper he wrote in grad school. For another paper, on the poet Phyllis Wheatley, Jeff located some unpublished letters in a British library and had them sent to him—at a cost of about 40 pounds. When Jeff’s article was published in a respected journal, an established scholar who was working on a Wheatley biography contacted Jeff because he, the biographer, had not yet seen the letters Jeff used. The two had an extended email exchange.
Jeff credits the book They Say, I Say, which he read as an undergraduate, with showing him “how to frame my arguments as significant entries into [a particular] scholarly conversation.” This is, he says, crucial for publishing “because you have to convince your reader that what you’re saying is really important and make it interesting to them.” This means working “really hard on my intro and my frame,” and setting up the article as a compelling story.
2. Seek out a writing community
As an undergraduate, Jeff says, he was better at thinking than writing. To improve his writing, he “apprenticed” himself to a respected professor, who took the time to talk through Jeff’s writing with him regularly over the course of several years. In graduate school, Jeff cultivated a similar relationship with the professor who would become his dissertation director. Jeff also worked closely with his fellow grad students, forming a dissertation-writing group with two other doctoral students. The three regularly read and discussed each other’s work, and each one of them credits the others with making the process go more efficiently. By writing a lot, and by seeking out experienced writers who would read multiple drafts of his work and discuss it with him in depth, Jeff rapidly improved as a writer during graduate school.
When we point out that so much of his growth as a writer has occurred in community, Jeff replies, “Yes, most of the people who have really influenced my writing haven’t just read one piece and helped me with it; they’ve watched me as a writer over a period of time and made comments and suggestions. I think you learn more from people when they take the time to read multiple things and spend some time with your writing.”
3. Let your writing develop in stages
Jeff describes three different stages that his writing has passed through in recent years. Early in graduate school, he focused on learning how to construct a strong scaffolding for his arguments, starting with an introduction that articulated the rationale for his argument; a brief sketch of where the argument was going to go; and then throughout the paper, strong topic sentences holding the argument together. Jeff moved into a second stage of development when he starting noticing how lively a fellow graduate student’s papers were. “I thought, I want to make my papers enjoyable to read,” Jeff says. He worked on replacing his many “to be” verbs with vivid action verbs, and made other improvements to his style.
What Jeff is working on now is an element of style that, to him, has philosophical significance. “I’ve been reading a lot of David Lyle Jeffrey, who writes a kind of rigorous scholarship but also make references to Humpty Dumpty from Alice in Wonderland, or to nursery rhymes his mom said to him as a child.” Inspired by Jeffrey and others, says Jeff, “I’m working to make my essays more down-to-earth, and to use examples that I might not think are scholarly but that are relevant and interesting and valid.” The effect of this kind of allusion is to show the interconnectedness of things; the device brings high-minded ideas into ordinary life where they belong. Jeff recognizes that scholars in the humanities have a kind of creative freedom that scientists and others might not, but, he suggests, people in these other fields can still stretch themselves to use bolder metaphors and more vivid language.
4. Have a thick skin
Throughout graduate school, Jeff kept an Excel spreadsheet where he listed every single paper as he wrote it. He used the chart to keep track of where and when he had submitted each paper, as well as the status of the submission. “It was a long document because I sent out a lot of things to many, many different journals, and got a lot of rejections,” he says. The spreadsheet helped Jeff to stay motivated in pursuing publication when it would have been tempting to let a rejected paper sit on his desk collecting dust. People admire Jeff’s many publications without always realizing how many rejections he had to withstand along the way.
Jeff reflects on what he learned from the rejections. “My value does not come from what I write or how smart other people think I am,” he says. “I had to keep reminding myself of that, and wear it lightly, so that when I got a rejection it didn’t sting quite so much.” Jeff had to get used to brutal editors’ comments and learn “to discern within what they’re saying what I may be able to learn from, and just discard the rest.” It was hard, because “your personal worth is in some ways connected to your writing.” But in order to keep persisting and not lose momentum with every rejection, he had to master this skill.
5. Embrace serendipity (but be strategic)
“Publication is a sort of whimsical process, and a big part of it is out of my control,” says Jeff. Sometimes, due to idiosyncrasies that you could never predict, one reader will hate your article while another loves it. The first time this happened to Jeff, he says, “I learned that I should be persistent in sending papers out even if they keep getting rejected.”
However, this doesn’t mean sending out your papers at random. Jeff studied the journals in his field to learn which methodologies, formats, and rhetorical moves each journal or editor preferred, and he sent each paper to the journal where he thought it was most likely to find a sympathetic audience. Moreover, he honed an instinct for knowing when to revise a rejected paper before submitting it elsewhere, and when to just submit the same version to a different journal. He says, “It’s usually better to just send it right back out because different reviewers have their own reactions and will ask for different kinds of revisions. And oftentimes, unless the [multiple] reviewers give you the same feedback that you think is actually worthwhile, it’s hard to discern what actually has merit in their comments and what’s just their personal whim.” Jeff concludes, “I think the main things that have led to my publications have been a lot of hard work and a lot of serendipity. There are different editors and different readers, and some hate your work and some like it, so you have to be persistent.”
6. Be authentic
Talking to Jeff, it becomes clear just how much of himself he invests in his scholarship. What motivates him to make this enormous investment of time and energy over a period of years? What makes him feel that this work really matters? Jeff admits that, at first, one of his motivations was fear of not getting a job after grad school. Another motivation, even now, is the undergraduate students he teaches in English courses. “I feel like if I’m going to teach students how to do this, I’d better be sweating in the trenches also. I always bring in examples of the essays I’m working on because I want to prove to my students that I’m interested in this and that it’s a worthwhile activity.”
But Jeff has another, more profound motivation for working so diligently on his scholarship. “I just have these questions that I want to know the answers to. I’m going to bed at night, or doing yard work, and I just can’t get them out of my head.” He explains, “I know on the one hand, it [scholarly research] is really trivial. But they’re interesting questions to me, and I think the process of tracing a question out in a disciplined, methodical way, and getting at least as much of an answer as I can, down on paper—is really satisfying. It’s a really important process. And that’s what I like to teach in my writing classes too.”
For more on publishing, check out these resources:
Our page on writing publishable articles
Theresa Macphail on how to turn your dissertation into a book
The blog PhD2Published, providing "academic writing advice for first-timers"
Pat Thompson on letting go in order to write from your thesis
"In our very first session, Margy was able to understand quickly and in detail a complex subject matter that was foreign to her, simultaneously listen, process and type notes on my responses to her questions, develop an outline for the article that would effectively hook the reader from beginning to end, and highlight the key areas to concentrate on in the exposition of my theme to enable my article to stand out from the crowd."
K.G., Ph.D. from UNC-Chapel Hill