Writing a Paper for Publication

Because all graduate students are expected to publish papers, The Cain Project offers a Leadership and Professional Development (LPD) workshop on “Writing a Paper for Publication.” Competition in fast-breaking fields means that publication is frequently rushed. Yet it is also true that rapid acceptance by a journal is based both on content and clarity. Since many graduate students read published papers without evaluating them for either content or style, they need help in noticing what goes on in a superior paper. International students may need even more help in learning professional expectations for papers in their field.

Although differences in style and even in argument structure occur from field to field, the workshop offers the following basic advice to help graduate students as they write a paper to submit for publication:

  1. Read several articles in the journal to which you intend to submit your paper. Notice the format and style. Note the relative length of each section. (Too often students spend too many words on background and too few on evidence and discussion.)
  2. Read the journal’s requirements for paper submission. Then follow them precisely or you will be rejected for something you could easily have avoided.
  3. Make certain your abstract summarizes the content of the paper rather than simply saying what the paper is about. Use precise verbs such as analyze, propose, simulate, and extend rather than vague verbs such as study and examine. Make minimal use of is and are, which show equivalence but not action.
  4. Write the Introduction to lure the reader into actually reading it. Consider starting with your finding or recommendation: “We propose…” or “This paper extends…” Then move to background. Power positions for staking your claim are the first sentence, second sentence, or the first sentence of the second paragraph. Avoid putting in details of method and results. End the Introduction with a brief overview of the paper to provide context for what follows.
  5. As you write the body of the paper, you must move beyond a summary of what you did. Keep answering the questions What, Why, How, and With what result. Keep thinking, “I need to explain what we did.” Answering those questions will help you determine the level of detail to include. Your goal is to come across as an enthusiastic researcher explaining your work to an interested reader.
  1. In the Discussion section, summarize your key findings and comment on their significance. Choose active verbs and concrete nouns.
  2. If the journal typically includes a Conclusions section, summarize your findings and briefly indicate the evidence that backs them. You may be able to include possible applications and future work in this section, depending on the journal’s practice.
  3. Evaluate your visuals to see if they are necessary to illustrate and substantiate key points in your argument. Someone looking just at the visuals should be able to understand your complete argument. Then check to make certain you haven’t tried to communicate too much information in a single visual. For example, readers can’t differentiate six different symbols in a small line graph.
  4. Ask other graduate students and a post-doc to evaluate your draft for completeness and clarity. It is easy to leave out assumptions or steps that you are familiar with. Since it is always easier to edit someone else’s work than it is your own, take full advantage of the helpful criticism from others.
  5. Finally, don’t try to edit for everything at once. Edit first for content, looking both for completeness and clarity. Then edit for wordiness, eliminating unnecessary passive voice, for example, and reducing such phrases as “In order to extend” to “To extend.” Check for transitions between and within paragraphs. Then do a sweep for grammatical errors such as subject/verb agreement. Finally, go beyond Spellcheck to verify spelling.
Faculty help most by pointing students to papers that are models not only for content, but also for clear writing. A few minutes spent showing why a particular paper is a good model will benefit students many times in the future. Some faculty, out of frustration or lack of time, do a lot of the editing themselves. The short-term benefit of that approach is increased possibility of acceptance by a journal. However, in many cases those publications form the basis for chapters in a thesis. The clear danger is that, while those students may be technically well trained, they are sent to the job market still woefully inadequate as professional writers. Faculty can help by doing less of the editing and by pointing students to techniques for self-editing.

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Spring Newsletter 2006X
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