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Vol 32 No 2, April - June 1994
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Writing an Academic Article: an Editor Writes . . .
by Malcolm Benson

Let us start with the assumption that there is a matter in which you, a classroom teacher of EFL/ESL, have become interested. Perhaps it arose directly from your classroom -- for example, an idea regarding student performance, or a conviction about a teaching method, or just a hunch about a trend you have noted. Perhaps it came from something you read. Whatever its origin, the thought of publishing your idea or describing your work looks attractive; but how to go about it? In this article I would like to open up the world of academic publishing, and try to offer some suggestions for getting your ideas published.

Publishing, one might add, is a way for members of the academic community to share ideas and, in the case of very perceptive writers, possibly contribute something to the world"s store of knowledge. To publish is to engage in a dialogue with unseen and often unknown others; more particularly, it means being willing to discuss matters of interest and importance, drawing on the accumulated knowledge of those who have addressed them in the past, speaking to those who are currently interested, and finally, perhaps, leaving a richer legacy for those who will approach these topics later.

I have been speaking of academic publishing as if our publications all formed a homogeneous world; in reality, however, the variety of publications is enormous. At one end are the top"class international teaching journals that may publish one in ten of the articles they receive; at the other, there are area newsletters whose editors are crying out for almost any material to fill their pages. There are journals restricted to special areas, such as writing, reading, or computer-aided teaching methods. And there are journals that relate more to the so"called "parent" disciplines, such as linguistics, or psychology, or philosophy, while at the same time including articles in the possibly more popular area of language teaching.

So one general piece of advice is to read through enough journals until you narrow the field down to two or three appropriate for your work. With this short list in mind, you might like to consider the following sequence, one that has served authors well in the past.

1. Maintain a Steady Gaze

Contextualize your problem/idea/proposal as accurately asyou can. There is a need to understand where your work stands vis-a-vis the established ideas on the subject. We could call these ideas the "paradigm" in the Kuhnian sense of the word, an accepted model or pattern. And one of the important characteristics of the accepted model or pattern is that under it detailed work (thinking, research, experimentation, etc.) can, and indeed must, take place. Your work is almost certainly part of that detailed exploration, and it is important to be able to see it in relation to the contemporary paradigm, as well as against the historical background.

In our own time communicative teaching is the paradigm, and the historical background takes us back through the audiolingual method, grammar-translation, and so on (Howatt 1984; useful summary in Richards and Rodgers 1986). Can you outline in a few sentences the context of your work? Where does it fit in? Can you tell a nonspecialist what the work is all about? In my experience, these are salutary exercises, but ones that may lead to clearer thinking, and great improvement in a proposed article.

2. Look Behind

Become conversant with the literature. There is a literature for every area, sometimes an enormous one, as in the case of second-language acquisition, but at other times quite restricted, as in the case of video teaching methods. While it may be impractical or simply dull to attempt to read everything, it is to your advantage to be aware of the central works and principal trends in the area, so you are not trying to reinvent the wheel. One of the criteria some editors use for judging an article is how well it covers the existing literature; that is, how aware the writer appears to be of the contemporary language"teaching paradigm, and of the context in which the work has been done.

If, after doing a literature search (and systematically noting down the references in a retrievable form), you are sure that your original problem/idea has not been covered, or has not been covered sufficiently, then you are ready to proceed to the next stage.

3. See Your Way Clear

There are a number of "classic" ways of doing research. These research paradigms mostly have their origins in either the natural sciences or anthropology. Descriptions of them are available from a number of "research" books (e.g., Chaudron 1988; Nunan 1992) that help to clarify one"s approach to a problem/idea. The author"s understanding of the method or approach to be used will inevitably be reflected in the impact of the paper produced. Many journals have a criterion called "methodology, design, or approach," in which they evaluate the extent to which the author has been consistent within the chosen methodology. For example, if you have decided to do research that involves surveying your students or others, have you followed the logic of surveys, and are you aware of their limitations? Have you checked the eight steps (listed in Nunan 1992:141) to be considered when undertaking a survey? This is the kind of thinking that is applied to a paper at the "review" stage (the stage at which journals invite two or more "experts" to evaluate each paper). Whatever your approach, it should be internally consistent; that is, there should be a discernible and authoritative line of development, an appropriate analytical framework, and a resulting set of ideas that the reader can take away from the whole piece.

4. Keep Your Eyes Open

There are also a number of "classic" ways of writing upideas or research. Editors tend to think both in terms of specific types of articles (review articles that bring together ideas or recount the stages in the development of a theory or practice, theoretical articles, "how to" articles, research reports, and state-of-the-art articles), and of particular audiences (academics, classroom teachers, researchers, administrators). It is well to bear in mind this kind of editorial thinking, and to work towards a recognizable format that appeals to a definite audience.

Looking beyond the idea of article types and readership, most journals want papers that appeal to their subscribers or, in the case of an association, to their membership. So this too is one of the criteria for judging an article. For example, in my journal we do not usually publish "heavy" linguistics papers; nor, on the other hand, do we publish "light" thought pieces whose theoretical base is weak or nonexistent. We feel, rightly or wrongly, that those of our readers who want either serious linguistics or light "This Is My Bright Idea" articles are more likely to look elsewhere for them. Most journals publish a statement outlining their particular coverage, and time spent becoming familiar with the "world" of a particular journal is time well spent.

Lastly, don't waste an editors time writing letters that begin "I am thinking of writing an article on such and such, and wonder whether or not it would be acceptable to your journal." Find this kind of thing out for yourself: look in back issues and note what they publish, or ask your colleagues for advice. If you don't find a journal that takes your kind of article, you probably haven't searched enough. A very useful guide is the International Reading Association's Contributor's Guide toPeriodicals in Reading (Doughty 1992), which lists almost 200 journals (not just in reading) to which language teachers might send their contributions.

5. Something for All to See

Get the article written. This sounds simple, but there are a number of points to be mentioned here too. The first is that the major impact of any article lies in the strength of its analysis and interpretation. As one editor has written:

"The facts are organized and examined, not merely enumerated.Concepts or hypotheses are presented that embody the facts andbear the imprint of the author. Difficult concepts are mademanageable. Thoughtful interpretation leads one to a pointedoverview of the subject. Knowledge (a synthesis of information)as well as raw information is imparted. The article issubstantially more than the sum of its sources." (Plotnik1982:28)

Time spent in analyzing the data, looking at the implications of an idea, or checking the practicalities of a new teaching method you have always been dreaming about will immediately communicate itself to editors, and subsequently to readers. So too will the idea of making difficult concepts "manageable." One can readily think of those in the profession whose aim seems to be to complicate, to obfuscate, and ultimately to put their thoughts beyond the reach of all but a few.

This leads to the second point, which is the need for absolute clarity in the writing itself. Editors spend a lot of time prior to publication straightening out convoluted writing. The final irony is when the writer of the convoluted prose subsequently protests about the changes, and demands publication of the original horror with an apology. So, in many journals the "quality of the writing" is one of the criteria for judging a manuscript.

Plotnik (1982) suggests that the aim is to make the article inviting; to intrigue or motivate the reader to continue past the first few lines. The best articles are interesting; they move forward on a succession of facts or ideas clearly presented. There is authority in the writing, and the reader feels that there is a likelihood of learning something. More than one side of an argument is presented, or at least acknowledged, and the reader has an opportunity to evaluate the ideas. Preaching is avoided. Where appropriate, examples, anecdotes, even poetry, irony, and wit can all be made part of the article; there is no prize for being dull, or as mentioned earlier, incomprehensible.

My own pet peeve is the convolution generated by metaphor: More frequently than I care to admit (given that many of us are teaching English) I come across sentences like the following: Classroom interaction is a new field which we must focus on brickby brick. This is only slightly exaggerated from the real, recently received example: This cast-iron analysis has finallycome home to roost.

The third point combines the previous two: Thoughtful analysis expressed in clear language generally leads to a vigorous Conclusion. As a general rule, Conclusions are the weakest parts of the papers editors receive; it is as though all the author's energy had been expended by the time the Conclusion was reached. Yet the Conclusion is what the reader examines most carefully. In a perfect world the Conclusion "leaves one with a sense of solid benefit . . . turns on the inner light." Further, it "opens up new channels of action or understanding" (Plotnik 1982:29). A rule of thumb I use when looking at the Conclusion of an article is reflected in the question: "Would I quote from this if I were writing about the same subject?" If the answer is no, then I find myself wondering whether the article will have sufficient impact.

A fourth point regarding writing is to understand what it means to write in accordance with a style sheet. Almost every journal, and certainly all the major ones, have carefully selected a particular style sheet because it best suits the type of material they publish.(See Footnote 1 ) Some style sheets are more efficient in dealing with historical material, some with scientific material, and so on. The style sheet also gives uniformity and a pleasing appearance to what would otherwise look chaotic on the printed page. More importantly from a long-term point of view, it guarantees that citations in the text are retrievable"for example, that references can be followed up. This is an epistemological function of publishing, enabling future generations to build on earlier work.

Many language-teaching journals use the American Psychological Association (APA 1983) style sheet, and insist that contributors adhere to it. Correct use of the style sheet therefore becomes another of the criteria used in judging an article. The most common mistakes encountered are in the areas of seriation, hyphenation, headings, citations in text, and references. In practice I find that hardly ever is there a perfect match between the references in the text and the references at the back of the paper: I find myself looking for Aitchison on a list that starts with Brown, or looking for Widdowson when the list ends with Vygotsky. Virtually all authors can be guaranteed to spell their own names correctly, and to give correct references for their own earlier works, but after that I know I must cross-check everything. The APA manual offers models that solve about 95% of the problems that occur in writing an article; and editors (a selfless band!) are usually willing to clean up the final few cases.

6. See It Through

Lastly, when the article is finished and you have sent it to the appropriate journal,(see Footnote 2 ) it helps to understand what happensto it at the editorial end. This usually consists of the following: ( a ) a letter of acknowledgment is sent; ( b ) the article (assuming the editor feels there is a fair possibility of its being published) is sent out for blind review; ( c ) a decision is made regarding acceptance, rejection, or, more likely, a qualified acceptance contingent upon the author's willingness to rewrite or in specified ways improve the piece; and ( d ) the submission of an improved draft.

At this point the author is often asked to sign documents turning over the copyright to the journal or its publisher, and is usually given details about free copies, and a tentative publication date. From then on the article is effectively out of the author's hands, though some journals return the proofs for correction. Where this is done, the author has a chance to see the line editing that has taken place; otherwise the author"s next sight of the article is as a finished product.

It is in steps ( c ) and ( d ) that the author is faced with the most difficult part of the writing process: coping with blind reviewers' comments. These often cause great anguish, usually because the criticisms of the article seem so misguided, and the suggestions for rewriting it so ridiculous. Contradictory reviews "one praising and one damning" are also quite common, and leave the writer in a complete dilemma. I can only offer two pieces of advice here. Firstly, there just might be some truth in all those comments and criticisms! As I said at the outset, to publish is to engage in a dialogue with others, and to share ideas with other members of the academic community. That process begins the day you mail your article.

Secondly, my experience as an editor indicates that those writers who persist, who re-work their articles and attempt to grapple with the comments, are the ones who finally get their work published. It may take two or three drafts, but the chances of its being published increase every time. Good work will always find a home, and I hope that this article has encouraged some to feel that they can produce good work too.


  • APA. 1983. Publication manual of the American psychological association. Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association.
  • Chaudron, C. 1988. Second language classrooms: Research on teaching and learning. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Doughty, B. 1992. Contributor"s guide to periodicals in reading. Newark, Del.: International Reading Association.
  • Howatt, A. P. R. 1984. A history of English language teaching. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Nunan, D. 1992. Research methods in language learning. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Plotnik, A. 1982. The elements of editing. London: Collier Macmillan.
  • Richards, J. C. and T. S. Rodgers. 1986. Approaches and methods in language teaching. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Malcolm Benson teaches English at Hiroshima Shudo University in Japan, and is coeditor of the JALT Journal.


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Vol 32 No 2, April - June 1994
Page 6

Footnote 1

    1. The present activity was developed and adapted from a suggestion raised by Tomalin and Stempleski, 1993.

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Footnote 2

    2. The idea of submitting an article to more than one journal at a time is very much frowned upon, and writers are strongly warned against it. Considerable administrative and editorial work goes into every article, and mailing costs have to be borne whether or not an article is eventually published. If an article is then "pulled" from one journal and published in another, a lot of time, money, and energy have been wasted.

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