Writing for a Scholarly Journal

Ronald Sabatelli, Ph.D., Professor and Department Head, Human Development and Family Studies, University of Connecticut, and Editor, Family Relations: Interdisciplinary Journal of Applied Family Studies
NCFR Report
Content Area
Family Science Education

Writing is intimidating to many of us. The anxiety that accompanies the writing process results from the fact that the products of the process are judged. Once what we have written becomes "public," we are forever responsible for the quality of our work. The fact that the acceptance rates of many journals hover around 20% certainly adds to the pressures experienced by those hoping to publish.

The purpose of this essay is to offer advice on how to write for publication. Papers giving advice on how to write articles and how to succeed at publishing, in theory, reduce the anxieties that accompany the writing process. Advice provides information that, in turn, makes the writing process a little less intimidating.

Giving advice is easy. Giving good advice, however, is much more difficult. To give good advice on how to publish requires an understanding of (1) the purposes of research articles, (2) why editors reject research articles, and (3) what authors need to do specifically to increase the chances of having a paper accepted for publication. The purpose of a research paper is, quite simply, to present an investigation and inquiry into a question, answering it with detailed, substantiated information. Research papers pose questions and provide answers. What ultimately appears in a research article is the end product of an investigation that has focused on a specific set of research questions. The articles are written for the "community of scholars" more so than the general public.

Probably most of the papers that fail to be published involve research that is judged by editors and reviewers to be conceptually and/or methodologically underdeveloped. As a result of these "fatal flaws," in either the design or execution of the study, journal editors are left with little choice but to reject the papers. They are rejected, ultimately, because they fail to make a contribution to the extant literature. In other instances, an article might not be published because the authors have failed to include information that is expected within a research article. Alternatively, high quality research may wind up not being published because the article describing the study is not crafted in a way that successfully communicates the importance of the study.

There is little in the way of advice that I can offer here with respect to the first, and most common, reason editors reject a research paper. Once you have conducted a study, you cannot take it back. Graduate programs place considerable emphasis on training students in theory and research because we collectively understand that research needs to be carefully planned, conceptually grounded and methodologically sound in order to be taken as credible.

The later two issues relate to the writing process. These issues, though interrelated, are distinct. There are occasions when a paper is judged poorly because the authors have failed to include all of the information that is conventionally expected to appear in a journal article. For example, a paper that does not include information on the measures used in the study will not be published. This is, in other words, a "technical problem" in the sense that the authors fail to have a grasp of what information a research article should include.

Of course this happens, but only rarely. All graduate programs provide training on how to structure research articles. Furthermore, numerous articles exist, many of them on the web, providing advice to authors on how to write a research article. Many of these articles are written by distinguished professors from the physical, social, and natural sciences. The bottom line here is that if a research article does not contain the requisite information, it will not be published. And for those who have doubts about what information to include in a paper (from the abstract to the references), there are many sources of information that address this issue (if you don't believe me, simply enter the term "how to write a research article" into a search engine and plan to spend several hours checking out websites).

Within this essay, I am choosing to focus on the third reason listed for why editors might pass on an article submitted to a journal - the issue revolving around how the articles are written. I unequivocally believe that a subset of high quality studies go unnoticed because the papers describing them fail to do justice to the quality of the work. This is not about the authors failing to understand what information to include in a research paper. Instead, it is about the ways in which the substantive content included in the paper is composed. The authors understand, in other words, the information that should be included in a paper, but write in ways that fail to communicate, effectively and persuasively, the importance of the content.

So the focus of my article is mostly on the process of writing. I must admit to being anxious about taking on this task because I do not see myself as qualified to provide advice on the "art" of writing - I have no formal training in how to teach writing. It certainly would be easier for me to provide advice on what content to include in an article (e.g., make sure you include an abstract; be sure that the discussion of your research does not expand beyond the scope of what you have studied). Providing guidance on the "craft" of writing for professional audiences is a much more daunting task.

Form follows function

Most of us within the social sciences have encountered the phrase "form follows function." This phrase derives from the field of architecture and is attributed to Louis Sullivan who wrote in 1896 that "... the pervading law of all things organic and inorganic, of all things physical and metaphysical, of all things human and all things superhuman, of all true manifestations of the head, of the heart, of the soul, that the life is recognizable in its expression, that form ever follows function. This is the law."

Sullivan's "law" calls attention to the presence of a dynamic tension between function and form in the sense that function manifests itself in form and form must support function. Over the years, this term has been used by social scientists from various disciplines. Structure/Functional theorists, for example, assert that the form and organization of family roles and responsibilities follows from the functions that the family serves for society. There are communication scientists who contend that different interpersonal orientations are behind the differences observed in the conversational styles of men and women. Communication serves different functions for men when compared to women resulting in men and women employing different approaches to conversations.

While I do not endorse Sullivan's "law" as axiomatic, I do think that the interplay between form and function is meaningful when applied to professional writing. The dynamic tension between form and function when applied to professional writing draws attention to the functions that the papers serve for authors and professional organizations. These functions manifest themselves in a set of expectations for the structure, form, and organization of a paper. That is, in some fundamental way, I believe it is useful for authors to consider how the form, organization, design, and structure of a paper must follow from the function of the paper. The content of a paper, the way it is framed and the style and form in which it is written, needs to be responsive, as well, to the function of the paper.

If the form of a paper follows from the functions of the paper, then it is important to reflect on the constellation of functions served by journal articles. For authors, the more prominent and common of these functions include:

Functions of research papers for authors:

  • gain recognition
  • impress others
  • fulfill the requirements of a doctoral program
  • get tenure
  • get promoted
  • increase merit awards
  • promote values
  • influence the field
  • expand the base of knowledge
  • contribute to the discourse

Each of the functions is legitimate and related to why authors invest their time, energy, and money in conducting research and writing papers for publication. Papers need to be written in ways that enable their authors to benefit from the research they have conducted.

Papers serve functions for professional organizations and publishers as well. Included among the possible functions of research articles from the perspective of publishers and professional organizations are the following:

Functions of research articles for professional organizations and publishers:

  • generate revenue for the publishing company
  • generate revenue for professional organizations
  • enhance the visibility of the professional organization
  • enhance the standing of the journal
  • promote values
  • expand the base of knowledge
  • contribute to the discourse

It is reasonable to assume that in order for articles to be accepted for publication they would have to be responsive to the functions that research articles serve for publishers and professional organizations. To this end, journals and the articles published within them participate in the process of constructing knowledge. Without engaging in a long and distracted debate on the "nature of knowledge," I feel comfortable asserting that knowledge is fluid, emergent, and dynamic in nature. It is transmitted through discourse. The discourse is the ongoing conversation that goes on between those who have a stake in advancing the knowledge base. The dialogue that occurs among experts, for example, as they publish their findings in the professional journals, becomes one of the bases for the ongoing evolution of knowledge. Writing and publishing are ways of participating in the discourse.

Writing as a form of communication

Because publications influence how knowledge evolves over time, authors of research articles need to write in ways that provides them with entry into the discourse. To do so requires the ability to communicate with others. Articles, to be successful, must engage others in a dialogue. As such, gaining recognition and impressing others, for example, or promoting ourselves as knowledgeable and important, only comes about as a result of our successfully engaging the "community of scholars" in a dialogue that involves our work. The entry into the dialogue is our publications. If we want to participate in the dialogue, we need to figure out how to publish. To publish, we need to figure out how to communicate through our professional writing with others.

Communication, in its most basic form, involves the exchange of information in the form of messages. Messages are the foundation of the communication process. Research papers, if we accept that their primary function is to engage in the dialogue that frames the ongoing discourse related to the construction of knowledge, must be built upon a constellation of carefully constructed messages. This constellation of messages drives the form and organization of the paper. Everything, in other words, that is written within a paper is done so with a purpose. Everything that is written is strategically designed to deliver the message of the paper. How we craft our messages is the key to our success.

Put another way, the primary purpose of all research articles is the communication of messages and information done so in a way that engages others in a discussion of the nature and limits of knowledge within the particular realm that we are focusing on. A successful research article transmits information to readers in ways that demonstrate our grounding within our field of study and how our research expands this base of knowledge. All successful papers deliver this set of messages. They communicate these messages in ways that are engaging, understandable, and respectful. When this is done well, others gladly enter into the conversation.

Communication guidelines for authors

To my way of thinking, advice about how to publish becomes advice about how to communicate through our writing. What follows is a list of "communication guidelines" offered in the spirit of promoting further discussion about how to succeed at publishing. The ideas expressed here are formative in nature and will, thus, evolve over time.

Understand the functions of professional journals

It is imperative that authors understand that the overarching function of the journals is "contributing to the discourse." If authors make the mistake of thinking first and foremost that the journals are simply outlets for their work, they are creating a possible barrier to their papers being published. In other words, research is not about the researcher, as far as the journal is concerned, but about the discourse. Sure, getting papers published serves a whole set of functions for the authors and is necessary for them to be tenured, promoted and professionally respected. However, successful authors understand that the journals function as the gatekeepers of the information that frames the ongoing discourse. Hence, these successful authors understand that it is necessary to position their works within the ongoing discourse.

Know the message of your research in relationship to the discourse

Understanding that the journals moderate the discourse means it is important for authors to communicate how their research contributes to the ever-evolving discourse. Authors might find it useful, in this regard, to make a list of the key messages they intend to deliver through the authorship of the paper. Doing so should help to structure the form and organization of the paper. It might be useful, as well, before writing a paper, to have constructed a tightly structured answer to the following question - namely, "in what ways does your research contribute to the discourse?"

Organize every section of the paper around the message of the research

The messages and their connection to the ongoing discourse should drive the form and organization of the paper. It is useful, in this regard, to frame the paper as a form of intentional communication - meaning that every aspect of a paper, from its abstract to its conclusions, should be written with these intended messages in mind. Readers need to know the goals and objectives of the research right from the beginning. They need to know why the research is important, from historical and contemporary perspectives, right from the outset of the paper.

Put another way, authors need to concentrate single-mindedly on the messages they wish to deliver within the paper and why this constellation of messages is important. Messages and information are the cornerstones of the paper. Be thoughtful about the messages. Write in a way that stays on message.

While this sounds simple and straightforward, it is difficult to do. Authors must fight the temptation to focus on details and information that distract the readers from the message of the paper. Of course papers need to include details, but the point here is that the message has to precede and frame the discussion of the details. Think of it this way; which comes first, the message being conveyed or the details of the study? Conveying the objectives and focus of the paper, conveying what the paper addresses and why it is important, has to come first. Once the readers understand the issues and are engaged in the conversation, they can follow the details. And, even if the readers wind up skipping some of the details (like when they only read the introductory and discussion sections of the paper) they still may take something of value away from the paper.

Mistakes made by authors in this regard include "hiding" the goals and objectives of their study until the 4th or 5th pages of the paper. Who wants to read 4 or 5 pages not knowing what the study is about and why the study is important?

Authors also often get bogged down in details that detract from their message. For example, every paper must cite past research and authors need to discuss the theoretical foundation of their research. However, it is not uncommon for authors to lose sight of the fact that their discussion of theory and their discussion of past research is part of the message of the paper. They bury readers in the description and details of past work. They show off their grasp of knowledge by citing the history of the work in this area. They provide overviews of theories that have nothing to do with their research. Such practices wind up boring the readers because the information does not remain congruent with the messages driving the paper.

Another mistake commonly made is not connecting the methods section of the paper to the message of the research. Authors should explicitly link the description of the sample, the description of the data collection procedures employed, and the discussion of the measures to the goals and objectives of their study. Make it clear that sampling was done with the goals and objectives of the study in mind. The same applies to the ways in which the measures are described within the study.

The bottom line here is that today's world abounds with information. All areas and disciplines of life overflow with written and visual data. New scientific knowledge is reported monthly by hundreds of journals containing dozens of papers in each. This being the case, readers of the journals will be very selective about what they read and what information they respond to. The quality of the rationale for the study, the framing of the messages of the study, and demonstrating that the methods employed thoughtfully relate to the questions addressed in the research is what gains you entry into the discourse.

Be mindful and respectful of the expectations of the gatekeepers

It may be useful to think of how editors and prospective authors occupy co-dependent positions. The quality of the relationship between these "actors" is tied to how each meets or exceeds the expectations of the other. Editors, in this regard, are responsible for managing the review process in a way that respects the professional needs and expectations of the authors. Authors have rights, and these rights manifest themselves in the responsibilities of the editors.

Concomitantly, editors have expectations to which authors need to be responsive. The expectations of the editors manifest themselves in the responsibilities of the authors. When authors fail to meet these expectations, the relationship between the editors and authors may be strained. It is not a good idea to ignore the expectations of the gatekeepers.

For example, every journal has guidelines for how articles are to be prepared for submission. It is amazing to me how often authors appear to fail to consult these guidelines! If a journal requires that papers not exceed a certain length, it is wise to hold a submission to that length or contact the editor in advance to discuss the feasibility of exceeding the page limit. If authors fail to format tables or references properly, for example, these omissions will make more work for the editorial team. Authors want to avoid actions that, whether intended or not, communicate a lack of respect for the rights of the editors.

It is, as well, the responsibility of authors to be certain of the accuracy of the information included in their papers. It does not bode well for a paper if the reviewers or editors notice, for example, that the information attributed to a study referenced in the paper is inaccurate. This is particularly true when one of the reviewers or the editor conducted the study. I think these kinds of errors occur when authors rely on secondary sources for information that they then cite as a primary source. The bottom line here is that authors lose credibility as participants in the discourse if they do not get their facts right.

Don't rush the process, and be patient with the process

People who write for a living understand that the process cannot be rushed. If your goal is to produce high quality work, you need to review your work, revise your work and invite others to comment on your work. Through these processes, your work will get better.

It is also important to be patient with the process - meaning that the overwhelming majority of articles submitted for publication will require revision. In this regard, I think it is important to listen to your reviewers and respect their critique of your work. To be successful in the business of publishing, you need to take advantage of every opportunity you get to make your work better. The review process is designed to help you improve your work. If you are to be successful, you must manage the anxiety that accompanies the process of being critiqued and reviewed. You do not have to agree with others on every point they make - often reviewers get things wrong. You need to look at the reviews, however, as an opportunity to clarify what you have written and improve the quality of your entry into the discourse.

Be direct and succinct

The last of "communication guidelines" revolves around the need for authors to write with communication as their goal - therefore the form of the writing needs to be direct, succinct and understandable. Because papers are being prepared for publication, and because researchers are judged on the quality of their work, authors of journal articles have been known, on occasion, to go down the path of creating elegant but unintelligible sentences. If the main purpose of writing is to engage others in conversation, this style of writing serves as a barrier to the accomplishment of this goal.

To this end, I am fond of encouraging the students I have worked with to write as if they are talking to their friends about their research rather than writing a paper for publication. This is my way of encouraging individuals to find a conversational voice in their writing. Most of us, when we talk with others about our research, are able to communicate the messages that we want to communicate. We talk directly and persuasively about why the research is important. We talk directly about the findings of our studies and the implications of them. When we speak with others about our work, we understand that it is important to develop a conversational style that holds the interests of the audience and conveys our passion and enthusiasm for what we study. We stay on message because we know that if we do not, we have lost our audience.

Getting lost in our writing obscures the message and induces a fog in the readers that undermines their ability to engage in the conversation we hope to create. To this end, authors should avoid what authors and linguistic experts like Stephen Wilbers and Robert Gunning have referred to as the "Fog Factor" within their prose. A sentence may be elegant, but if it is hard to read-if the reader has to work too hard to make sense of it-then it won't be read. Interestingly, in 1952, Gunning and his colleagues, who consulted with newspapers and magazines to help them develop better products, introduced the Gunning fog index - a series of calculations designed to measure the readability of a sample of writing. While this index has been modified somewhat by others over the years, it is interesting to note that writers can adjust the spelling/grammar settings of most word-processing programs to obtain a report on the reading level of their articles. This statistic can be a very helpful way to gauge the readability of your writing.

The report you receive from the grammar checker is in the form of a reading level based on school grade. I am not qualified to offer advice on what the readability level of a journal article should be. I do know that most newspapers today appear to strive for a 6th grade reading level and passages written at a 10th or 11th grade level make it relatively easy for educated readers to get the point of what you have written. To write at a 10th or 11th grade level, by the way, sentences need to be short and contain simpler words. To me this makes good sense, as you do not want to give readers an excuse to quit reading your article by making them wade through a thick fog to get at your meaning.


In order to succeed, authors need to keep in mind the dynamic tension between form and function. An article is the way in which we participate in the discourse. To gain entry to the discourse requires that our research be sound and sophisticated. It requires as well that we craft our messages in ways that invite others into a conversation.

To this end, it may be useful for authors to keep in mind that writing is about communication and communication involves the exchange of information in the form of messages. Every aspect of a research article should be written with a message in mind. Staying on message results in a more readable and engaging paper-and that invites others into a dialogue and contributes to the discourse.

Contact the author at [email protected]

  • Gunning, R. (1952). The technique of clear writing. New York: McGraw-Hill International Book Co.
  • Sullivan, L. (1986). The tall office building artistically considered," Lippincott's Magazine, March, 12-22.
  • Wilbers, S. University of Minnesota. http://www.wilbers.com