Crafting Scholarship: Quality of Writing and Adhering to Style in Manuscript Preparation
Some of the most significant writing we do as academics consists of crafting journal articles. Tenure and promotion decisions depend on success in publishing, especially publishing in journals with the greatest influence sponsored by leading professional organizations. And, just to keep things in perspective, gaining tenure and promotions is important, but crafting great work—articles that are likely to be influential and contribute to the growth of our respective fields—is equally important.
The style in which empirical articles are written is straightforward, with an introduction and literature review, a method section, results and discussion sections, and a conclusion. The formula differs modestly for theory, research syntheses, case studies, and applied work but is standard for empirical work. In this article I attend to two related issues as they influence the evaluation of submissions to peer-review journals by editors and reviewers. The issues of concern are (1) the overall quality of writing and (2) the adherence of a manuscript to "house style," which for many journals, including those published by NCFR, means APA formatting, or a close variant thereof. In focusing on empirical reports, including quantitative and qualitative work in all their variations, I don't wish to exclude case studies, analysis of social policies, or other forms of journal articles. Most of the issues I discuss here are generic and apply to nearly all article forms, including grant proposals.
Quality of writing
The overall quality of writing, including issues of style, grammar, and appropriate use of the English language, are important in some regards, but they aren't necessarily deal breakers. Reviewers and editors are not expecting Woolf or Hemingway; they are expecting a reasonable level of competence. Otherwise, reviewers and editors vary in the importance they attach to the quality of writing. Personally I enjoy writing and vastly favor a well-written article. I admire authors who write well. I suspect they are more successful in publishing, their work is more accessible and influential and, from the perspective of an editor, they are much easier to work with. Well-written articles can be read efficiently, requiring less time and effort on the part of readers to fully appreciate and evaluate complex arguments, research designs, and findings.
Some view the issue of writing well as relatively unimportant, assuming an author has achieved a minimal level of competence; the quality of the science or contribution to the discipline is privileged. When I asked sociologist Mike Johnson about the importance of matters of style or grammar in the evaluation of manuscripts under review he responded thus:
Not at all. In terms of my decision whether to recommend accepting or rejecting a paper, not at all. It would come up in a recommendation for revision and I would include a note to the editor [about the writing] if needed. To me the overall quality of writing is not that important. Although I should say, it very rarely comes up. Most of the things that I review are well written. It is possible that editors are screening out things that are horribly written.
Social psychologist and former editor Harry Reis shared a similar view: "I consider it important in that I think we ought to write well. I would never use that to accept or reject a paper."
The disposition of a manuscript is largely dependent on the quality of the science or application and the importance of the contribution. Great writing is not a prerequisite for either, but then neither is it entirely inconsequential. Harry shared a position that appeared often in my interviews with editors and reviewers. "Writing well helps to get your ideas across . . . and it's kind of a delight to read. I think that certainly promotes [an author's] work." Family scholar Heather Helms amplified the issue and added some additional thoughts:
Good writing is pretty important to me. . . . If I review an article and think this is really well written, then I have almost an emotional reaction. It's a positive feeling. You enjoy reading it. It's not a struggle to get from paragraph to paragraph. You do not have to constantly reread a sentence over and over again to understand the author's intention. It makes the process more enjoyable. I like reading good writing. So if a paper is written well, then you can concentrate on [substantive issues]. If it's not well written you spend all your time struggling through the paper asking what did this sentence or paragraph mean. I can actually get a little bit grouchy if the writing is so poor I can't understand the writer's intention.
Paul Amato is a professor of sociology and has won the prestigious Reuben Hill Award more often than any other author. Like Michael, Harry, and Heather, he is very productive and among the most skilled authors I know in crafting journal articles. Paul takes a slightly different perspective regarding the importance of the quality of writing in evaluating a manuscript:
There are a lot of social scientists who are not very good writers. . . . it is something I weigh heavily because I do believe clear writing reflects clear thinking. If a manuscript is very poorly written, it makes me wonder if the whole theory and analysis are questionable. Good writing in our field needs to be as clear as possible. Here is my theory, this is what I did, here are my results, and here is what I think it means.
RM: Are matters of house style or grammar important?
It's not a deal breaker but poor grammar does irritate me. Mixing up verb tenses, run-on sentences and so on are bothersome, but not necessarily a deal breaker. I think there are situations where a manuscript is not particularly well written but the research still seems useful or valuable.
Later in the interview, Paul commented further on the importance of learning to write well in his career:
I realized in graduate school that I needed to learn how to write. So I spent an entire summer immersing myself in learning grammar and reading books on style and I learned an awful lot. So I tell my students you've got to learn how to write. I don't think we stress that enough in our curriculum.
And, not to belabor the point, I asked Kelly Raley, editor of the Journal of Marriage and Family, her thoughts on the issue of writing and its importance in evaluating a manuscript:
I think there is a strong relationship between the quality of writing and the quality of thinking. It's not a correlation of 1; they are not the same thing, but oftentimes people who struggle with writing also don't have the tools to organize their thoughts as strongly as people who have strong writing skills.
In summarizing the commentary of our judges—Michael, Heather, Harry, Paul, and Kelly—good science and intelligent and knowledgeable practices are necessary, and good writing services all.
When the quality of writing detracts from a reader's understanding, or ease of understanding, it becomes an important issue. We write technical work that requires considerable background knowledge on the part of readers and concentration in trying to understand complex arguments. A well-organized work, clearly written with few distracting errors in style or grammar, can only help in generating a more positive evaluation. Typographical errors or lapses in house style (e.g., APA style) are things I can control as a writer and in the end I want to give evaluators as few reasons to be critical as possible.
Other elements of good writing are more difficult to achieve but nonetheless are important to consider. For instance, the precise and consistent use of concepts throughout a manuscript is a simple prescription, but it is sometimes difficult to obtain. The clarity and logic of an argument are also important but decidedly difficult to judge. Heather shared her thoughts on these issues:
To be honest, journal writing is kind of boring. Creative writing, like fiction, is much more expressive. I actually think some of us like creative writing; I have to battle through that side of myself when I'm writing an empirical article. I remember being edited by Susan McHale [a mentor]. "Synonyms are not good," she would say. In creative writing you don't necessarily want to use the same word all the time for describing something, and in empirical writing you do. There is the need for this conceptual clarity that is kind of boring but it is actually really important.
I am writing this paper now that comes from the economic hardship literature, and people throw terms around like economic pressure, economic hardship, economic strain, stress; there is zero conceptual clarity. The problem is that these concepts all mean different things, and are operationalized differently. I've become attuned to the importance of conceptual clarity throughout a paper, being clear how concepts fit with the literature, and operationalizing constructs in ways that make sense and fit with the theoretical base. So I think that empirical writing is different. I think there is a method to doing it well that new writers need to understand.
Heather identifies a common problem I see in editing submissions: an inconsistent use of language and incomplete definition of core concepts. In her example, she draws on the economic hardship literature and the array of concepts directed at similar themes. Often, authors can make important contributions by carefully distinguishing between related but distinct concepts, a contribution built on exacting definitions.
The importance of style and formatting
I am often asked about the importance of adhering to house style in the preparation of a manuscript and its subsequent evaluation. Quite apart from the quality of writing, how important is the formatting and selection of headings, organization and presentation of material in each section of a paper, completeness of references, and similar issues of style?
Ron Sabatelli, former editor of Family Relations, considers the issue of style important but prefers to rely on professional copyeditors to correct such issues and reserve his editorial commentary to more substantive issues. Kelly Raley takes a similar perspective on the issue of adherence to the rules of style, although she notes that attending to the rules governing the presentation of an article can influence the overall judgment of an article's worth:
Matters of style are probably less important to me than to other editors, but as I'm in this position longer I understand why it is important to people. . . . when [authors] don't adopt the expected style of presenting things, it just takes readers a lot more effort to understand what the authors are trying to do. But having said that, it is really not the thing I'm paying attention to when reading an article. I'm really paying much more attention to the nature of the contribution and whether the method is appropriate for making that contribution.
In the end, I don't expect perfection in the adherence to the particulars of style, but I do expect a reasonable performance. This means selecting meaningful headings that function well to guide a reader through the course of a manuscript, executing the various sections of an article that are consistent with style guidelines, constructing tables in ways that are consistent with a journal's stated preferences, submitting work that is within the guidelines for length, or stating in a cover letter why an article is longer than typical. If a journal's guidelines require 1-inch margins and 12-point type, there is no reason to do otherwise. Check and recheck references to be certain there are no substantial errors and references are correct and complete. Editors and reviewers don't expect perfection in the presentation of reference lists, but we do expect a reasonable level of competence. Simple errors of formatting or presentation detract from the inherent contribution of your work. When manuscripts are much longer than suggested, are poorly formatted, have confusing tables, more tables than recommended, or have incomplete references, we question the overall competence of the work. Take the wind out of the sails of critics and avoid simple errors.
Crafting great articles and getting them published in highly selective journals is contingent on well-conceived and well-executed science, all of which is serviced by writing effectively as well as attending to the conventions of style. A wide variety of books aim to teach the principal elements of writing well and I encourage you to consult some of that work. For example, Crafting Scholarship (2015) is replete with annotated bibliographies. For North American writers, The Elements of Style by W. Strunk and E. B. White is a classic statement on great writing in 105 pages. It should be part of a writer's library. There are many other useful resources, including several writing apps such as The Writer's Diet, and Edit Minion; both can help improve your written work and are highly recommended. In the mix of doing influential science and getting it published, write well and mind your ps and qs.
Writer's resource: useful writing applications
This app was developed by Helen Sword and provides a supplement to her books Stylish Academic Writing (2012) and The Writer's Diet (2007). The app is a diagnostic tool that evaluates writing samples (maximum 1,000 words per run) over five grammatical categories, such as the use of verbs and adverbs. The app is well designed, simple to use, and informative. I enjoy using it and find it helpful in evaluating writing samples and pinpointing areas that need shoring up.
This is another great app that evaluates writing samples for common grammatical hot points. The app highlights passive verb constructions, sentences ending in a preposition, weak words, clichés, tricky homonyms (e.g., your and you're), frequently used words, adverb usage, and common misspellings. Once you've used this app a bit you'll begin to recognize weaknesses in your writing and correct them. Running an evaluation of an entire manuscript is modestly time consuming and worth the effort.
Word Web is an English thesaurus and dictionary. The application duplicates existing features of Windows but adds some additional functionality. I've been using the Pro version for years and find it very useful.
There are a variety of additional writing applications, but these are the three I find most useful. You may wish to explore the possibilities a bit more. For instance, Write or Die 2 is an application that makes procrastination consequential. A writer sets a goal—for instance, 250 words in 60 minutes—and things happen if the goal is unmet. It's like video gaming meets scientist. (No worries, it's nonviolent and nonshocking.) The whole business is kind of fun, but that's what I mean by distracting.