Put Perfectionism on Hold - From Aspiring Author to Published Scholar - Professional Roles and Publishable Writing

Writing for Publication: Transitions and Tools that Support Scholars’ Success - Mary Renck Jalongo, Olivia N. Saracho 2016

Put Perfectionism on Hold
From Aspiring Author to Published Scholar
Professional Roles and Publishable Writing

The instructor for a doctoral seminar on writing for publication taught the course for over 20 years and was well known for giving a very different kind of feedback on students’ papers. At the first class meeting, students were advised to “erase the expectation” that the way they had written in the past would suffice, to expect numerous rewrites, and to be patient with the process. Yet year after year, all of the students arrived with the experience of submitting papers and getting them back with an “A” grade. When comments were returned on their first attempts to produce a journal article, consternation reigned. Some argued that other professors had evaluated their work to date as excellent; a few professors even had written the heady comment, right on their papers, “You should try to get this published.” Were the other faculty members too lenient or was their current instructor just too demanding? It could be a bit of both. Sometimes, professors are responding to an exceptionally good student paper and, if the person who wrote this comment is not an active scholar with knowledge of publishing then yes, it is a compliment but it might not be an accurate appraisal of the work’s publication potential. In any case, authors need to develop a “thick skin” rather than taking criticism personally. Approach rewrites as ways to improve an already good manuscript and make yourself look smarter. Too often, students equate many written comments with poor evaluation rather than a sincere commitment to supporting their growth as writers.

Perfectionism also causes writers obsess about the finished product. They erroneously think that “good” writers blithely churn out articles and books and that they must be “bad” writers because they struggle. Clarity, coherence, insight, and brilliance are not where writers start but they are a destination they can reach through many, many rewrites. It is rare to produce even one paragraph of scholarly writing that is ready to be published, just as it was originally drafted, without editing. Authors capable of doing this are like people who can do mathematical computation “in their heads”—they complete quite a bit of mental editing before committing it to paper.

Another issue has to do with abundance. One high school English teacher (Keizer, 1996) made this point to his class by cutting into a tomato. He noted that, while just one seed is necessary to produce another plant, there are hundreds of seeds inside. In nature, as in writing, abundance is the starting point. Sometimes, writers assume that, if the goal is to write a journal article of about 20 double-spaced pages, they should not write more than 20 pages at the outset. However, fluency—the sheer number of ideas generated—is a key characteristic of creative thought. When too much time is invested in generating a restricted number of words, the author becomes more wedded to them and is reluctant to revise as needed (Elbow, 1973). Thus, authors first need to generate quite a bit of text and then set about deciding what keep and what to toss away. Fortunately, with time and experience, this process becomes more efficient.

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Read Jim Hoot and Judit Szente’s (2013) advice to new authors on “avoiding professional publication panic”.