Unpublishable Writing - From Unpublishable to Publishable - Professional Roles and Publishable Writing

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

Unpublishable Writing
From Unpublishable to Publishable
Professional Roles and Publishable Writing

It is a basic principle of cognitive psychology that, when developing a concept, learners need to see not only examples of the concept but also examples of what the concept is not. These “noninstances” of a concept are important in learning about publishable writing as well. One fear that may lurk in the minds of authors is, “What if my writing is really awful, I don’t know that it is, and others are laughing at me behind my back?” Scholarly authors are in a double bind where writing is concerned because once you depart from the view of writing as a collection of tools and rules. Now, instead of a sprinkling of minor mistakes, it is a downpour of faulty logic. This is even more unnerving.

In self-defense, scholars sometimes adopt a pompous tone, make bold assertions, use as much jargon as possible, or choose words that will send readers to the dictionary. The following excerpt was written by an anonymous professor and published in Macrorie’s (1984) book as an example of what not to do. As you read it, identify the problems in this introduction to a book about the textbook:

Unquestionably the textbook has played a very important role in the development of American schools—and I believe it will continue to play an important role. The need for textbooks has been established through many experiments. It is not necessary to consider these experiments but, in general, they have shown that when instruction without textbooks has been tried by schools, the virtually unanimous result has been to go back to the use of textbooks. I believe too, that there is considerable evidence to indicate that the textbook has been, and is, a major factor in guiding teachers’ instruction and in determining the curriculum. And I don’t think that either role for the textbook is necessarily bad.

What problems did you notice? It is clear that the evidence base is lacking (e.g., there are “many experiments” but they are dismissed; there is “considerable evidence” but nothing is mentioned). Sweeping generalizations are another flaw in this sample with words such as “unquestionably” and “virtually unanimous”. In addition, the voice vacillates; it begins with a pompous tone and concludes with the very informal sentence “And I don’t think that either role for the textbook is necessarily bad.” While it may seem mean-spirited to look at examples of bad writing (including our own), it is worthwhile to collect a few to help ourselves avoid these pitfalls.

The following is another anonymous author, writing about involving young children in organized sports. This is the introduction to the manuscript. How would you characterize the problems here?

By painful experience we have learned that national educational approaches do not suffice to solve the problems of our youth sport programs. Painful and penetrating sports medicine research and keen psychological work have revealed tragic implications for youth sports, producing, on the one hand experiences which have liberated youth from the tedium of the classroom, making childhood fuller and richer.

Yet, on the other hand, such has introduced a grave restlessness into childhood, making youth a slave to the athletic establishment. However, most catastrophic of all, is the created means for the mass destruction of integrative academic and fruitful opportunities of childhood and youth. This, indeed, is a tragedy of overwhelming poignancy—a secular, distorted perspective during the developmental years of childhood and adolescence.

You no doubt noted the sensationalistic language: “tragic”, “grave”, “catastrophic”, “overwhelming”, and “painful and penetrating”. The author is railing against something without supplying evidence. This writing also neglects to consider the readers and their purposes. The manuscript goes on in this way belaboring the problem yet offering no ways of addressing it.

As these examples illustrate, writing to impress can go terribly awry:

The personal can become an emotion-led diatribe—making statements of self and personal views that are unsupported and essentially meaningless to anyone other than the person making them. The formal can be essentially correct but so boring that it is hard to progress beyond the first page, right through to unclear argument and chaotic structure, errors of grammar and word use, unclear ownership and attribution, culminating in a failed attempt to impress. (Lee 2011, p. 106)

Presumably, your writing is much better to start with than either of these examples, so you have risen above terrible writing already. Even if your first draft inexplicably reads somewhat like the examples, you can always make it better by following these guidelines:

· Persuade readers that this matters rather than pontificate

· Be respectful of readers rather than subjecting them to a harangue

· Rely on evidence rather than emotional appeals and sensationalistic prose

· Offer a balanced view rather than rail against something in anger or frustration

· Go beyond merely identifying or harping on a problem to suggest a course of action

· Strive to be informative and helpful rather than treating readers as if they were the enemy

· Present possibilities rather than “oversell” your idea as the end-all/be-all solution

To illustrate effective scholarly writing, consider this excerpt from The Handbook of Research on Student Engagement (Reschly & Christenson, 2012):

There are essentially three schools of thought on student engagement: one arising from the dropout prevention theory and intervention area, another from a more general school reform perspective (i.e., National Research Council, 2004), and a third arriving out of the motivational literature (e.g., Skinner, Furrer, Marchand, & Kinderman, 2008; Skinner, Kinderman, & Furrer, 2009). (p. 11)

Note how it synthesizes the literature in a concise fashion and uses the “assert then support” style of logical argument expected in scholarly work. Learning the differences between most papers written in graduate school to fulfill course requirements and publishable manuscripts is a key transition for academic authors, as the next section will explain.