Getting the Writing Started - From Trepidation to a First Draft - Professional Roles and Publishable Writing

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

Getting the Writing Started
From Trepidation to a First Draft
Professional Roles and Publishable Writing

We recommend starting with something very concise—a one-page overview. That one page could be a mind map, an outline, or an abstract that encapsulates your ideas. The reasoning behind this is that, unlike a full-length manuscript, the time invested is not that great for the author or for the reviewer. If you get feedback early on a project before the manuscript is fully developed, it is easier to make substantive changes as needed. To illustrate, some of the perennial topics proposed by academic authors are such things as arguing that some people are resistant to new technologies, that professionals need to be more reflective, or that the campus culture affects students. While all of these subjects have merit, authors will be challenged to make these very familiar topics new in some way. Such topics have been visited and revisited many times, so it would be counterproductive to attempt yet another general treatment of the topic. Activity 3.5 guides authors and peer reviewers through the process of reviewing an idea for a manuscript.

Activity 3.5: Peer Review Guidelines for a Manuscript Idea

Provide the reviewer with a specific title for the manuscript. Supply a one-page overview of the work. Search the web and publishing directories (usually housed in the reference section of the library) to identify an outlet suited to your level of experience where your work has a reasonable chance of success. In other words, do not begin with the premier journal in your field unless you have already published in less competitive outlets.

Author Submits






Peer Reviewer Questions






The strategy of writing just one page can be helpful to writers of dissertations as well. Table 3.3 is a brief practical article that was written for a free online newsletter called The All-But-Dissertation Survival Guide. The purpose of the newsletter is to provide practical coaching to doctoral candidates who are stalled at the dissertation stage.

Table 3.3

Getting the writing going: Advice to authors of dissertations

No matter how brilliant your research idea and no matter how supportive your committee, at some point, you’ll have to generate reams of text in the process of producing a dissertation

That fact can give pause to the most confident writers, daunt those who have any doubts, and immobilize those who feel that writing is their nemesis. What can help you to get moving with writing a dissertation? First, try not to dwell on the magnitude of what has to be accomplished. Promise yourself that you’ll do just one thing. What follows are three steps you can take to counteract writer’s block

1. Write one page. Instead of wallowing in words with your stomach churning, try distilling the essence of your dissertation onto a single page. The one-pager consists of four bulleted lists that answer the following questions:

(a) Purpose: Why conduct this study at this time? What gaps might it fill? What contributions might it make?

(b) Literature Review: What is already known related to the study purpose? What theories and research are pertinent?

(c) Research Questions: What do I really want to know? How I can state this in answerable questions?

(d) Methodology: What types of data will be necessary to answer each question? What methods suit the data?

Gradually, all of the pieces are brought into alignment: the areas of the literature review are connected to research questions, and both the literature review and the research questions are matched to the methodology. This deceptively simple activity addresses a common deterrent to writing: anxiety about the time sink of spewing out page after page of text that eventually ends up in the recycle bin

The one-pager also enables you to visualize connections between and among the pieces of the entire dissertation and helps to avoid writing in circles, overwhelmed by the inevitable information overload. It’s the same mapping approach used by novelists who keep a plot diagram up on the wall to guide their efforts. You are, in effect, sketching out the story for your dissertation

Another advantage of just one page is that you can share it with several others before you invest too much time, or impose too much on theirs. Additionally, you can tinker with the bulleted lists and refine your logic before you settle down to write

2. Write some more. After the one-page exercise, use a graduated challenge approach and begin generating portions of documents. Put each task, however small, on your list of things to do. It might be something relatively simple, such as filling out the cover sheet for the Institutional Review Board proposal. Then it is on to new writing demands, such as pieces of the proposal followed by the dissertation itself, one chapter at a time

In my experience, it is the least successful doctoral advisees who are forever promising that they are going to surprise the chairperson by delivering the entire dissertation to his or her door someday, as if it were a gift. They resist the strong suggestion that submitting one chapter at a time is preferable so that they can get committee feedback along the way

They go for long spells without producing any writing, panic when deadlines loom large, and binge write in response to stress. Although Hollywood depictions of famous authors tend to glamorize binge writing, awaiting the visitation of your Muse has little to do with the data-driven writing produced by scholars that relies on steady, incremental improvements

Long periods of inattention to a dissertation are as deadly to degrees as they are to home maintenance: pretty soon you have a dilapidated structure in danger of collapse. On the other hand, if you invest in the upkeep, both dissertations and houses can stand

3. Expect to rewrite. Many doctoral students get derailed by the first whiff of criticism of their work and set the dissertation aside, assuming that the committee didn’t “like” it. Ironically, part of the problem for ABDs is that they are good students who have, for many years, turned in papers and earned good grades. The dissertation contradicts that prior experience

Begin by abandoning all hopeful dreams about your brilliant words flowing effortlessly from mind to fingertips to keyboard to screen to paper. Abandon also the wishful thinking that your committee will respond to your writing efforts by begging you not to change a word. Distinguished scholars report numerous rewrites and seek colleagues’ criticism of a manuscript before submitting it for publication. Even after all of this, reviewers and editors usually require additional revisions before the work is published. A dissertation is intended to simulate that experience. In fact, one of the dissertation’s important, yet frequently overlooked, goals is to socialize you into the peer review process that is used to write scholarly articles and books and to secure grant funding

Conclusion. Obstacles to writing are like cleaning up a messy garage. You can keep opening the door and slamming it shut, saying, “Oooh, I don’t want to go in there. It looks like too much work.” You can leave it a mess, stumble around, and make excuses for it. You can block out time for a cleaning marathon on your calendar and find so many compelling reasons to reschedule. Or, you can convince yourself to go in and do just one thing, such as clear a space in which your car can fit

If you accomplish just one thing, you’ll probably be encouraged by the success of the small step and stick with it a bit more than you originally anticipated. Even if you do decide to stop there for the day, your next visit won’t be quite so onerous. Likewise, if you accomplish just one small dissertation-related task every few days, you’ll soon accumulate a body of work. This is the surest way to gain some control over the writing process and write your way out of that doctoral degree limbo called the ABD.Reprinted, with permission, from the archives of the All-But-Dissertation Survival Guide

Just as successful students figure out what professors and dissertation committees expect, authors who are successful at publishing know what editors want (Benson & Silver, 2013). Table 3.4 offers some suggestions on fashioning a manuscript that is more likely to earn acceptance from reviewers and editors.

Table 3.4

Making your article irresistible to the editor

Define your terminology

When presenting a logical argument, the first step is to clarify terminology. Assume that there could be different understandings, even of words that are in wide use. Do not use Webster’s; use authoritative definitions from specialists in the field

Identify your thesis

No thesis, no article. In an article for publication, you purpose is to present a well-reasoned argument. Every writer approaches a topic from some point of view and has a “take” on the issue. It is not biased to acknowledge this; it is implied anyway. However, it is important to briefly mention opposing views as a way of demonstrating that you have considered them

Do not waste words

Editors call it their “page budget” for a reason—it is spent, just like money. Allowing authors to ramble on reduces the total number of articles or chapters that can be published and the variety of topics that can be treated in a journal or book. Most journal articles are no more than 25 double-spaced, 12 point print pages and that includes all references, tables, figures, diagrams, etc. This would be about 6—8 pages typeset as double columns of print

Begin with abundance

Even though concise articles are preferred, this does not mean that you write exactly 25 pages from the start. Rather, you begin with more text than you’ll eventually publish and, like a large stockpot of soup, “cook it down” to its very essence. Numerous rewrites are the way to “thicken” your article and make it rich with ideas

Pre-review the work

Ask three knowledgeable, tough, and helpful colleagues to read your manuscript before you submit it for anonymous peer review. Analyze/synthesize their comments and revise accordingly

Draw upon experience to include examples

Publishable pieces do not only tell, they also show. It is difficult to read something that speaks only in general terms. We need specifics to connect with information. Examples in manuscripts should be: your own (rather than borrowed from someone else), powerful, and concise. Even a quantitative research article can benefit from an example that shows the people behind the statistics

Review beyond search engine results

Anyone can perform an online search using the obvious key words. Serious scholars delve into the literature in related fields and review books as well as online resources. Do not rely heavily on textbooks; they are considered to be secondary sources because they are someone else’s interpretation of theory and research. To make your review even more interesting, take off your disciplinary blinders and search the topic in other, related fields

Synthesize the literature

Anyone can summarize, study by study; this is (bad) dissertation style. You need to organize the research into themes or strands rather than splice others’ ideas together. In an article for publication, list only those references that were cited in text, not everything that you read

Produce a tightly organized piece

New academic authors are accustomed to writing papers for classes; these assignments rarely have an introduction or conclusion that is suitable for a publishable article. They also tend to be rather loosely organized, do not use headings, and do not include visual material (i.e., charts, tables, graphs, diagrams). Instead of reverting to the style of a class paper, replicate what you see when you study the format of what has been published in a journal or book

Edit line by line

“Each sentence should lead to the next and grow out of the last sentence of the previous paragraph” (Zinsser, 2001, p. 267). Too many short sentences in a row feel like machine gun fire while too many long sentences in a row cause readers’ attention to wane. Vary sentence length. Vary sentence patterns as well. For example, don’t begin several sentences with the same word or use the same structure. Be certain that every sentence is a complete thought. Try reading your work out loud to hear the cadence and flow

Use specific headings

Unless it is a quantitative research article with the customary headings (see Chap. 7), write headings that are specific to your topic. Avoid headings that are too general (e.g., History) and make them signposts for the building blocks of your argument. Not only do headings assist while you are writing and trying to categorize your ideas, they also notify readers of a change in direction. Use headings while writing to help you cluster your ideas when writing and then go back to revise them so that they are consistent in structure—for instance, make each heading begin with an —ing verb

Activity 3.6: Interview with a Published Author

Identify a colleague who has successfully published a manuscript recently. Interview the author in person, by telephone, or online with questions such as: How did you get the idea for this work? Did you collaborate with others? What process did you use to choose an outlet? What were the most challenging aspects of getting it published? What surprised you the most? In future, will you pursue this topic further or move in a different direction? Is there any advice you can offer to others seeking to publish?

How do we learn as authors and get smarter about achieving success with a manuscript? One very important way is to confront your fears and dreams, head on. For example, think about the worst/best scenarios. Suppose you are writing a grant. What’s the worst thing that can happen? It’s probably some version of “I don’t get the grant, I need to find another funding source, or I repurpose this work to achieve a different goal.” What’s the best thing that can happen? “I get the grant, but it’s a ton of extra work and there’s no release time attached; however, it may earn me a sabbatical leave when I’m ready to publish the research.” Confronting the worst outcomes and envisioning the best ones helps to let go of the self-doubt lurking in the background. Still, you need to protect yourself from becoming completely demoralized by failure or burned out by boredom. A balance of comparatively low risk of failure and high risk of failure ventures helps to counteract this. Every scholar has some tasks that he or she feels confident in pursuing while other tasks are somewhat more or much more difficult. If you never venture beyond the things that you already do well, such as teaching a particular course or making presentations at the state-level conference, there is no opportunity to push the boundaries and grow professionally. On the other hand, if you choose only those tasks that represent a very high risk of failure and many of them do not work out, your confidence could erode. You have to take care of yourself by making a conscious effort to balance risks and rewards. You also need to approach writing, not as a miserable undertaking but as a way to help you become a clearer, better thinker. Activity 3.7 suggests some ways to accomplish this.

Activity 3.7: Writing as Learning

There are at least six basic mechanisms for getting smarter gleaned from neuroscience (Jensen, 2006). As you read each one, apply it to scholarly writing.







Online Tool 

Refer to Caine’s Brain/Mind Principles of Natural Learning at as a resource for improving writing.