by Brian Barry

However well it is put together and presented, no article can be stronger than the underlying ideas. But it is very easy for authors with worthwhile things to say to blight their chances of publication by neglecting to take account of some elementary points derived from a consideration of the way in which editorial decisions are taken. The question here is not one of making silk purses out of sows' ears but one of making silk purses out of silk. I have no suggestions to offer about how to get good ideas for an article but I do think that there are some simple precepts adherence to which should increase the chance of turning any given set of ideas into an article that is accepted for publication in the journal where the author would most like to see it appear. Following the principle of "At least, do no harm" I think I can at any rate claim that nothing suggested here will reduce the chances of acceptance.

The act of mailing off a submission initiates a process which will eventually absorb a lot of other people's time in reading it and writing about it -- an editor, then perhaps two or three outside readers or other members of the editorial group, or both. There is no need to feel guilty about this, of course: submissions are the lifeblood of any journal. But if it is recognized that every submission represents an additional burden for people who are usually overburdened already, both courtesy and prudence surely suggest that the author should cooperate in not making the burden heavier than it need be. Everything I have to say follows from this cardinal observation. I shall divide my remarks into those that are concerned with mechanics and those that deal with content. The first are less important and I shall get them out of the way first.

Mechanics. Before putting the manuscript into its final shape, decide where you are going to send it. (I should hesitate to mention this if I had not been struck by the phenomenon of people finishing papers and only then wondering what to do with them.) Study the journal carefully to see how it handles such things as references and acknowledgments. If it offers a style sheet send for one. Read the instructions in the journal about the preparation of manuscripts and follow them precisely: if it says to double-space everything, for example, that means everything including quotations and footnotes.

None of this guarantees that you will be accepted by your first- choice journal. (Nor does failure to do it preclude acceptance.) But it will predispose an editor in your favor by suggesting that you have taken some trouble to save the journal trouble, and it also means quite objectively that accepting your article actually will be less trouble to the journal than it would be if it had to be fixed up in various ways.

If your initial submission is unsuccessful and you want to submit the same piece unrevised to another journal with a different format for manuscripts, it is not normally worth changing it to conform. But it is a good idea to indicate in a covering letter that you are aware of the problem and that you are willing to make the necessary changes to bring your manuscript into line if it is accepted. If you do revise it substantially in the light of comments or further thoughts then it is sensible to take the opportunity to change the format at the same time to suit the style of the journal to which you intend to send the article next. A final ultramechanical point is to make sure that you proofread your article carefully before sending it off and preferably have a couple of other people proofread it as well. This may sound like unnecessary advice but it is quite surprising how often an article turns up in the mail that has manifestly not been read previously by anyone including the author. I do not suggest that a stunning article will get turned down because it has not been proofread. But there is no question that an editor or someone asked for a report is liable to feel resentful at being asked to read something which the author has not bothered to read first. Even if this kind of irritation affects the fate of an article only at the margin, it is surely irrational, given the investment represented in the preparation of an article, to excite it by failure to do a good job of proofing. Content. I am not concerned here with contributing to the "how to write" literature, though I have nothing against it. What I want to say is: make your article as good as you possibly can before sending it off. This may sound like an even more redundant piece of advice than any that has preceded it, but I think it is fairly clear that some people believe that the way to go about things is to send in a draft that is still short of the best they can come up with and then plan to work it up later in the light of comments from editors or readers. The rationale of this is, as I understand it, that since the articles will need to be revised eventually anyway there is no point in spending too much time polishing up the version submitted. The error here lies in misunderstanding the way in which the minds of editors and outside readers work. They do not see their function as one of working over a preliminary draft but as one of making suggestions for the improvement of a final draft -- provided it is already good enough to be worth it. An article that, worked on more thoroughly before submission, might have been accepted after one or two rounds of revision is liable instead to be rejected outright. This is especially so if it accumulates several weaknesses in its opening pages. For then the reader may well form a negative impression which will be hard to shake, especially if he or she decides to skim the rest in the expectation that it will not be very rewarding. It is therefore, I suggest, really important to ensure that the article submitted is as strong as it can possibly be made. This especially means being quite clear what it is intended to argue and how it all fits together, and then ensuring that the structure is designed to carry the argument through clearly. Sometimes a really conscientious reader will reassemble an ill-organized article for the writer's benefit, and perhaps perceive that what the article purports to be about is not what it is really about. But it is unwise for any author to count on attracting the services of such a paragon. How does one improve articles? In the end it seems to me there are only two ways: by going round and round on them oneself and by getting other people to read them and comment. (The two are in fact complementary since comments provide a major stimulus for revision.) The main thing is to recognize that this is a problem, where it is so, and to be prepared to work on it systematically. I have three suggestions to offer. First, if your article bears on the work of some living person, send that person a copy and ask for comments. There is, of course, no guarantee that you will get any, but it often turns out that the object of your discussion will be sufficiently interested by what you have to say to write back. Second, reading manuscripts seriously in detail is hard work. One way of getting people to read your manuscripts is to be prepared to read theirs. If you can build up a circle, perhaps starting from contemporaries at graduate school, you will have people to call on when you need them. It is also worth mentioning that it is a common experience that thinking editorially about the writings of others contributes to one's own ability to write: it is easier to spot faults in one's own work after becoming familiar with the same faults in the work of others. Third, bear in mind that there are many different ways in which it can be helpful to have people read your work and comment. Suppose that there are senior people in your own department with good publishing records but that none of them knows much about your own subject matter. You should be able to get suggestions about style and organization from them even if they cannot contribute much in the way of comments on the substance. Conversely, people in your own field with little publishing experience will be helpful at a paragraph-by- paragraph level but may well have little to offer in the way of suggestions about presentation. The trick is to collect comments of different kinds, making use of what each can offer. In this context, it is important to recognize that there is a sense in which the customer is always right. If any reader who is not a complete fool (and you presumably will not ask complete fools to read your work) cannot understand what you write or misinterprets it, then that shows there is something wrong with it. There is no point in spending ten minutes explaining to this reader that it is really quite clear or that properly read it is quite unambiguous. The only thing to do is rewrite it so that other readers do not encounter the same problem. So far I have been drawing attention to ways in which you can arrange things so that your article will slip through the decision- making system as smoothly as possible. But it may still get snagged for reasons beyond your control. Editors of philoosphy journals get appointed for their philosophical qualifications, not for their skills in managing an extremely complex clerical operation, and by no means every journal enjoys the luxury of having the services of a professionally trained administrator. Moreover, there is no way that anyone has yet discovered (short of large cash payments, which philosophy journals cannot afford) of making outside readers perform on time -- or at all in some cases. If a lax office procedure combines with a couple of dilatory referees, it is quite possible for nothing to happen for months. Some authors seem to fear that they will hurt their chances by asking what is happening to their manuscript. I very much doubt if such apprehensions are ever justified. It is more likely that an editor will be pleased to be warned of a problem before it reaches really embarrassing proportions. Any author should therefore feel free to make inquiries if no decision is received within two or at most three months of submission. The answer may well be reassuring but it is always worth making sure that one's article has not slipped through a crack in the system. I believe that some friction between authors and editors arises from different ideas about the role of detailed comments. From the point of view of a journal, such comments are simply a byproduct of its work of selecting from submitted manuscripts, offering suggestions for improving them, and publishing the final product. Journals do not exist in order to provide comments to authors, and soliciting manuscripts does not carry any implied promise to do anything except render a decision within a reasonable length of time.

Return to the Guidebook main page.