January 7, 2021
4 Ways to Improve a Manuscript for Submission to a Peer-Reviewed Journal
Preparing and submitting a manuscript to a journal and the subsequent peer review can be a daunting process for all scholars, especially emerging scholars. Over the course of this two-part blog series on the journal submission and review process, I will discuss some of the essential elements of successful manuscript submissions and the subsequent review process to help scholars navigate this often cryptic and convoluted process. In this first blog, I look at the four most prominent ways to improve a manuscript.
1. Clarify Purpose
The first step to a successful submission is a carefully prepared manuscript, which requires a great deal of effort from writers at all levels. The purpose of the manuscript should be apparent even under casual scanning and should be communicated clearly. Is the purpose:
- To communicate innovative research on an unexplored or understudied topic?
- To fill a gap in the current understanding of a phenomenon through original research?
- To put forth a meta-analysis or a scoping review of existing literature to show changes in trends in analysis or perception of a topic?
- Analyze existing social policies theoretically or empirically?
These purposes, among others, create a framework upon which the rest of the paper hinges. The clarity of purpose will further define the topic's scope, the theoretical framework, the literature review, which may be a stand-alone section or integrated through the paper, and the research questions. Moreover, clarity of purpose will showcase the argument and communicate to the reader why they should care about the research study.
In contrast, a paper whose purpose is muddy and ambiguous will negatively impact the rest of its components. The literature review may lack focus or coherence or not be well integrated. The clarity of purpose should also, in turn, be visible in research questions that are specific and answerable through the methods selected. The findings and discussion should clearly put forth the contribution of the research study to the field.
2. Consult Writing Guides When Necessary
Many helpful resources for both academic and non-academic writing exist. Emerging scholars may find it helpful to consult these as needed because the process of organizing and writing can be daunting. Academic and non-academic guides such as Writing Your Journal Article in 12 Weeks, Writing for Peer Reviewed Journals, and Ten Things about Writing may equip the author with useful ways to approach writing and stay motivated while completing the paper.
3. Create an Outline
Outlines are one of the best ways to plan the paper's logical flow and coherence, avoid structural pitfalls, and make sure needed information is included while extraneous topics are excluded. It can be easy to diverge into unrelated topics, especially in papers situated in various social science and interdisciplinary fields, in which many issues seem connected. An outline helps to build a structure and place the information under the right sections. A traditional paper will include an introduction, followed by a literature review, a conceptual/theoretical framework, findings and discussion section, and a conclusion.
Word limits are also crucial. Journal policies place word limits, both minimum and maximum, for various purposes. These may include standardizing article lengths, fidelity to publisher contracts, and distinguishing between various forms of published work, such as research articles, policy analyses and commentaries, and book reviews. Staying within the range is critical, not only to avoid a desk rejection but also to maintain the reader's attention through a thought-out organization. A bloated paper may point to structural concerns such as an overly broad scope, lengthy unfocused literature review, or repetition between sections.
4. Reserve Time for Revision Before Submission
Completing a paper is a meaningful accomplishment. After months of working on a manuscript, authors may be eager to submit it as soon as the concluding sentence is written. However, a good practice would be waiting a few days to a week. Re-reading the paper, keeping the reader in mind, may reveal some areas for improvement. These may include structural incoherence, lack of readability due to long sentences and word choice, or overuse of direct quotes from the literature that drowns the author's voice. Simplicity is appreciated more than complexity and verbosity, and the author's argument should be readily apparent and easily accessible.
Also, be sure to conform to the submission requirements, including the journal's stylistic and reference guidelines, consistently throughout the manuscript.
To avoid a desk rejection and expedite the review process, show the paper to trusted colleagues, friends, and even family. Even those who are not specialists on the topic should grasp the paper's underlining purpose; if they cannot, more work needs to be done to clarify the intention and improve readability. This may also save time during the review process and result in fewer rounds of review.
To conclude, an author should be willing to invest a considerable amount of time writing an academic manuscript that effectively communicates or highlights a novel aspect of a phenomenon and/or adds to the existing body of knowledge in a particular field. Authors should strive to create a process for their journal work to maintain value and structure from start to finish. Aim to finish the first draft early and leverage existing professional and personal networks for review before submission. Lastly, the review process can be made easier by carefully adhering to the journal submission requirements. The second blog post to follow addresses the review process and some of the common concerns that may arise during it.
Natasha Mansur is a non-resident researcher and the managing editor of the Gulf Education and Social Policy Review, an open-access, peer-reviewed, bilingual journal affiliated with the Gulf Comparative Education Society and published by the Sheikh Saud bin Saqr Al Qasimi Foundation for Policy Research. Read the latest issue here.