Publishing secrets revealed!

What does it take to get an article published in a scholarly journal?  Sound, original scholarship, you say?  That’s important, but what about presentation?  How do you go about interesting an editor in your work?  As Michael Hicks, outgoing editor of American Music, put together his final issue of the journal, he reflected upon the submissions he’d seen and offered the following words of wisdom:

First, I got a lot of dissertation chapters that weren’t remade into articles. Almost all of them even cited something in “the next chapter” in their endnotes. I always sent those submissions back. Tip: Never let readers think they are an afterthought to a college degree.

Second, many a submission was not an article but a long review or program note. It might focus on a single book the author had read and admired. Or it might give a blow-by-blow commentary on a piece whose recording the author recently purchased and played over and over. Now, reviews are great; we need and publish them. But stretching one out does not make an article. Tip: Start with an argument and make your case with evidence, deftly handled.

Third, many manuscripts read like term papers. You know the routine: tell the reader what you’re going to say, say it, then conclude by saying what you just said. This is, literally, bad form. It might work for a paper you read aloud at a conference. But it’s toxic in print. Tip: Take the reader on a rail journey, a one-way train trip that has a departure, a steady but scenic ride, and a clear arrival at a refreshing destination, preferably with a view.

Fourth, at least one-third of the manuscripts that arrived didn’t have the right formatting. That’s often easy to fix. (I should know, since I did it so often). But every aspect of a manuscript that looks like the author wasn’t paying attention–or is simply reusing a manuscript already sent elsewhere–is a strike against its publication. And since, in our profligate electronic era one can add, delete, and modify in lightning-swift strokes, why not spiff up the manuscript before sending it to the editor? Tip: Dress your manuscript as if it were getting married. (For the first time, that is.)

Which brings me to the fifth thing I saw too often. Some emailed submissions came so generically packaged I felt I was unwrapping spam–the electronic kind, not the real kind (about which we actually published an article). If it looks as though you’ve sent the same piece to several journals at once, few who receive it will do so smilingly. We editors need to feel as though you pondered where to send your essay, chose well, and tailored the manuscript to that journal. Now I know that you may have sent it here after rejections from, say, three other journals. And we may, in fact, be just the right venue for (at least some version of) your article. But we don’t want to feel like fourth fiddle–especially if your article is about fiddling. Tip: Start by making the journal feel like the love of your life. At least for now.

There you have it.  Take this advice to heart, and stay tuned for the winter issue of American Music (due out in November) for additional insight into the life of an academic journal editor.  It’s good reading.  I promise.