Writing for Academic Journals

Author(s) Rowena Murray
Publisher Open University Press
Published 2005
Pages 240
Price £19.99
ISBN 9780335213924
Reviewed by Dr Linda Barlow-Meade
Northumbria University
Review published 8 January 2010

As academics find themselves under increasing pressure to publish, ‘Writing for Academic Journals’ is a timely ‘how to’ book aimed at providing academics, particularly those who are first time writers, with an ‘integrated strategy’ for writing. Its nine chapters take the writer on a journey from an initial rationale for writing through to responding to reviewers’ feedback. Each chapter includes activities that writers are encouraged to practice to increase their skills. The main purpose of the book is to prepare new writers, and those who have not published for some time, for successful submissions to academic journals.

There are many intrinsic and extrinsic reasons why an academic may be motivated to write for publication, e.g. the pleasure of seeing oneself in print, the research assessment exercise. However, whatever the motivation it seems that few academics find writing journal articles easy or straight forward. This book aims to develop an academic’s writing skills and thereby increase the likelihood of successful submissions of academic papers.

Murray makes the point that there is an assumption that writing is what academics ‘do’, something they have developed through their own academic journey, consequently very little has been written about the ‘process’ of academic writing as it is thought to be unnecessary, and very few skill development courses exist for the same reason.

Murray also accepts that admitting the need for writing development may be perceived as a sign of weakness, just one of the many barriers she identifies. For example, she highlights the petty jealousy and envy of colleagues which an academic writer may have to contend with. These jealousies can destroy self confidence, preventing some academics from writing at all. Other barriers identified include: a feeling of not being involved in ‘research’ (p23), therefore having nothing to write about, or the risks of rejection being too difficult to contemplate for one’s self-esteem. Murray suggests that: “The trick is to get to grips with these potential risks, work out which ones are holding you back and discuss them with trusted colleagues …” (p29).

Rather than being a nebulous thing, Murray firmly believes there is a process to academic writing that can be learned, a process that will help writers overcome some of the barriers. Of course, there are those who will argue that this approach is too mechanistic, but then again, perhaps for those writers who do need initial guidance, writing may become less mechanistic the more practice they get.

Perhaps the most important piece of advice Murray offers is: know your audience and the journals in your field. “You have to research the journals, becoming a scholar of the journals, identifying the dominant issues and conventions operating in the journal” (p37). This advice should be applied to the subjects covered by the journal and to the instructions for authors concerning style.

Although the book presents a ‘staged’ approach, it should not be viewed as a purely linear process. Murray advocates a duality of approach, the recurring thread being – no matter what else you are doing to progress your paper, you should be writing all the time, e.g. whilst researching your selected journals, you should be starting to write your article at the same time. If you wait until you are an expert on the content and requirements of your chosen journals, you may write nothing at all. This duality of tasks is reiterated throughout the book.

Murray likens writing to a conversation. She maintains that the analysis of the journals enables you to see what has already been written – or ‘said’ – on the subject and to ask critical questions: How does what you want to say fit into the current discussion? How does what you want to say further the debate? What has ‘not’ been said? Indeed, addressing what has not been said or what is considered contentious are means of entering the conversation.

Having settled on the topic and how the message contributes to the conversation, Murray moves on to consider many of the practical skills involved in successful writing, e.g. planning writing sessions, writing action notes to self, writing to prompts. All of these techniques, and more, are explained in detail and illustrated with practice activities.

The final chapter of the book deals with the submission process. Perhaps the most important message here is that writers should expect to get bad reviews from time to time and that writers should view these comments constructively and learn from them (p188). It is important to note that if a paper has been returned for revision, it has not necessarily been rejected. Regardless of how you are feeling, you should work through the reviewers’ suggestions and resubmit as soon as possible, thus increasing your chance of being accepted.

Finally, this book looks at academic writing from two perspectives, that of skill development, a perspective one would expect in such a book. Then, secondly, and perhaps an approach one might not expect, from a behavioural perspective. Murray deals with the effects of jealousy and envy of colleagues, with loss of self esteem resulting from reviewers’ feedback, and a lack of confidence in one’s abilities. These behaviours have the potential to become serious barriers to writing. However, Murray encourages a positive approach to overcoming these barriers, e.g. discuss barriers with a trusted colleague, practice writing skills to increase self confidence, ask a critical friend to read work constructively, and view reviewers’ comments constructively, thereby learning from them.

A second edition is now available published in 2009: ISBN 9780335234585