One of the main aims of this blog is to help Doctoral and Early Career Researchers navigate the academic system, not least publishing articles, edited volumes and manuscripts. We are therefore delighted that both established and up-and-coming French historians have accepted our invitation to share their experiences with us over the next few weeks. Today, Dr MARISA LINTON (Kingston University) – who has published so many high-quality articles in leading (and international) journals – is giving us some insights into her own experience of writing and publishing journal articles – and of balancing life and academia more generally.
What was the first article you published, and what obstacles did you have to overcome in order to get it written/published?
The first articles I published came from material generated from the research for my PhD, some of which I had had to omit from my first book when the publisher complained that the book manuscript was ‘way too long’. Getting those early articles published was relatively straightforward. Editors and readers were supportive and constructive – not always a given, but I was lucky there. The biggest obstacle I faced was my own initial lack of confidence, and ignorance of how best to negotiate the system. The other obstacle, also of my own making, was that I already had one child, and then had two more. I couldn’t say I hadn’t been warned – back when I was writing my PhD a senior professor told me that for every child an academic loses five years of research, so roughly a book. So I might have had three more books by now, but then I would also have missed out on much of the happiness of life. No contest, to my reckoning.
I could have published those first articles faster, but in those days there was not so much pressure to get the articles done. I got my first academic job in 1993, within weeks of the viva for my PhD. My first article appeared a leisurely two years later. That would be much less likely to happen now. Everything now is about the strategy you need to pursue to get an academic post. Even before young scholars have finished their PhDs there is intense pressure on them to get articles in the pipeline, placed with strong journals. Most early career researchers are much more clued up than I was – or needed to be – whilst the barriers facing them have also increased. It is a tough time to be an academic: so many young people are struggling to make a success of their chosen careers, competing for a shrinking pool of jobs, not knowing if all their years of sacrifice will be rewarded. So my advice here is practical – think strategically about what will best help you get published, and be systematic and resilient about carrying your plans out.
What practical advice do you have for writing and publishing articles?
Don’t waste your precious research: hoard it, and look for ways to publish it. Once you have your doctorate, whether you are on an exhausting teaching contract or working long hours in a supermarket, your research time is at a premium. So rather than write a paper for a conference with a vague hope that you will ‘one day’ get time to turn the paper into an article, write the article first; then cut it to give a short version for the conference for feedback. That way you are much more likely to get the article finished. ‘A good book is a finished book’, as Lynn Hunt once told me, and the same goes for articles.
For the actual writing process, be clear about what your argument will be. Writing the article abstract is an important step on the way. There is a convention about how to structure articles – though conventions are sometimes made to be broken. Begin with a hook, to draw the reader in; then set up the problem or gap that you will address; deal with the existing historiography on the subject politely and thoroughly (don’t forget that historians who are specialists in your chosen field may be the anonymous readers for your prospective article, so don’t antagonize them unnecessarily!) and then show clearly, in logical steps, how your work is going is to add something original and new to what we know about the subject. Enjoy the writing process and use a lively style. Just because it is an academic article doesn’t mean it has to be dull, flat and dry. Historians, like anyone else, like to read work that is well written, engaging and keeps them awake. Don’t forget the obvious – check for errors, spellings of names, and pay attention to the stylistic and referencing codes of the journal; don’t go way over the accepted word length. I have read so many prospective articles, both on editorial boards and as an anonymous reader, and it is surprising how often people neglect the basics. Mistakes can be rectified, but do nothing to win the confidence of the readers. As for where to publish, go for a journal with a solid reputation, but as an early career researcher looking to place your first articles you also want one that will give you a quick decision and will be able to publish your work relatively fast. Some of the most ‘eminent’ journals have long waiting lists, and can keep you dangling for way too long.
How have you maintained such a steady flow of very strong article publications throughout your career?
By working really hard! Also, I love the research and the writing, the fact of having something original to say. If you have a passion for the subject, and you really care about the research you are doing and believe in its importance, then that will help you to keep going past all the setbacks that will inevitably confront you. For me this ‘having something new to say’ has been about the experience and the motivation of the Jacobin leaders. Just last week a graduate student told me that reading my work had helped her understand what it must have felt like to be living in that world of revolutionary politics. Her words meant a lot to me. As academics we don’t write for money (sadly, there is very little money in academic publishing), we write to be read, to help people see the past with new eyes. If you get a buzz out of that, then that helps you to keep going, to keep publishing.
What 3 tips would you give young scholars looking to publish their first article?
- Find powerful patrons and network like mad– the world of academic history is in many ways very like Old Regime France. It shouldn’t be like that of course – but it is. Some historians can be extraordinarily generous and supportive, and will give time to support young scholars. Find them out, and ask them to read your prospective article before you send it off, and to give you advice on which journal to approach. Be patient, because we are all worked off our feet now, but many historians want to help the next generation and see that as a primary responsibility. So if a supportive historian takes the time to give you advice on your article, then take that advice very seriously, even if it is not what you want to hear.
- Be brave and aim high. People so often take you at your own evaluation of yourself – you can see that at any academic conference. Don’t be discouraged if the prospective article on which you have worked so hard comes back with negative feedback from the anonymous readers and a curt dismissal from the journal editor. Getting acceptance from a journal can be something of a lottery, and almost everyone – even well established scholars – gets rejections at some point, some justified, some decidedly not. The anonymous peer review system has many limitations, and some scholars abuse their privileges to ‘put the boot in’. But you can’t change that system, so be resilient. It is how you deal with the rejections that matters. If you believe that your work has something to say, then use the feedback if it is constructive and written to help you improve your submission (if the tone is one of negative grumpiness, or the readers all contradict one another then you can safely disregard much of it.) No one knows your work better than you so use your judgment.
- Make time for life. I’ve loved the research and the writing, but there is so much more to a life well lived; family and friends and taking the time to enjoy the moment are more important than anything else. To paraphrase a well-known saying, No one on their deathbed ever wished they had devoted more of their life to publishing research articles to increase a university’s REF submission.
Marisa Linton, Kingston University (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Marisa Linton is Reader in History at Kingston University.