Rewriting and Polishing Your Article

Published: 21st September 2011
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For many authors revising an article is unmitigated agony. Even proofreading is painful. And so they donít. So relieved to get a draft done, they send it off to the journal thinking that they can clean up the writing after it has been accepted. Alas, that day rarely comes. Some may find solace in the belief that the manuscript probably would have been rejected even if it had been extensively revised and polished; after all, most of psychology journals accept only 15 to 20% of all manuscripts submitted. But from my experience as an editor, I believe that the difference between the manuscripts accepted and the top 15 to 20% of those rejected is frequently the difference between good and less good writing. Moral: Do not expect journal reviewers to discern your brilliance through the smog of polluted writing. Revise your manuscript. Polish it. Proofread it. Then submit it.

Rewriting is difficult for several reasons. First, it is difficult to edit your own writing. You will not notice ambiguities and explanatory gaps because you know what you meant to say and you understand the omitted steps. One strategy for overcoming this difficulty is to lay your manuscript aside for awhile and then return to it later when it has become less familiar.

Sometimes it helps to read it aloud. But there is no substitute for practicing the art of taking the role of the nonspecialist reader, for learning to role-play grandma. As you read, ask yourself, "Have I been told yet what this concept means?" Has the logic of this step been demonstrated?" "Would I know what the independent variable is at this point?" This is precisely the skill of the good lecturer in Psychology 101, the ability to anticipate the audienceís level of understanding at each point in the presentation. Good writing is good teaching.

But because this is not easy, you should probably give a fairly polished copy of the manuscript to a friend or colleague for a critical review. (If you get a critique from two colleagues you will have simulated a trial run of a journalís review process.) The best readers are those who have themselves published in the psychological journals, but who are unfamiliar with the subject of your article. (A student from Psychology 101 would probably be too intimidated to give usefully critical feedback; grandma will be too kind.)

If your colleagues find something unclear, do not argue with them. They are right: By definition, the writing is unclear. Their suggestions for correcting the unclarities may be wrong, even dumb. But as unclarity detectors, readers are never wrong. Also resist the temptation simply to clarify their confusion verbally. Your colleagues do not want to offend you or appear stupid, and so they will simply mumble "oh yes, of course, of course" and apologize for not having read carefully enough. As a consequence, you will be pacified, and your next readers, the journal reviewers, will stumble over the same problem. They will not apologize; they will reject.

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