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Advice for Scholarly Writing From My Experience Refereeing for Journals

Having had some publishing success in my career, I’ve been rewarded with tons of requests to review article manuscripts in the last couple years.  I am still not jaded enough to dislike being called on or not to need the recognition as an expert by editors such requests indicate.  I appreciate having some influence on the field that this work affords.  It also affords me the awareness of some common pitfalls.  To avoid them, I offer this advice.

  1. Clarity of thesis.  Time and again I find myself reviewing manuscripts whose thesis does not emerge until half way through the paper.  I am familiar with the problem from my own writing.  You have to write your way through the explanation of the problem to get at what you are arguing.  I remember one paper I wrote in my first or second year of graduate school where the professor circled four or five sentences in the first five or six pages with the comment “Thesis?” beside each sentence.  You know the sentence, “In this paper, I will argue…” At some point, you’ve promised to argue for six different claims.  Now of course, they are connected and you do expect to support each claim, but this is evidence, in my view, that you aren’t quite clear what precisely you are arguing for in the paper.  Usually the paper suffers from this lack of clarity early on.  Sometimes this lack of clarity regarding the thesis is not from too many claims but from a long introduction that does not make the point that the paper will support evident until pretty far into the manuscript.  This happens ridiculously often.  I’m not someone who prescribes a structure for all philosophy writing.  I agree that such prescriptions are tyrannical about what thinking ought to achieve and how writing out to exhibit that thinking.  But I think that academic writing involves certain expectations and serves certain ends and some clarity about the thesis is required to achieve those expectations and ends.
  2. Refer to the pertinent literature:  In graduate school, there seemed to be two schools of thought.  One professor told me that she never referenced the secondary literature until she was finished her project when she would go spend some time in the library filling in the secondary sources at the right place.  Another professor expressed surprise at my heavily footnoted dissertation commenting that there was so much secondary literature!  I think both these approaches fall short.  The first fails to see the contribution as part of the conversation, and so only appends the literature accidentally, to follow the protocols, and not really to be in conversation with it.   The second, which is often my own, comes from an anxiety to prove that you know things.  This approach often overextends the limits of those with whom you are really in conversation.  I take Kathryn Norlock’s advice to referees on the APA blog last year to heart.  Norlock advises referees to consider, “Is the author correct, on balance, about the general state of the literature with respect to their chosen topic?”  I’ve found that a useful guide.  Norlock interestingly addresses the absence of certain attributions as “an indicator…that the author did not make exactly the contribution to the subfield that they think they did.”  Situating your work in terms of certain scholarship shows how your work fits into the field, which shows what work your specific contribution does.  I think the task of refereeing can be one of encouraging a common set of references.  It is the inverse of the task in writing original research of knowing whether someone else made either directly contradictory arguments that need to be accounted for or initial arguments that would underwrite and support your arguments.
  3. The literature: get it right.  It isn’t just referencing the literature that your arguments put you in conversation with, it’s getting those arguments right.  This point is one I very much take to heart–a better critique requires the strongest possible rendering of the position under critique.  It’s far too easy to dismiss a critique for not fully appreciating the subtleties of the opposing view.  Of course, the philosophical contribution can be your original take on how the scholarship can be understood.  But even then, perhaps especially then, such a take needs to be justified from a sympathetic reading of the scholarly contribution.
  4. Don’t overstate.  I appreciate our shared eagerness to make original, even revolutionary, contributions to the field.  But academic scholarship is slow and careful.  Its implications may be large, and surely should be gestured toward, but its arguments must be focused and hard won.  Three revolutionary claims about how to read a text each building on the next cannot be placed in one journal article.  The several implications of the overthrow of a received reading require a careful and sustained argument for that overthrow rather than an argument for how those implications are preferable.  I have not always followed this advice, but the more refereeing I do, the more I’m convinced that humble claims are more persuasive.  Collectively, they can add up to a revolutionary contribution.  This approach might mean thinking about what articles you need to write in order to be able to write the article you really want to write.
  5. Consider your audience.  If your audience is one subfield whom you put in conversation with a thinker from another subfield, recognize that your audience will know the first subfield better.  If you then send to a journal in the second subfield you might need to edit to clarify the lay of the land in the first subfield.  I know there are different opinions on this point, but I think it is important to consider the audience of the specific journal you submit to when you edit.

One thing before signing off, I think writers would be well-served by seeking more feedback or at least being more thoughtful about their own editing process before sending their work out.  In my skeptical moments, I have wondered whether graduate students are getting less and less productive feedback from overworked graduate faculty even as these students are more and more encouraged to have publications before graduating.  I have wondered accordingly if my referee report is the first feedback on a paper that someone is receiving.   This situation does not make me sympathetic to the work.  If anything, it makes me resent graduate faculty whose work I am doing when I write a long report, which I do as a service to the field, but they should be doing, because they not I are being compensated for giving their graduate students this feedback.   I don’t always have evidence that this is what is happening but I have on occasion had it confirmed from editors when I asked after reviewing a manuscript whether something they sent me was from a graduate student and why it was not desk rejected.  I would like to see editors–and authors–be considerate with the time of referees.  I’ll try to do the same.

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