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Writing a paper? Be aware of your reader

Anne Wilson

When I ask researchers how they read journal articles, most say they read the title, abstract and possibly the first sentence or two. Then they skip to whatever has drawn them to the topic. It might be the results, the discussion, or a methodology that is relevant to their own interests. When I ask how they write an article for publication, a strange thing happens: they describe structuring their research story in a logical fashion, with no mention of what their readers need and want. Most don’t connect their own time-pressured ‘hop, skip and jump’ reading with how their own article will be read, or use this insight to decide how to frame their story. Yet being aware of how you read academic journals can improve immeasurably the way you write.

I worked with a scientist whose first draft was well written and structured logically. But when I asked her what readers would look for, she said it was her innovative methodology. I pointed out that she had not flagged this up in either the title or the abstract. The methodology section took up less space than the introduction, which was so long and rambling she admitted most readers would skip it. Focusing on her readers led the scientist to include her methodology in the title, describe it as ‘innovative’ in the abstract and refer to it several times in a shortened introduction. She used the extra space to put more detail in the methodology section itself.

Another common mistake is not paying enough attention to the journal’s submission guidelines. By this, I don’t just mean word count, headings and referencing format, although these are important. Most academic journals give a clear, succinct description of their readership, scope and criteria for acceptance; ignoring these can waste time and effort. The first question I ask a researcher is, ‘What is the remit of your target journal and who reads it?’ The scope might be a cliché, such as the environmental science journal that ‘seeks to publish papers that are particularly significant and original’. Yet this is an important clue to getting your proposal accepted. If you struggle to pinpoint how your research is significant and original, you may be submitting to the wrong journal. If, however, you feel this is the right journal, write an abstract that states confidently why your work is important and how it will impact on the world, so the editor can see immediately that it’s a good fit.

Above all, remember that writing for an academic journal is communicating to a specific readership. Only by considering what, and how, your target audience reads can you ensure that your messages hit home.

21 May 2020

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