Article writing – review before you’re reviewed!

A few weeks ago one of our blogs was on ‘Finding the ‘write’ time’, sharing ideas on how to get started when you want to write an article. This week we’re thinking about the next step. One of the ‘joys’ of writing articles is having to respond to review comments. As well as receiving review comments, members of the Association for Dementia Studies team have also carried out their fair share of reviewing journal articles, so we’ve got a bit of experience in what different people might be looking for.

Rather than focusing on how to deal with review comments, this blog is more about pre-empting some of them so that reviewers can concentrate on what your article is actually saying. In general, reviewers will try to be constructive and aim to make your article stronger, so help them out by giving them a good quality article to start with! We’re definitely not saying that we always get it right, and every review process gives us an opportunity to learn how to improve as a reviewer and a reviewee, but here (in no particular order) are a few tips that might help. These are based on our experiences, so there are probably other things we’ve missed:

  • Don’t annoy the reviewer – everyone makes silly mistakes and that’s fine. However, if you keep making lots of them, it’s likely to annoy or frustrate the reviewer as they will detract from what you’re trying to say. Remember that most reviewers aren’t paid for their input, so if they feel you’re wasting their time with an article that’s full of mistakes – which could seem like you haven’t put much effort it – it might not be helpful for you. Some of the following can help to reduce common mistakes.
  • Be consistent – be aware of how you present words and numbers, and be consistent throughout your article. For example, if you’ve given all numbers to two decimal places (e.g. 1.23) then give one to three decimal places (1.234), that’s going to stand out. If you have a specific reason for the change, this needs to be made clear. Similarly, if you use a particular word or spelling in one place (e.g. greenspace) then a different one elsewhere (e.g. green space), that’s going to look odd. In most cases, if you pick one and stick with it, it’ll be fine. It’s the switching between two (or more) options that’s the issue.
  • Sort out your acronyms and initialisations – when you write an article you might not write it from start to finish, so it’s likely that when you use an acronym or initialisation you’ll not know at the time whether it’s the first use of it or not. Don’t forget though, that the final article will be read in order, so make sure that they are all written in full the first time (with the acronym/initialisation given) and the acronym/initialisation used from then on. It’s surprising how often authors end up doing this in the wrong order or doing it twice. Also, if you only use a particular phrase once, do you really need to give the acronym/initialisation?
  • Pay attention to your references – yes they can be a faff, but it’s surprising how often inconsistently presented or poorly formatted references can be a distraction. Find out what format the journal uses and do your best to stick to it. Also, make sure that the reference you give in the text matches the reference list. If you say 2017 in one place and 2019 in another, which should the reader believe? It might not sound like much, but even small things like this can slowly undermine the reader’s confidence in what you’re saying.
  • Watch your language – this will differ depending on the topic, but in the dementia world the use of ‘dementia sufferers’ is a no-no. If you use the wrong language it’s not likely to get the reviewer on your side. Also, it doesn’t really demonstrate that you know your topic or audience.
  • Be clear about what you’re saying – it can be tricky writing an article about research that you’ve been involved with, as what you write might make perfect sense to you but not mean a thing to someone without your knowledge. Help people out. Avoid long, winding sentences with lots of clauses and often not enough punctuation. Splitting a long sentence into two shorter ones can make a big difference. If it stops a reviewer having to re-read it three times to work out what you’re trying to say, it’s probably worth doing! Also, don’t use technical or ‘fancy’ words for the sake of it. You might think it makes you sound clever, but if a reviewer has to look it up… We’re not saying that you’ve got to dumb it down, just be aware of your audience and adjust accordingly. This also applies to concepts that are specific to your topic. While most people might understand them, just making a bit of effort to make them clearer could make your article more applicable to a wider audience or keep a reader engaged rather than giving up.
  • Don’t be a slave to the word count – yes most articles have word limits, but if you find that you’re having to cut corners, delete words or shorten bits to fit in with it, you might want to consider reworking a whole paragraph instead. This particularly goes for abstracts which have to be a lot shorter and sharper. Randomly dropping words to meet the word count does not work in terms of being readable and understandable. Writing an abstract is a skill in its own right, but often ends up being an afterthought. If you think about it though, it’s the first thing a reviewer will see, and you don’t want them to be annoyed or confused before they’ve even got to the main article!
  • Check your title – does your title actually reflect what your article is saying? If a reviewer goes in with one set of expectations based on the title and your article doesn’t fit with that, they will let you know.
  • Proof read it – basically, a lot of the above issues can be resolved if your article is proof read before submission. Often the main author is not the best person to do this as they have a lot of knowledge about the subject and may read what they think the article says rather than the words that are actually on the page. Find a colleague, partner, critical friend to give a pair of fresh eyes. Yes it might take time, but it might also eliminate 90% of the minor issues before you submit.

A word of caution though, every reviewer is different and some may be stricter than others. Some may pick you up on every little thing, while others may focus on the bigger picture. The reviewer shouldn’t have to be a proof reader, but if they have to fight past numerous superficial mistakes to get to the meat of what you’re saying, you may find that their patience and constructiveness wear a bit thin. It might even lead them to query points in more detail if they don’t have full confidence in your article. Therefore, if you can resolve a lot of the ‘easy fixes’ before you actually submit, you will be making the review process better for everyone involved.

Hopefully these are helpful, but as we said earlier there are probably other points that we’ve missed. Have fun with your writing and good luck.

Connect with ADS on twitter @DementiaStudies and on Facebook @adsuow

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