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This editorial is the third in this volume of Journal of Advanced Nursing that considers quality issues. In March, measures of journal esteem were discussed. The system of double-blind peer review was considered in the following issue. The point was also made in April that the story of journal quality actually begins when an author plans, carries out, and completes their task of compiling the evidence for publication. The author’s major contribution to quality is therefore the subject of this editorial on writing for publication. A fourth, on the preparation of book reviews by the Media Reviews Editor, Professor Roger Watson, will follow in June.

Writing for publication in a peer-reviewed journal is both an art and a science. The numerous guides that exist on writing for publication tend, somewhat unfortunately, to concentrate on the science, and overlook important aspects of the art. While the scientific aspects of writing are clearly crucial for a paper’s acceptance, it should also to be remembered that writing for publication is not a homogenous activity. Authors need to write in the genre, the kind, sort, style, of the intended publication even when writing for prestigious academic journals. The genre varies for each individual journal, and it is in the author’s best interests to identify that individual style when targeting a particular venue for their papers. The best way to achieve this goal is simply to read the journal and gain a ‘feel’ for what has been published there before. This activity is in addition to following the detailed Guidelines for Authors. These are carried in every peer-reviewed publication, and provide essential guidance on the necessary preparation of papers for submission to that specific journal. The Journal of Advanced Nursing not only carries its Guidelines for Authors inside the back page of every issue, but also in Synergy, the on-line version ( www. blackwell-science.com/jan).

In July 1998 an article by Griselda Campbell, the journal publisher, on ‘Helping you get published in the Journal of Advanced Nursing’ was also featured. In her paper, the journal’s Aims and Scope as well as helpful guidelines on writing style, authorship, and a checklist to consider before submission, were set out ( Campbell 1998).

Writing for publication is frequently endured as a solitary activity. Yet, it is the means whereby an author conveys the sense of what he or she intends to potential readers. The late Dr Philip Strong, an erudite and immensely humorous sociologist with whom I was privileged to work during the 1980s, used to say that much of what passed for academic writing in the social sciences was an insult to the reader. Turgid and impenetrable prose were, he claimed, frequently a means of concealment for poor scholarship. If, on the other hand, an author can imagine him or herself reading the contents of their paper aloud and in person to an imaginary audience, the probability of a more readable and intelligible piece increases dramatically.

Writing for the new author can be a daunting, even terrifying, experience. Too few neophyte authors probably realize that writing can be equally daunting to the experienced as well. Authors (new and old) also appear to underestimate how many times a piece has to be reviewed and re-written before it is really acceptable even to himself or herself, let alone to an editor or peer reviewer. One of the funniest, yet perceptive books on the experience of writing Collecting Himself: James Thurber on writing and writers, humour and himself (1989), opens with this quotation from Life magazine:

I admire the person who can write it right off. Mencken once said that a person who thinks clearly can write well. But I don’t think clearly — too many thoughts bump into one another. Trains of thought run on a track of the Central Nervous System — the New York Central Nervous System, to make it worse ( Thurber 1960).

Thurber’s experience will be familiar to many authors; but he also provides an idea of how he began to write:

(a first draft is) just for size… . That draft isn’t any good; it isn’t supposed to be; the whole purpose is to sketch out the proportions… . I rarely have a very clear idea of where I am going when I start. Just people and a situation. Then I fool around — writing and re-writing until the stuff gels ( Thurber 1940).

Thurber, of course, was a humorist, writing plays, books and pieces for periodicals. Nevertheless, in his lightness of touch, and wonderful perception of the human condition, there are lessons for all would-be authors. Reading Thurber for pleasure is probably one of the most enjoyable ways of absorbing lessons on writing with others in mind. I commend this as a method but, in the absence of Thurber’s brilliant economy of style, here are some of the messages for authors that I have learned over almost 3 years of editing the Journal of Advanced Nursing.

First, rejection is our worst possible option. There are no constraints on publishing papers that meet the Journal of Advanced Nursing’s Aims and Scope. Papers should contribute to the development and advancement of nursing, and should have a sound scientific, theoretical or philosophical base and be relevant to the development of nursing care, policy and practice, nursing education, management and research. Papers should contribute something new to the literature and not simply rehearse old arguments.

Second, if authors could bear Thurber’s comments on writing and re-writing successive drafts in mind before submitting their papers, the probability of acceptance would increase. It is currently sometimes necessary to send papers back to authors for ‘a major review’. Some take this to mean that the paper is just not good enough for the journal and then fail to re-submit. This is a truly regrettable situation, for what we have often received first time around is similar to Thurber’s first or second draft. The paper needs more thought, more re-working, and more consideration of the sense that will be made of the piece by the ultimate readers.

Third, our readers are a heterogeneous group, not least in that they are located in 70 countries around the globe. The problem of ethnocentricity in nursing was the subject of the January 2000 editorial and authors should take this message to heart. The organization and delivery of nursing and health care in one country may make little sense to readers elsewhere in the world. Some brief context for each paper is essential if we are to consider all of our readers in their diverse situations.

Four, papers should reflect the most recent literature on a topic. Understandably, authors sometimes submit papers for which the research was completed some time previously. This is acceptable, provided that the recent literature has been covered and developments since the study was completed taken into account, and reported upon. It is often apparent, when editing, how particular subjects have become ‘fashionable’ for study (perhaps as a result of national government initiatives) and it can be irritating to find that some papers submitted have not covered the sometimes sizeable recent literature available. The parameters of literature reviews should also be well defined. If a paper is the subject of research on a national initiative it is acceptable for only the national literature to be searched, but this should be acknowledged. However, the paper (or perhaps a second, ‘stand alone’, associated paper) will be stronger if the international literature is searched, and critical comparisons made with similar developments taking place elsewhere in the world.

Five, additional papers of the kind referred to above are acceptable providing that they do ‘stand alone’ for publishing purposes. This allows authors scope within the 5000 maximum word limit to develop their topic fully in each paper. However, authors need to beware the danger of plagiarizing themselves and to ensure that large sections are not replicated. Publisher’s copyright arrangements ensure that permission for some unavoidable replication can be given, but this permission should be obtained, and the duplication kept to an essential minimum.

Six, a medical statistician normally reviews papers with statistical content once they have been accepted in principle. Sadly, no amount of revision can put right a poorly designed study. This situation probably accounts for the majority of papers rejected, whether they are broadly qualitative or quantitative in orientation.

Finally, the invention of the spell and grammar check on the modern computer has brought a boon to hard pressed writers. So, why is this simple device not used routinely by authors before submitting their papers for publication? I do not know the answer, but much editorial time and red pen would be saved if only authors would form the habit of using a ‘Spell and Grammar check’. I do admit however, that the grammar check is not without its problems. During its use I have discovered that for years I have been using ‘which’ when the apparent correct usage for connecting the subclause is ‘that’. Thurber had the same problem. I will let him have the penultimate, and the last word:

That ‘that’ could easily become as serious an infestation as the commas that spread like black dandelions. When I was asked recently to insert a ‘that’ on behalf of style except in direct quotes, I stayed awake writing such sentences as this. I consider that that ‘that’ that worries so much should be forgotten. Rats desert a sinking ship. Thats infest a sinking magazine ( Rosen 1989, page 14).

Heaven forbid! The Journal of Advanced Nursing will always concede some measure of independence for authors’ idiosyncrasy in style. As Thurber himself said ‘The tendency of the writer-editor to collaborate is natural, but he should say to himself ‘How can I help this writer to say it better in his own style?’ and avoid ‘How can I show him how I would write it, if it were my piece?’ ( Rosen 1989, page 12). That is a lesson that the editor has continually to learn.

References

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  2. References
  • 1
    Campbell G.C. (1998) Helping you get published in the Journal of Advanced Nursing. Journal of Advanced Nursing 28, 8 9.
  • 2
    Rosen M., ed. (1989) Collecting Himself: James Thurber on Writing and Writers, Humour and Himself. Hamish Hamilton, London.
  • 3
    Thurber J. (1940) Interview with Robert Van Gelder. ‘Thurber’s Life and Hard Times.’ New York Times Book Review 12, 2020 (quoted in Rosen, ed. op cit, page 4).
  • 4
    Thurber J. (1960) ‘Thurber.’ Life 14, 103 108 (quoted in Rosen, ed. op cit, page 3).