How not to get publishedBMJ 2005; 331 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.331.7529.s254 (Published 10 December 2005) Cite this as: BMJ 2005;331:s254
Tim Albert identifies the major pitfalls
Box 1: Five bits of good advice from writers
“Don't get it right, get it written”–James Thurber.
“The best writing is rewriting”—EB White
“Have something to say and say it as simply as you can. That is the only secret of style”—Matthew Arnold.
“Work first and wash afterwards”—WH Auden
“Whatever you do, avoid piles”—TS Eliot
(Quotes from Advice to Writers, compiled and edited by Jon Winokur, Pavilion Books, 1999.)
Box 2: Five statements that will upset an editor
I never thought much of your journal anyway
Have you thought of sending your technical editors on a basic literacy course?
Couldn't you just squeeze in another 400 words?
I'm sorry I missed the deadline.
By the way, what's your name?
Tim Albert runs courses on writing and editing skills. Upcoming courses at BMA House include Writing Scientific Papers on October 14 and Medical Journalism on November 4. For further information, go to www.timalbert.co.uk
Getting published is a marvellous thing. It earns you public recognition, advances your career, stimulates the mind, hones the judgement, opens doors, makes friends, creates travel opportunities, and even (on one or two well-documented occasions) triggers romance.
But like all valued activities, aspiration is easier than execution—although many think about writing, few are published.
To help you move from the first group to the second, I have gathered together the experiences of 35 years of writing, and 15 of teaching about writing, to bring to your attention ten major pitfalls. Avoid them, and you have a good chance of seeing your name in print.
1. Don't write until you are ready
Some people insist that the only time to write is when the muse hits them. Sadly, the muse is a fickle creature, and the wait can be endless. The remedy is simple—at the beginning of each year work out how many articles you need to get published to meet your goals; decide on a deadline for each; then put that deadline into your diary. Keep the number small—more than three and you should really consider whether you need to get a life.
2. Plans are for wimps
Some people believe that writing should be a voyage of discovery. They don't know where they are going to end up, but let rip anyway. The trouble with this technique is that it encourages its disciples to write far too much, which they then have to prune and restructure—hoping as they do this that a message will finally emerge. A more effective approach (for both writer and reader) is to be absolutely clear before writing the first sentence just what the last sentence will be (and the good news is that for many of the articles you write this will be your message). This will allow you to remain focused, and your readers to have a much better chance of working out what you are trying to say.
3. Write first, find a publication second
Again, some people (often those described in the previous paragraph) believe that they should write the article they feel is right, then look around for a publication to send it to. This is not sensible marketing—there may not be an audience for what you have written; if there happens to be an audience, you may have failed to meet their basic requirements. On the other hand, if you have decided on the audience before you start then you can look in your target journal and measure what they (or their gatekeeper, the editor) like. You can then write explicitly for them.
4. Surround yourself with all your data (plus references) when you write
When doctors write, they like to spread all the information they can gather over a desk (or even all available surfaces) and then try to weave it all into the perfect piece of prose. This makes for a long journey, and the resulting product invariably ends up overlong, stuffed with detail, and missing the point. Instead, unlock your creative side—put the information away and write from memory; this will enable you to concentrate on the broad issues, and the article will flow. You can add the details later.
5. The title is the most important thing
Actually it isn't. Editors will not be looking at the title; they will be looking at the article. And if the article is accepted, the chances are that someone will rewrite your title, perhaps because it does not fit their notion of a good title, or for a more prosaic reason such as it doesn't fit the space available. Choose a working title, but don't count on it seeing the light of day.
6. Don't bother revising
There is an attitude that writing ends when you reach the last full stop. In fact this is where the real work begins.
First ask the big questions. Are you actually saying anything (and is it clearly stated)? Have you got it right for the target audience (will the editor like it)? Is it well structured (does it develop logically, paragraph by paragraph)? Is the overall tone appropriate (have you written it in the style of the Lancet when it is intended for Cosmopolitan, or vice versa)?
Second, print it out again and go through it line by line, checking for facts, rooting out grammatical errors and spelling mistakes, and making sure that sentences are not too long, not too passive, and not crammed with long words and wasteful phrases. (That last piece of advice, however, only applies if you are a single author. If you are writing before sending to co-authors don't worry too much about style at this stage, because it will be truly mangled in the next; save your energies.)
7. Your style is your own and you must defend it verily unto death
Some writers, particularly at the start of their careers, believe that their style is part of their personality. Unfortunately this generally leads them to adopt an affected, pompous, or even biblical personality, and when a sensitive subeditor tries to humanise them they get upset, or (even worse) try to change it all back. This is dangerous stuff.
Tim Albert derives a substantial part of his income from teaching people how to get published.
Style should meet the needs of the reader, not the writer. It is not a measure of personality, but the end product of all the choices you make in your quest to put your message across effectively to your target audience. Choose wisely and your style will emerge. Unobtrusively.
8. Ask plenty of people to comment on your draft
This practice can be dangerous, as all those who see your work feel inspired to turn it into what they think is a good article. Identify a small number of people who can contribute (for example, by knowing a little about your subject matter, or being able to spot a spelling error at 50 metres), and be specific about what you want them to do.
9. Treat editors—and their staff—as ignorant fools
This is not a helpful attitude. If you have trouble with an editor then look first at what you have done. Editors see a lot more articles than you do. If they have changed what you have written, it will be for a reason. Work this out first before accusing them of incompetence. After all, they are the customers and you the humble (yes, really) producer.
10. Publication will make you an overnight celebrity
It is tempting to think that as soon as your article appears in print an adoring public will appear. This rarely happens. At the start of this article I listed all the good things that may occur once you have written, and I stand by the list. But be prepared for a resounding silence. Be prepared also for the odd bit of abuse (though usually this comes from people with an axe to grind who are not part of your target audience). Keep it all in proportion. Comfort yourself with the thought that you have written something and they have not. Then remind yourself of the deadline for the next article. ■