How to get published: notes from an editor

This post first appeared on the ESRC blog on March 21st 2017 

Mila Steele is a Publisher at SAGE Publishing, where she leads the research methods textbook programme.

SAGE partnered with the ESRC to sponsor this year’s ESRC writing competition, Making Sense of Society. Ahead of the ceremony announcing the winners, the shortlisted entrants attended a ‘how to get published’ masterclass presented by Mila held at the SAGE offices in London. Here she gives a few of her top tips.

Editors tend to love lists, and here are my top five pieces of advice that never go out of date.

  1. Start in the right place
    If you’re submitting a journal article, draw up a shortlist of key journals and make sure that they have a scope and methodological approach that would fit your research. Read the aims and scope and make sure you’re familiar with what the journal has been publishing recently. The number one reason for an article submission to get rejected is that it doesn’t fit with the aims and scope of the journal. With a book proposal, it’s the publisher you need to look at. Do they publish in your subject area? If you’re writing a research monograph, does the publisher have a scholarly book list? If you have an idea for a textbook, does the publisher have books that aim for similar? A little research will pay off.
  1. Make your title clear, informative and to the point
    This is the first step in visibility for your work. Don’t be enigmatic; this is not the place to play with some double entendres or get creative with punctuation. Your title needs to be quickly recognisable, so make sure that you have the keywords that would allow other people in your field to identify it at a glance. Whether it is a journal article or a book, it is also part of the metadata, so is as important as the keywords or abstract themselves. A good book title should fit courses the book could be used on; this will increase the likelihood of your book appearing on reading lists. A journal article title should have the key terms that researchers in your field would search for and give clues about your findings.
  1. Follow the guidelines
    Every journal will have article submission guidelines on its website, which will tell you important details like how to format your submission and maximum length. For a book proposal, look under ‘help for authors’ on any publisher’s website and you will find guidance on how to prepare your book proposal and what the commissioning editor will expect to see. Find the guidelines – there are always guidelines – and follow them. It’s that simple.
  1. Find the love for peer review
    Most reviewers are conscientious scholars who are setting aside their Saturday afternoon just for you, out of a sincere wish to help you improve. It is an important gift and even if it feels exposing to have some weaknesses in your work pointed out, it is the route to a stronger paper or book proposal. Make sure you provide a response to reviews and show that you have read them constructively. If there are recommendations that you don’t feel are helpful or relevant, all you have to do is explain why. If you have submitted a book proposal, the commissioning editor will help you to interpret key points and will give you a clear picture of what you do and don’t need to address. Many journal editors help frame peer review too. So even though you’ve heard it may be tedious, useless, frustrating, dispiriting or just plain awful – hold to the belief that it will strengthen your work.
  1. Don’t give up!
    If you get a rejection, it’s not all over. Try to understand why your submission was turned down and be strategic about the next journal or publisher you approach. Make sure that you’ve followed the journal or proposal guidelines and take any advice that you’ve been offered. Try the next journal on your list, and the next. Go to another publisher and treat each submission like it’s the first.

Find out more about the writing competition winners here. 

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