By: Daniel Gadke, Ph.D. (Mississippi State University) & Bryn Harris, Ph.D. (University of Colorado Denver)
Contributors: Randy G. Floyd, Ph.D. (The University of Memphis); Stephen Kilgus, Ph.D. (University of Wisconsin-Madison); Susan M. Sheridan, Ph.D. (University of Nebraska-Lincoln)
Writing is integral to the success of any academic. Active and purposeful writing contributes to publication, grant acquisition, and ultimately, tenure and promotions. That being said, mentorship on scholarly writing is varied. Some early career faculty enter their careers feeling well-prepared to meet their writing demands, while others may find themselves figuring it out as they go along. Regardless, writing is largely an art and everyone has the capacity to grow and become better writers. A large part of improving one’s writing abilities is not only understanding what accounts for “good” writing, but having a firm grasp on common mistakes. To help us with this, Drs. Randy Floyd, Stephen Kilgus, and Susan Sheridan have graciously shared their feedback across a number of questions.
In general, what do you think are the top academic writing mistakes scholars make?
Floyd: I think that, for graduate students and early career writers, belief that early drafts of their papers must be perfect is a major impediment. Viewing the writing process in terms of pre-drafting, drafting, and post-drafting is vital, as neither planning for writing (pre-drafting) nor text generation (drafting) will tend to produce anything close to the quality that is ready for peer review or publication. It is the cycle of editing and rewriting (post-drafting) that will make a difference in the end. The United States Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis is credited with saying, “There is no great writing, only great rewriting.” Writers should remove barriers to writing by lowering their expectations for the initial text they produce.
For beginning writers, omitting basic and required elements in manuscripts submitted to journals is a common problem; reporting more details makes a difference (see https://www.apastyle.org/jars). I do not feel as strongly about the importance of peer reviewers providing feedback to authors about full application of APA style as I did in the past, but both editors screening manuscripts and peer reviewers providing a thorough review of manuscript content remain concerned about surface-level features. Thus, failure to format manuscripts according to the guidelines recommended by the journal editor and publisher (which is almost always—if not absolutely always—APA style for school psychology journals) results in a serious error in that it undermines reviewers’ trust in the authors’ competence. Online searchable resources for writers abound (see https://blog.apastyle.org/ and https://owl.purdue.edu/owl/research_and_citation/apa_style/apa_formatting_and_style_guide/general_format.html).
For more advanced writers, common problems include both formatting errors (e.g., not carefully attending to in-text citations and reference sections and not italicizing statistical symbols) and more advanced writing skills. These errors with more advanced writing skills often relate to cohesion (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cohesion_(linguistics). A common error in text cohesion stems from authors using a variety of terms to refer to the same variable or phenomenon. For example, my colleagues and I often struggle to agree on which of these terms to use: “intelligence test,” “IQ test,” “intelligence test battery,” “cognitive ability battery,” and the like. I suspect that most content area experts struggle with these same issues, which are magnified when authors develop different sections of a manuscript. In the same vein, authors’ “curse of knowledge” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Curse_of_knowledge) negatively impacts readers, as authors make too many assumptions about what the reader already knows and what the reader is facile in processing. In particular, authors tend to rely excessively on acronyms, whereas they would probably be better served if they omitted them altogether—especially when acronyms share common letters—for all but the most common ones (e.g., NASP and APA).
Kilgus: More generally, one of the more common mistakes I see is the lack of flow or story-telling in writing. Whether it’s a peer-reviewed paper or grant proposal, researchers need to demonstrate the importance of their ideas and justify their examination. All too often, researchers do not provide a sufficient rationale within their writing. Or rather, their rationale is clouded by an unorganized narrative. When teaching courses and mentoring graduate students, I heavily emphasize to students the need to tell a coherent and convincing story about their research ideas, thereby providing a strong context for their research and a compelling justification to conduct new investigations.
- Lack of clarity around purpose, with insufficient theoretical grounding for their work.
- Lack of internal consistency: By this I mean too often people set up a paper one way, but deviate when it comes to developing their methods, results and discussion. Each section should build upon what precedes it, such that you tell a coherent, organized story with a theme that cuts across the entire paper. There should be no “surprises” regarding a paper’s purpose and focus; let the study’s results be the surprise.
- Lack of clearly stated research questions.
- Colloquial writing:Often people write in an overly conversational, casual tone. Scholarly writing should be professional and technical, but also accessible and understandable.
- Confusion regarding main and supplemental points: Paragraphs, sentences, and word choice all matter; all should be selected intentionally and in a way that supports the author’s message. All should convey their meaning very clearly.
In the introduction of a manuscript, what do you think are the top academic writing mistakes that scholars make?
Floyd: In general, I think that both authors and reviewers place too much emphasis on the literature review that is included in the Introduction section. Often, it is the first section that authors draft (especially for thesis and dissertation projects) and it is almost always the first section that reviewers read. I assert, however, that it is probably the least important section to facilitate growth in the field. I suspect that many authors believe that a strong literature review can help a manuscript overcome a weak study at its heart, but I do not think that it is often the case. In terms of concrete mistakes made in this section, I see three: not citing a sufficient number of recent and relevant references, not using past tense to describe the results from studies reviewed, and writing such a lengthy Introduction (e.g., 12-15 pages) that it dwarfs more important elements of the manuscript (e.g., Results and Discussion).
Kilgus: I would say my prior response would work for this question too.
- Authors sometimes struggle stating their main purpose or point early enough to orient the reader to the most important focus of their paper/study. The main purpose should be introduced somewhere on the first page, and the literature reviewed should then relate to the purpose clearly and logically.
- I often see people citing far too many references to justify points made in the introduction. Typically two are sufficient. Citations are also often dated; if the literature review is replete with papers/citations that are two or more decades old, I question the author’s knowledge of current research.
- At times the introduction reads like a term paper or essay written by a student for a course. It is OK to repurpose a well-written paper, but it is important to understand that writing for a journal (or book chapter) is fundamentally different in terms of purpose, technique, technicality, etc. Much of what may have been in a student’s paper will need to be revamped significantly before going into a journal article or other published outlet.
- Lack of cohesion: Too often sections are loosely connected and don’t hang together to tell a story and lead the reader to understanding why the current study is important. Flow, consistency, and integration (of arguments, main points, gaps, and the current study’s focus) are super important. Writing needs to be tight.
- Sometimes authors fail to differentiate their study from others that have been published previously.
What are the common academic writing mistakes that you see in the method section?
Floyd: At the highest levels of publishing in our field, I see two common errors. Authors often completely omit the Procedures subsection when describing the results of an intervention study or a study employing archival data. To me, a description of how participants were recruited, how consent and assent were obtained, and who collected the data that are analyzed should always be reported. In addition, in the Measures subsection, authors often (a) fail to describe their key variables of interest and (b) include text about other features of their measures that are irrelevant to the study. Instead, authors should describe the metric of the variables (e.g., raw scores or T scores), the scaling of their variables (e.g., describing that high scores reflect more of the targeted construct), as well as the reliability and validity evidence supporting the use of the specific variables included in the analysis. In the same vein, they should not typically describe scores that were not employed in the study.
Kilgus: I commonly see two mistakes in Method sections. First, authors tend to under-report information related to study procedure. I know it is cliché to say that Method sections should support any future study replications by providing strong details related to study procedures. Unfortunately, the existence of this cliché has not resulted in uniformly strong Method sections across papers. I recognize it can be challenging for authors to include such information given journal page limits. However, there are always ways around this issue. Many journals support online appendices that do not factor into page or word counts. Authors should consider appending manuals or protocols that were used within their study and can be used to better outline what was done as part of the investigation.
Second, many authors simply report on what they did without justifying their decisions. What was the rationale for the selected measures? Were they aligned with a particular theory or supported by evidence specific to a particular assessment purpose (e.g., screening, diagnosis, or progress monitoring)? Similarly, what was the rationale for the study design? If the design is not particularly rigorous, is it still appropriate given the early stages of research within that area? Better justification for methodological choices would help to illustrate to readers that the study was not haphazardly constructed but rather thoughtfully designed.
- Too little detail, especially around analytic technique… but also general methods and procedures. Not only does this create problems with understanding what was done and the rigor with which the study was executed, it makes it impossible to replicate or evaluate.
- Insufficient information about context – setting, sample, etc.
- With intervention studies, not enough attention to criteria specified in the What Works Clearinghouse.
What are the most common academic writing mistakes in the Results section?
Floyd: In general, a signature feature of a weak study is when the Results section includes only a paragraph or two, so extending this section is important. Reporting data screening procedures and tests of assumptions of statistical tests as well as describing to readers what to reference in tables and figures make a difference to reviewers and improve the quality of the manuscript. The biggest mistakes I have seen have been related to incongruence (a) between the Method and Results section (e.g., describing one set of variables from an instrument earlier but reporting the results of other variables in Results), (b) between terms used in the text and terms used in tables and figures, and (c) between results and conclusions described in text and the content in tables and figures. If I had one recommendation to advanced writers, it would be to better align text in Results with tables and figures.
Kilgus: It seems obvious, but I wish more authors would report the extent to which their data meet various analytic assumptions. Many authors are able to provide this information upon request as part of a revision and resubmission. However, they might not always get the opportunity to revise their paper. Often, as an associate editor, I might be more inclined to invite a revision if I trust the paper will eventually be worthy of publication. Without information related to statistical assumptions, such trust might be limited.
- Lack of connection to the study’s purpose statement and research questions.
- Insufficient detail regarding issues such as fidelity (in intervention studies), missing data, reliability.
- Clarity in describing the study’s findings; authors need to state the findings technically, but also interpret what they mean for an audience not trained as statisticians.
- Clarity in interpreting data presented in figures.
Specifically pertaining to the discussion section, what do you think are the top academic writing mistakes?
Floyd: No study can be without some limitations in terms of statistical and methodological rigor or generalization, so when authors omit this section, it is a cue to many reviewers that the authors may not have been as thorough or honest as possible in their reporting.
Kilgus: I find many authors do not do a strong enough job connecting their findings back to existing research and theory. It is great to summarize what was found in a particular study and connect results back to research questions. However, it is easier to contribute to the broader literature base when explicit connections are made to what has been found previously.
- Lack of effort to tie the new findings to the literature reviewed in the Introduction. Again, it is an internal consistency issue.
- Interpreting only the current findings and not embellishing their meaning with the extant literature.
- Failure to lead and conclude with important take-home findings.
- Over interpretation of findings is a very common mistake. It is OK if findings are somewhat inconsistent or unclear – that leads to more research.
- Insufficient explanation of study limitations.
- Insufficient attention to research directions.
- In some journals, attention to practice implications is necessary but overlooked.
What are the most common writing mistakes that you have seen in the cover letter?
Floyd: It has been my experience that many authors do not include submission cover letters that include the necessary elements. However, it is not crystal clear what these cover letters should look like. My brief internet search for models yielded numerous varieties—from brief ones containing summaries of the study described in the manuscript to more lengthy analytical ones. I was struck by the lack of consensus and how few focused on APA style. The best model might be the one on p. 232 (Figure 8.1) of the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association (APA, 2010). It is noteworthy that many manuscript submission portals for journals now include items addressing manuscript length and word counts, assurance of the uniqueness of the submission and prior review board approval, potential for copyright transfer, and financial conflicts of interest. Author and contact information is embedded in this submission process, too. These features would seem to make a cover letter obsolete, but I recommend developing a detailed, standardized submission letter to include with all submissions as it allows you to address acknowledgements that cannot be included in a blinded submission, alert the editor about potential ethical problems (e.g., publishing a series of articles based on the same data set), and cope with inconsistencies in manuscript submission portal requirements across journals.
Kilgus: I find that cover letters tend to be highly general. Make sure each cover letter is specific to the paper and journal in question. Editors and associate editors really do read these, and it can be helpful to see why the authors chose to submit their work to a particular outlet.
Sheridan: I don’t know if this pertains only to the cover letter, but it is important that authors read about the journal to which they are submitting. All journals have their scope and purpose published; it is important that the paper as submitted conforms not only to its standards in terms of page count, presentation of tables/figures, conformance to APA style, inclusion of keywords, etc… but also aligns with the focus of the journal itself.
How would you describe the most unforgivable writing mistakes?
Floyd: I am not sure that there are truly unforgivable writing mistakes, but as editors return many manuscripts (often about one-quarter or more) without full review after their preliminary screening, manuscripts that are incredibly brief or that include plagiarized content are increasingly likely to attract the attention of editors. While processing manuscripts at Journal of School Psychology (2010-2014), I rejected many that were 10 pages or less in length, and unless the authors have very carefully considered every word and the study is extremely narrow in scope and more appropriate for a “brief report,” such a short manuscript cannot include all the necessary information. Employing single spacing of all text, specifying wide (1-½- or 2-inch) margins, and mashing multiple tables together on the same page are related problems with formatting that are not necessarily practical problems as long as editors and reviewers can access the manuscript content. Most editors and reviewers assume, however, that these formatting errors are associated with more serious problems with conduct of the research, data analysis, and reporting in the manuscript. Regarding plagiarism, editors are increasingly equipped with programs (e.g., iThenticate) that allow them to evaluate submissions prior to their own review, so the probability of getting caught making such an error—even in the form of self-plagiarism—is relatively high.
Kilgus: Obviously, plagiarism (whether intended or not) is highly problematic. This goes for self-plagiarism as well. Multiple times I have seen authors include content in a paper that is highly similar to content they included in another one of their papers. Whether that work is cited or not, it can still be really problematic. I would suggest that authors strive for independence across their publications.
Another shortcoming that does not necessarily fall into the “unforgivable” category, but can still be a big problem, are errors in grammar or syntax. I would strongly encourage authors to carefully and thoroughly proof their papers before submitting to peer review. Simple errors can undermine reviewer confidence. Also, if I am taking the time to carefully read a paper as a reviewer or associate editor, I would like to assume such care was taken in constructing the paper. Simple undetected errors might lead me to assume authors were not taking such care.
- Careless, sloppy presentation (e.g., incomplete [fragmented] sentences, spelling errors, poor word choices).
- Lack of conformance to APA style. The attitude of “an editor will catch/fix this” is unforgivable.
- Getting mired in unimportant details, or remaining far too much “at the surface.”
What should early career scholars do to improve their academic writing abilities in general?
Floyd: Use general journal article reporting standards (see https://www.apastyle.org/jars) or design or analysis specific reporting standards (e.g., for single-case research, http://psycnet.apa.org/fulltext/2016-17384-001.html or for systematic reviews and meta-analyses, http://www.prisma-statement.org/PRISMAStatement/Default.aspx) to guide the drafting of sections of manuscripts.
Do not forget to devote 5+ hours to final reviews of a manuscript before submitting it. Printing and reviewing hard copies, using immersive readers while reviewing (see https://support.office.com/en-us/article/use-immersive-reader-for-onenote-10712138-b4ed-4513-958d-d9a1b3038170 and https://www.naturalreaders.com/), and comparing text to tables and figures are important elements during this final stage.
Collaborate with others who can contribute substantively to projects and also provide guidance regarding manuscript construction, engage in concurrent internal peer-review of the manuscript prior to submission, and complete final edits to text. Many advanced scholars I know would be delighted to serve in that role during projects relevant to their expertise.
Begin using a reference management program early in your development or begin this year. We are fans of RefWorks (https://refworks.proquest.com) but also understand the benefits of using Mendeley (https://www.mendeley.com).
Kilgus: I would suggest that researchers find strong exemplar papers from authors they highly respect. They should then read those papers twice: once to obtain the information in that paper and once to examine the paper’s style and structure. I found my writing got better once I started paying attention to how others were constructing their papers.
- Write! There is no substitute for the sheer act of writing.
- Set aside time for writing and be selfish/intentional about it. Writing even a couple of pages in one sitting is better than waiting until you have significant blocks of time. They are few and far between and you can’t afford to wait.
- Re-read every sentence and every paragraph as you write them. Ask yourself if they are as clear as they can be.
- Get feedback on your writing. When you ask someone to read your work, make sure to give them what you believe is your best effort. It is irritating to readers/reviewers to read and critique shoddy work, and will be much less helpful to you as the author.
- Write with a senior person who is a prolific author. Take the lead but ask them to offer suggestions for improving your style, organization, content, clarity, etc.
- Pay attention to APA style. It actually makes you a better writer; readers will take your writing more seriously if they see you have attended to this professional detail.
- Engage students in writing. This helps everyone.
- Review articles submitted for publication when possible. This helps you see what it is like “on the other side;” what works, what doesn’t, how to organize or frame things, etc. Your critique of others writing will make you a better writer.