Writerly, readerly and strategic – practices for getting published



Last week I had to give a very short talk about my top tips for early career publishing. In very abbreviated form, here are the first three things I said about some important scholarly practices that underpin successful writing and publishing.

Be writerly. By this I mean to say that you need to think of yourself as a writer. Writing is not an add-on to the “real” academic work of research and teaching. It is the work. Writing is an integral to research and to teaching. Seeing yourself as a writer means:

1. making time for writing as part of your usual, average work week – that is, seeing writing as an ordinary everyday activity, not something to be squeezed in around the edges of everything else.

2. setting yourself up for writing. Do it and do it often. Practice. Find the right time. There will be a space and time which works for you for writing. So, if you’re an early morning writer, then get up early most days. If you’re a night person, then don’t plan to be out at the pub every night and/or negotiate with your loved ones to have some regular night times when you write.

3. valuing writing. See writing as equally worthy of your intellectual effort as any other area of scholarly activity. Writing doesn’t come naturally to most of us. There are always things to learn about it. So why not spend some time studying writing? Look at how other writers put texts together. Read about other writers and what they do/think/argue. You might want to read some of the research that is conducted into scholarly, non-fiction and creative writing.

Be readerly. I’m using this term following Barthes. Barthes (1975) talked about readerly writing as inviting readers to engage with, and make meanings from, a text. So thinking about writing readerly texts means:

1. knowing who your reader is. You have to know who you’re writing for, what they are interested in, and what they expect. This means getting an understanding the market for your book and/or the community that reads a particular journal – and this means doing a bit of homework before you actually put hand to mouse. Once you know who your readers are, then it’s a matter of…

2. writing for the reader. Readers aren’t guaranteed. A reader will pick up your book or click on your article and if it doesn’t offer them something pretty quickly they’ll put your writing down and move onto something else that’s more engaging. So think about how to construct a book or paper that offers something specific and substantive, make that offer very clear at the start of the text – and then you need to live up to the expectation you’ve created. So you have to….

3. producing well-crafted writing. It’s beneficial to have a clear picture of the writer’s toolkit that you have at your disposal. Experiment – become increasingly proficient and comfortable working with quotations, metaphors, description, visual display, sentences and paragraphs and the specific lexicon relevant to your research. You need to be prepared to work at the writing by revising and revising, honing the content and the form. While the temptation is always to post off a paper as soon as its somewhere near finished – you’re just so pleased to have got this far – a readerly writer will always take the time to revise and polish the text so that it is the best it can be for the reader. Producing a good piece of writing is a way of caring for and respecting the reader and giving them the very best writing that you can do. ( And as a bonus a well crafted readerly text has got a much better chance with reviewers too.)

Be strategic, but not instrumental. While a lot of people witter on and on about the importance of just getting into the high impact journals, I want to tell you that:

1. it’s important to write for the people who want and/or need to read what you have to say. You need to talk with the people who will find your work of real value. You want to be in conversation with them. Your paper or book is your entree into a scholarly conversation. Some of your readers will be other researchers – so look for the journals that they read. These are likely to be the journals that you read as well – they might be top-ranked journals or they might not. They might just be decent, good-enough journals. The point, I reckon, is to choose the readers, not the journal ranking.

2. Don’t be afraid to also write something less apparently scholarly. There may be other kinds of publications – in addition to scholarly papers and books – which some of your readers use. These might be professional publications or mainstream and social media for example. It’s well worth writing for these alternative kinds of publications as well, as this writing gets your work known outside of your immediate circle – and gets it used. And this in turn can lead to all kinds of new conversations and networks, which may well in turn lead to new research opportunities, new collaborations, new insights…

3. It’s important to get actually get published, to get some track record. In most (but not all) disciplines it’s better for early career researchers to have three or four papers in a decent journal than a string of rejections from a snippy, top-ranked publication. Getting three or four papers in good journals that are read by your ideal readers means that you are in the scholarly – and ‘community of interest’ – conversations, rather than being an outsider. You’re making a contribution, you’re not silenced, a contributor-in-waiting. And you’ll certainly have a stronger sense of yourself as a writer and researcher if your writing is actually published and you can file the pdf, share the URL and/or hold the journal or book in your hand and show it to your friends. This is much more affirming that being rejected by sniffy reviewers, some of whom are really not kind. Getting the stuff out there does important work in relation to identity and agency. You’re published? Hey, you’re a writer!!!.

Author Bio: Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham. Her research is centred primarily on how schools might change to be more engaging and meaningful for more children and young people.