Publish Well and Wisely:
A Brief Guide for New Scholars (2nd edition)

By Michael J. Carley
Director, University of Akron Press
Associate Professor of History

There are many handbooks, pamphlets, and articles on preparing manuscripts for publication, and the reader may wonder why another short essay on the subject is worth an author's bother. It is a funny thing about preparing text for publication: the same questions and problems confront succeeding generations of students and writers.

Some aspiring authors of each new generation think that they are smarter and better prepared than their predecessors, and that they do not have much to learn before beginning a career of scholarly publishing. A cynic might say that these self-assured attitudes guarantee the need for fresh advice, if not a ready hearing. Of course, cynicism can be found in all areas of human endeavour, and so we need not pay it too much mind in ours.

I have written this essay in the hopes of offering guidance and advice to new scholars embarking upon their careers. If other authors find the advice useful, all the better. The recommendations will in many cases sound familiar because the principles of good writing are time-honoured having been passed down through the generations. Being an author, an editor, an administrator, and now a press director has provided me with different perspectives on the process of scholarly publishing. Different perspectives often provide deeper understanding, and it seems worthwhile to pass on the modest insights of my experience to those who want them. The following suggestions are offered as a beginning and a base of departure. Other ideas will come to mind, and some readers may disagree with my approach and my ideas. In this case, the essay will have succeeded in provoking the reader's reflections, which is the main object of the exercise.

You may ask why bother at all with good writing: why not simply report interesting research findings and move on to the next project? The simple answer is that good writing endures and gives its authors a voice which goes on after they no longer do. Good published writing is a link connecting us with our forebears and our descendants. The best writing has a mystical, elusive quality about it. You will perhaps doubt whether there is anything mystical about scholarship. "It's dry and turgid," the critic will say: "there are too many unfamiliar names, too much confusing terminology. It's not fiction, and it's just not interesting enough to hold the broader public's interest." Certainly most scholarly authors will not have the impact, say, of important novelists. But some scholars still speak to us even across the millennia. Consider, for example, the work of the philosophers and historians Plato, Herodotus, Thucydides, Socrates. How better to illustrate the endurance of good scholarship?

The focus here is on the four principal forms of scholarly dissemination: book, article, conference paper, and book review. Electronic publishing has made strong progress in the last few years and its possibilities and prospects are also briefly discussed here. Good writing, however, remains good writing in whatever form it may appear. Let us therefore discuss some general principles of the métier.

Basic Principles

  1. Writing is re-writing. By this epigram, I mean that good writing goes through many drafts before it is right, if it ever is, by an author's lights. And a good author will continue revising his/her text until it is typeset and the publisher or journal editor asks the author to stop "fiddling" and making substantive revisions. Rewriting takes patience and discipline, but pays in personal satisfaction as a text improves. In fact, for some authors the most pleasurable part of the process of writing is the rewriting.
  2. More is less. Writing which goes on too long does not impress or hold the attention of a reader, who will normally jump ahead, or even worse, stop reading altogether. Write concisely and tightly; eliminate the unnecessary. If an author can also write with elegance and flair, all the better.
  3. Clarity of expression is essential. This does not suggest that clarity should be achieved at the expense of complexity, merely that complexity can be explained with greater clarity. The result will be a book accessible to a wider audience, something every author hopes to achieve and all too often cannot do. Remember that no one is obliged to read your work; it must attract and hold the reader's interest.
  4. Avoid jargon and trendy or bewildering language. Jargon will not impress a reader; it may even confuse or alienate him or her. Trendy language, which may be the same thing as jargon or may be a close derivative, should also be avoided. Trends die out, and so does the trendy language. Jargon or highly technical language may be necessary in polymer science, but in the humanities and social sciences an author speaks to a wider audience. If you need to use technical language, be sure to define it when first used in the text. You might have heard it said that some scholars use jargon or bewildering language because the understanding of it is a form of admission to an exclusive club. Most readers do not want to be members of this club, and will not read the club's literature. What author needs this kind of exclusivity? The broader the appeal and accessibility of a book, the more widely its ideas will circulate, and the more books or journals, a publisher or editor will sell. Language should be used to communicate, not to confuse.
  5. The incomprehensible is not necessarily profound, it may only be incomprehensible. Put yourself in the reader's place and ask if s/he will be able to understand. If not, revise.
  6. Avoid long sentences. In some languages a long sentence may take up an entire paragraph, but not in English or French. If a sentence grows too long, break it up into shorter ones.
  7. Avoid excessive use of qualifying adverbs or adjectives. They usually add nothing and frequent use of them burdens a text (e.g., very, rather, clearly, quite). In modest use they can be effective, for example, to express irony or facetiousness. An author writes to put over an important idea or theme; s/he should not weaken or dilute it with excessive use of qualifying language.
  8. Use the active voice as a rule; avoid excessive use of the passive voice. The active voice puts the emphasis on the actor; the passive, on the action itself. Excessive use of the passive voice bogs down a text, as in fact, does overuse of any grammatical or stylistic device.
  9. Do not load up the notes with commentaries. If you cannot put it in the text, as a rule, it should not go into the endnotes. Some wags say they like to read the "footnotes" first, or, that there are two books, one in the text and one in the notes. Over frequent, long commentaries in the notes distract the reader from the text and defeat the purpose of a well-written book or article. If you cannot put a passage in the text, put it out altogether.
  10. Check and re-check notes and references; make sure they are easy to use. No matter how careful you are, mistakes somehow creep into a scholarly text. You should verify all notes and references which should be consistent in format and easy for the reader to follow. Verification is boring and vexatious work, but if you make too many mistakes, or if you confound your readers with unclear references, your peers will doubt the reliability of your scholarship. It will be a point of attack by others holding contrary opinions.
  11. Learn to be a ruthless editor. Try to delete excessive detail and long quotations. Long quotations break up the rhythm of a text. Excessive detail will only interest a few specialists. Most readers will not be interested, and will skip the quotations and the detail, if not the book.
  12. Show your work to a few carefully chosen colleagues. Do not look only for praise; ask for honest comment and be sure to thank your colleagues if they give it. On the first reading you may not like the suggestions or the criticism, but keep an open mind, your manuscript may profit from a friendly critic's sharp eye. Remember a good book is around far longer than its author. It should be as good as you can make it.
  13. Read your text aloud to see how it sounds. Good writing has a rhythm, and ebbs and flows to hold the reader's attention. If it sounds good as you read aloud, it will likely be pleasing to readers, even if they do not read it aloud.
  14. Read novels; read a lot of fiction. Fiction teaches style, sentence structure, writing technique, "tricks of the trade". Like a good lecture or a well read paper, good writing is a performance intended to interest and hold the attention of your reader. The elements of good fiction can be applied with profit in the humanities and social sciences. Look for arresting metaphors, trenchant turns of phrase which you can modify for your own purposes. Often a few words say more and have a more powerful effect than a sentence of eight lines.
  15. As an author, make your own revisions. Do not abdicate your responsibility as author. Do not leave revisions to editors or copy-editors; no matter how good they are, they cannot fully know your mind. On the other hand, be open-minded to a copy-editor's suggestions and proposals after you, as author, are satisfied with your manuscript. An author should not be over-sensitive to a copy-editor's good ideas to improve a text. And remember one journal editor's half serious, half facetious observation, that "publishing is like war, full of tension and the unexpected." In other words, do not be surprised if there is a little friction between you, as author, and your editor. Try to make the friction creative.
  16. Lastly, feel good about your accomplishments as a writer. But remember another traditional epigram: "The more one learns, the more one realizes how little one knows." It is difficult for frustrated, unappreciated authors, but be discreet about the qualities of your work (though not about promotion of it, of which I will have more to say). If your work is good, it will be published and you will be recognized. There is virtue and elegance in the unassuming confidence of an accomplished and talented scholar.

Remember also that good writers are rarely born; they develop over time as they learn their art, for good writing is an art form. It can and should be applied in the humanities and social sciences. You may have heard it said that "Genius is 90% sweat." So is good writing.

The Book

When a new scholar begins to publish, one of the first questions will be whether to transform his/her dissertation into a book. Like the advice on good writing, the brief comments here are by no means the first on the subject. But while the topic is not new, it remains pertinent and important. New authors may sometimes say that they wrote their dissertations as books and that they therefore do not need to revise further before submitting for publication. Such statements are now so frequent that they have become a cliché. Authors may also provide a letter or letters of endorsement from their supervisors and external examiners. This is all to the good, but endorsements, however well intentioned, do not make a dissertation into a book.

Some observers say that graduate students in the 1990s are more sophisticated than their counter-parts of twenty years ago, but would-be authors still face the same problems. The graduate student writes for a narrow audience (essentially a thesis board), and the dissertation is laden with a heavy scholarly apparatus to prove a main line of argument while anticipating every counter position. The writing may be repetitive, monotonous, and inaccessible. These characteristics, necessary perhaps to the dissertation, are a liability in a book. They must be removed, and this task will normally entail important revisions. Books must address themselves to a wider audience, and hence the revised manuscript should aim at providing context and a broadening out of its topic. Organizational structure should be reviewed and possibly revised. Tedious literature reviews, excessive notes and quotations, and jargon should be eliminated. Obvious directional signals or transitions should be made more subtle. Writing should be concise and lively without sacrificing scholarly rigour. After making revisions, your manuscript should normally be 25%-30% shorter than the thesis. Publishers like manuscripts between 70,000 and 100,000 words. The ideal book, they say, is approximately 260 printed pages (or a typescript of 400pp. including notes and bibliography). Try looking at it from another perspective: do you want to waste an evaluator's time and possibly risk his/her irritation by submitting an overlong, scarcely revised manuscript? Publishers' evaluators are reluctant to read long manuscripts, and if they do take them on, they almost invariable recommend a shortening of the text.

To undertake thorough-going thesis revision will not be attractive to most new scholars. Nearly all authors are impatient, and new scholars, who are anxious to secure a university post and advance in their disciplines, understandably want to publish their dissertations as soon as possible. Unfortunately, impatience and haste are usually not in the new, or any scholar's best interests. Time often gives fresh perspectives and ideas, and time usually helps an author--whether new or old--to see through his/her blind spots and makes the author a better critic of his/her own work. Virtually all commentators say that an author should put aside his/her dissertation for several months before contemplating revision and submission for publication. This contemplation should only be undertaken when the author is prepared to consider his/her work with critical objectivity. Some authors, instead of proceeding in this way, will immediately undertake minimal, cosmetic revisions before submitting their work to a publisher. In most cases a minimally revised thesis will not be published. The author's impatience leads to an unsatisfactory result, either outright rejection or a recommendation for revision and resubmission. I would recommend that a new scholar read Frances Halpenny's The Thesis and the Book [a pamphlet available from University of Toronto Press] or some other author's handbook (e.g., Beth Luey, Handbook for Academic Authors, 3rd ed. [Cambridge U. P., 1997]) before undertaking revision of his/her thesis and before sending it to a publisher. The author needs to set ego aside and look at the thesis with a remorseless eye. S/he may decide to publish one or more articles from the thesis or may decide to abandon it altogether for fresh research in a new area. For those authors who decide to proceed with revision, the "basic principles" of good writing (above) should be a useful guide.

Once you have completed the revision of your thesis, you will want to consider which publisher to approach. The Association of American University Presses Directory (see also gives, inter alia, a listing of university presses in the United States, Canada, and elsewhere. You may already have a good idea where you want to publish because of your familiarity with other books in your field. If you are not sure, ask your friends and colleagues. You will also want to check the catalogues of publishers who you think may be interested in your manuscript. You will be looking for presses having lists in the general area of your work. You do not want your book to be an "orphan" on a publisher's list, that is, the only book in a given discipline in the publisher's catalogue. The publisher, unless s/he wants to build in that area, will not be inclined to commit resources to promote your book, and potential readers will not think to look for it in that publisher's catalogue.

Depending on the subject, there may be several publishers with a potential interest in your manuscript. You can write a letter of inquiry to them with a brief description of the book's contents, main ideas, and significance (not more than two pages) along with a table of contents, the introduction, and a sample chapter. You should expect a publisher to answer promptly your correspondence, say, within thirty days. If you do not receive a reply within this period, follow up by correspondence or telephone. If the follow-up does not produce results, you may want to look for another publisher. A publisher should show genuine, as opposed to polite interest in your manuscript; if you think you are not receiving it, put your doubts directly to the editor. Look elsewhere if you do not receive a satisfactory reply.

In the fortunate event of receiving more than one letter of genuine interest, you will have to decide on the publisher to which you want to send the manuscript. It is considered inappropriate to submit a manuscript to more than one press at a time. Publishers do not like it, having limited resources to commit to manuscript assessment. And the publishing world is a small one: it would not be unusual for editors to discover an author's multiple submissions. The normal publisher reaction is to terminate consideration of the manuscript, or to oblige the author to decide which press is his/her first choice. No matter what happens, publishers will be annoyed, and this cannot help an author's prospects.

Once a publisher agrees to assess your work for publication, you should expect efficient peer review of the manuscript. Book publishers take six to eight months on average to assess a manuscript. Peer review entails obtaining two or three evaluations from specialists in the field. Readers are anonymous which permits frankness and objectivity. Few evaluators want to be known to an author for having prevented publication of his/her book. Readers will be asked to comment on the substance, methodology, research base, writing style, and general uniqueness of the manuscript. And readers may make suggestions for improvement of the work. Most readers undertake these evaluations pro bono or for a modest reader's fee; they act in good faith to ensure the quality of the manuscripts being considered by the press. Their reports are normally constructive and useful to authors. However, the peer review system is not perfect: reader anonymity sometimes also hides unfair and partisan criticism. If you know of competitors in the field with an interpretive or personal axe to grind with you, alert the editor, providing the names of the people you do not want to assess your manuscript. A list of potentially unfriendly readers should not be long.

You may expect good communications with the publisher during the evaluation process. The editor should give you an approximate date for completion of manuscript review. If there are delays such as late reader's reports or contradictory evaluations, expect to be informed. Uncertainty is worse than knowing of delays and divided opinions concerning your manuscript. If you do not hear from the publisher after the prescribed time, contact the editor handling your manuscript to ask for information. Do not be discourteous or aggressive, but if you do not at first obtain a reply, be persistent. Normally you will receive complete reader's reports, not excerpts or paraphrased résumés. If the reports are negative, the editor will probably stop the process at this point and return your manuscript. If the reports are more positive, or generally so, you can discuss with the editor how to proceed with possible revisions or with the forwarding of the manuscript to the press editorial board (university presses usually have such committees) for publication approval. Keep in mind that in many cases the editor's discussion with you of desirable revisions is not a commitment to publish unless there is also discussion of a contract. I would add that the signature of a contract with a publisher prior to peer evaluation may bind you, but not the publisher, who will have an escape clause if peer evaluation goes badly.

If you have doubts or questions about reports, do not hesitate to ask for clarification. You should expect an editor to listen to disagreements you may have with a reader's judgements or suggestions. Do not be defensive and keep an open mind, but if after a fortnight's reflection, you feel you are right, explain your position in writing to the editor in clear and dispassionate terms. Expect the publisher to give careful consideration to, if not acceptance of your position. You should expect a fair evaluation of your manuscript, even if this does not always happen, or the result is disappointing.

What if the publisher's answer is no? Do not necessarily be discouraged. The reasons for a negative reply may have nothing to do with the intrinsic quality of your book, and can be as diverse as a shift in publishing policy to an unanticipated lack of resources to produce your book. You will need to consider carefully the readers' reports and also the publisher's evaluation of the reports, if there is one. You may only receive a polite letter reporting the bad news with few details explaining why. If you receive the reader's reports, you should show them to a trusted colleague or friend to get an impartial second opinion. If after this assessment, you think the manuscript is sound and that the readers and publisher are "out to lunch" and have missed a good book, you should go on to the next press on your list. As an author, you must be persistent. It is not unusual to receive rejections before finding a publisher who says yes. On the other hand, you may want to undertake revisions in light of the readers' reports, and you should complete these before submitting the manuscript to another press. The other possibility--which will be the most heartbreaking--is to decide that the manuscript is not publishable in its present form. It must be extensively revised; or salvaged through the publication of one or more articles, or abandoned altogether. This latter option is drastic and should not be contemplated without serious reflection and a second opinion from that trusted colleague or friend. A writer must have the capacity for careful, detached examination of his/her work and the resilience to recover from setbacks.

If all goes well, however, and the press agrees to publish your manuscript, you will be offered a contract which defines the terms and conditions of publication. Do not count on great riches from a contract, but expect clarity on terms of publication. On a short-run scholarly book, say 500-1,500 copies, royalties may range from nil to 10% of the list price of the book. Ask for the publisher's anticipated print-run and expect a firm date of publication subject of course to the author's respect for his/her own deadlines in providing a final manuscript, correcting copy-edited text, galleys or proofs, and providing the final index. If there are delays--and there may be through no fault of the publisher--expect to be informed before the date of publication has come and gone. The contract also deals with copyright. Normally in scholarly publishing the author transfers copyright to the publisher, but you may ask for the copyright or for recognition of joint holding of the copyright on the copyright page.

Sometimes a publisher may ask you for money to publish your book. This is a common practice in the hard sciences where authors pay page or other charges. In the humanities and social sciences such charges are not common and are generally not considered to be acceptable practice. So-called "vanity" or subsidy presses charge authors directly or indirectly to publish their books and they may publish almost anything. These publishers have no or limited credibility among peers in the humanities and social sciences. University presses or scholarly publishers should not indulge in "vanity" press practices. However, a publisher may ask you to pay for certain kinds of expenses because anticipated sales of your book, while an important contribution to scholarship, cannot cover the publishers' direct and overhead costs.

A publisher will normally ask the author to provide and pay for permissions to republish long quotations or photographs (read your contract carefully). You may also be expected to pay for illustrations and maps and for the index (though you can do the index yourself). A publisher might ask you to approach your university for support, if you are a full-time scholar. Most universities maintain a faculty research and publication fund for such eventualities. If a publisher asks you for help in acquiring additional funds, you may agree or not, according to your principles or interests. A publisher ought not, however, to ask you to pay out of your own pocket, and if s/he does, you may want to decline. Because of the disrepute of "vanity" press practices, publisher requests to authors for money are a sensitive subject. The line between what is acceptable and what is not may be blurred, and, of course, subject to change over time. Authors should consider such requests with care.

Once you have signed a contract, production of the book will begin. You should expect to submit a clean manuscript for copy-editing without errors and handwritten corrections. You should also provide computer diskettes of the manuscript (discussing with the editor what kind of software the press prefers). The copy-editing process will allow you to see, correct, and revise a copy-edited typescript. You should then see galleys (i.e., long sheets of typeset text) or first and second author's proofs for final corrections. At this point the publisher will ask you not to make substantive revisions, but only to correct spelling, grammatical, or formatting errors. Author's revisions in proof are expensive, and the publisher may charge you a hefty sum to cover their cost.

Relations with copy-editors are treated under "basic principles", #15, and it remains only to reiterate that you should not let a copy-editor impose revisions. Expect suggestions, but propose alternatives, not the same text, if a copy-editor makes revisions you do not like. The firmness of your positions on the copy-editor's suggestions should also depend on a sound, dispassionate evaluation of your own writing abilities. You should accept house-style in grammar, spelling, punctuation, and formatting.

After you have corrected the author's proofs, your part in the production of the manuscript is completed. It is up to the publisher to prepare the manuscript for the printer. The printer then produces the book and delivers it to the publisher. The author still has one last responsibility to fulfil in regard to publicity and promotion. You should expect to be asked for information about appropriate journals to review your book, about meetings or conferences where the book should be exhibited, and other possibilities for promotion depending on the projected appeal of the book. If you are not consulted about promotion, ask your acquiring editor to put you in touch with the appropriate person, usually the marketing manager. On this point, you should insist. You should also have realistic expectations: do not expect to see your book advertised in the New York Review of Books or Le Monde. Such advertisements feel good, but have little impact on sales of scholarly books. Neither should you expect to see your book in most bookstores. Only rare specialty shops catering to the university community may carry it. Do not be surprised if your book carries a high price: short-run books produce little income and the publisher must make enough money to stay in business.

After a book is published, the author can normally expect to receive five to ten free copies of the book. You may obtain further copies at author's discount, usually 40% off the list price. After you have enjoyed the rapturous pleasures of seeing your work in print for the first time, you can expect annual or semi-annual reports on sales and royalties. An author should receive a clear report of sales and royalties. If you do not receive this report in a timely fashion, you should ask for it.

The final stage in this long and arduous publishing process is to await the reviews of your book. Books of broad public interest will be reviewed within a few months of publication in the review sections of newspapers. Most scholarly books do not receive this kind of treatment, however, and will be reviewed only in scholarly journals which you may have identified in your communications with the marketing manager. These reviews can be agonizingly slow to appear, perhaps only a year or longer after publication. Reviews may appear more quickly on the Internet discussion lists under the umbrella of H-Net, Michigan State University (see http://h- ). Check the H-Net web site for the appropriate discussion list and contact the list or book review editor about where to send a review copy. These reviews receive wide exposure on the H-Net discussion groups which often have subscription lists longer than those of print-on-paper scholarly journals. Otherwise, all you can do is wait impatiently for the reviews to appear, and hope for the best. Scholarship is a rough and ready occupation, and when authors publish, they take their chances. Be prepared for adverse comments; in fact, hope for a certain kind of criticism, it may help to sell your book. In one recent case, a book taking a controversial position on the history of Nazi Germany set off a wave of adverse comment; the book apparently sold 500,000 copies and made the author wealthy! This happens only rarely of course, but it does happen.


The process of preparing articles and approaching learned journals is much the same as for books and publishers. You will need to determine which journals are most likely to be interested in your article, and you can do this by consulting friends and colleagues and by consulting the likely learned journals in your university library. Journals may publish information on format and article length. This latter criteria will help to determine your choices. Although it may be difficult, try to keep your articles to 7,500 to 10,000 words (or less). Some journals will accept longer articles, but you may need the credibility of a "track record" before you can persuade an editor to publish the longer piece. Prestigious journals also tend to take a long time to publish (up to two or two and-a-half years after acceptance) and this circumstance too may influence your choices.

You can write to several journal editors in the same way as you might do to publishers, but you should submit your manuscript to only one journal at a time. You must choose carefully to gain the best exposure while balancing concerns about article length and lag-time between acceptance and publication. The peer review process usually takes between four to six months and is conducted in more or less the same way as with book publishers. Journal editors may ask two or three readers to assess an article. Readers are anonymous, but sometimes authors also are. This is double-blind peer review: in principle it makes the evaluation process equal for both the known and unknown author. It is not always possible to mask the identity of an author because of the small number of people working in a field or because of the references in the article to the author's own work. But basically double-blind peer review takes the known author's reputation out of the evaluation, as it does the new scholar's lack of one. Editors are more likely not to show authors complete reader's evaluations, but rather excerpts or paraphrased résumés. You can ask for the complete reports, but you may not get them, and this you will have to accept. You may also be given the opportunity to reply to the reports if they are not entirely negative. Based on what the reports say, you may be asked to make revisions, or the article may be accepted or rejected according to the judgement of the editor or his/her editorial board. Revision is part of the writing process: if an editor asks you to make revisions, do not take it amiss or become discouraged. Consider the editor's proposals carefully and dispassionately, and carry out the revisions or seek compromise solutions where you strongly disagree. Be sure you and the editor are clear on the revisions to be undertaken. It is common advice not to be discouraged if the first journal to which you submit your article rejects it. You may have had bad luck with readers, or the article may not strike the editor just right. One editor's disinterest may be the next editor's enchantment. Of course, you may not have written a publishable article in which case you should rethink or discard it and begin a new piece in the same way you might do in reconsidering a book-length manuscript.

Once an article is accepted, the publishing process is approximately the same as with book publishers. In dealing with copy-editors, the same rules also apply. If you are a new scholar or graduate student, however, you may not wish to be too insistent with a copy-editor, who can be the editor who accepted your piece if the journal is a "back pocket" operation. These editors usually have considerable experience, and you should probably allow yourself to be guided by it. The author's assertion of editorial rights over his/her work become stronger with experience.

After the journal is published, you will receive a certain quantity of offprints (25 to 50 normally) which you can distribute to appropriate colleagues and scholars working in your field of interest. You can also order more offprints at your expense, but be careful in doing so to avoid needless cost (sometimes high) and a box of dusty, yellowing offprints. The choice of people to whom you send your offprints can be as important as the journals to which publishers send review copies. Make a list of people and their postal addresses to whom you want to give the offprints. Keep it up to date, adding or subtracting names as may be appropriate. Then when you publish subsequent articles, follow the same process. This is a good way to obtain exposure for your work since scholars may not come across your article until a considerable time after publication. In the new articles be sure to refer to your previous, related publications. By doing so, you will create links between articles and you will alert readers to the other pieces which they may not have seen. It is also a good idea to publish in a variety of journals in different countries, for example, the United States, France, Great Britain, Canada. This also will give your work a wider audience. However, do not expect to see references to your articles turn up in other people's notes for some time after publication. The communication of scholarly ideas and information can be a frustratingly slow process.

Conference Papers

Getting on to a conference programme can be difficult. Your best chance will be by organizing a complete session. New scholars and graduate students should enlist the support of a mentor or a well-disposed more senior colleague either to chair or to comment on the papers. Mixed panels of new and more senior scholars tend to work well, and some conference organizers may even be looking for them. Round tables also work well because presentations are short, easy to follow, and often lead to debate. If you do not succeed the first time, keep trying. Eventually, you will get on to the conference programme.

Conference papers sometimes look like journal articles, but are not the same thing. A conference paper is read, and its ideas or themes must be clear and the detail, kept down and simple. Indeed, a conference paper should be a performance, like an actor's monologue, to capture and hold your listeners' attention. All the principles of good writing apply here except that they become more important than ever. Try reading long sentences, or using confusing terminology, or introducing too much detail in a paper. Your listeners' eyes will glaze over, and at the end they may not be able to tell you what your paper was about.

Short sentences, clear statements, arresting anecdotes and epigrams are important devices. For the same reason papers should be kept to the twenty to thirty minute range depending on the number of panelists and the length of the session. Establish eye contact with various segments of the audience, as you scan the room. Remember, you are an actor. You should use an actor's tricks of the trade: don't deliver your paper in flat, quiet monotones, speak to the back of the room, raising and lowering your voice to make points, pausing to catch the audience's attention or to let it catch up with you.

Don't be afraid of debate and don't be afraid of hostile questions. Hope for debate for that is what makes for the most interesting sessions. Audiences like to see a little blood spilled. You will probably know more than most members of the audience, and you should be able to stand up to hostile questions. Enjoy the opportunity to debate your peers. If you are a commentator, your role will be to summarize and find the commons links and themes of the papers. If you criticize, do it with respect for the learning of your peers. A lively debate conducted by informed peers, with polish and mutual respect, a wry smile and a mild sense of humour are performances often long remembered. But an audience will become quiet, angry, and embarrassed if a speaker becomes too ascerbic or aggressive. The arts of good writing are as important at a podium as before a word processor.

Book reviews

Some colleagues consider book reviews or review articles/essays (on several books) to be the lowest form of scholarship and the least important. In fact, these forms of scholarship are often the most provoking and interesting. Readers of learned journals may only check or skim the articles, but they actually read the book reviews. For both the reader and the author of reviews, it is a way to keep up with what is being published in their fields of interest. Indeed, the review section of a learned journal may often provide its strongest subscriber appeal.

Book reviews may be the new scholar's first form of publication. If you want to review books or a book in particular, you can write to the editors or book review editors of journals in your field, indicating your areas of interest. If they respond favourably, they will put your name on their reviewers list. Sometimes editors want to lengthen their list of reviewers in which case they may add your name. On the other hand, some editors prefer to ask experienced scholars who have published more extensively. Do not send unsolicited reviews.

Book reviews should summarize the content and main points of a book and put it into context with other work in the field. And a review should evaluate strengths and weaknesses in sources, methodology, and interpretation. In short, is it a good, bad, or indifferent work? Some reviews are mere summaries of a book's comments and these tend to be uninteresting. And some reviewers shy away from making negative comments, perhaps because the field is small and "everyone knows everyone else", or because of a personal or political disinclination to take an unambiguous position. There is also a tendency to think that book reviews should be "courteous", "temperate", or "civil", to the point where the rough and ready of scholarly debate leads to homogenization and conformity. Other editors encourage tough, critical reviews. As in all scholarly writing, the best reviews can provoke reflection, dissent, surprise, perhaps even controversy.

Graduate students and new scholars should approach book reviewing knowing of these differing points of view and with a newcomer's prudence rather than his/her brashness. Do not shy away from being critical, but do so without trying to demonstrate your own superior mastery of the field and without nitpicking over trifling errors. Avoid personal attacks, but do not delete a well crafted turn of phrase piercing the vitals of a book's flawed main premises. It's a fine line of conduct for the new scholar, or indeed any scholar, but with the advice of a good editor, you should be able to avoid the pitfalls. Print-on-paper book reviews (as opposed to electronic reviews) normally have tight word limits (usually 750-900 words). Some journals ask for reviews as short as 400 words, and these give the author little leeway for substance and criticism. Review articles are longer pieces and may include some of the author's own research. The best review articles are not mechanical, seriatim treatments of several books, but integrated, contextual examinations of related works. This type of essay allows the author more freedom to put forward ideas, buttressed by personal research, and if done well can be a sophisticated form of critical writing. The best of these review articles become standard references in the field.

Electronic publishing

Electronic or e-publishing is a development of the 1990s. It grew out of innovations in electronic mail and the creation of the World Wide Web (WWW). Listservs or electronic discussion groups led to the development of electronically posted book reviews, review articles, and fora. Web sites were set up to archive such material and give it a less ephemeral quality. The most important work in this area has been undertaken by the listservs under the H-Net umbrella at Michigan State University (

Electronic scholarly journals are also appearing. According to its most enthusiastic proponents, e-publishing is the future's preferred medium of scholarly exchange, replacing print-on-paper. In the realm of electronic scholarly journals, more advances have been made in the sciences (where researchers have a need for rapid publication to report research results) than in the humanities and social sciences (where the need for rapid publication is less needed and indeed less desirable).

Should new scholars and graduate students publish through electronic media? Yes, certainly, but cautiously. The electronic medium's greatest weakness is its ephemerality. Those who are reluctant to commit their best work to an electronic journal fear that in five or ten years their work will have disappeared except, ironically, as the personal print-on-paper copies of individual scholars. One speaker at a recent conference on culture in the digital age said that the mean life time of a web page is 70 days. "The net has no memory," he concluded. Scholars in the humanities and social sciences will not fully accept electronic publishing until the Net gets "a memory" and the problem of long-term archiving of published material is resolved. New scholars should keep this problem in mind as they consider whether to invest time and work in electronic publishing.

It's Easier Said than Done

It is easier to give advice than to carry it out, but I can only offer as a defence the traditional admonition: "do as I say, not as I do". When all is said and done, good scholarship requires a love of one's discipline, hard work, an open mind, and a thick skin. Good scholarly writing requires clarity first of all, which means clear thinking and clear organization. Of all the messages in this essay, the need for clarity is the most important. Whatever main objective the author has, s/he will not achieve it without this essential quality.

The various counsels contained in this essay are brief and basic; you will find handbooks which go into far greater detail, and you may wish to consult some of them. I hope you did not expect to find any panaceas here because there are none. The advice, however, should set you on your way and from there you will learn from your own experiences. Scholarly writing is a difficult métier, but it brings corresponding rewards.

Revised 1.XII.99

Copyright 1999 by Michael J. Carley, all rights reserved. This work may be copied for non-profit educational use if proper credit is given to the author and the H-France list. For other permission, please contact or