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Tales from a reviewer: How to improve your writing

By Samantha Grant

Sam Grant holding head while reading from laptopOne day I would like to write a book that someone other than my mom would read. Until that dream comes true, I review writing for a number of academic publications. Those who can’t write, review!

The picture shown here is me struggling through reviewing a journal article. Note to authors: This is not the response you are trying to elicit. Also note that I did not accept this submission. I did, however, give the author some focused feedback because I always try to find the value.

I know that for many of you, writing is a chore that you hate as much as I hate vacuuming. I'll never love cleaning my carpets, but if you give me a five-point list, I might scan through it.

So in that spirit, here's a short list of writing problems I often see as a reviewer and how to fix them.

Problem: Lack of organization

Organization matters most and is the hardest to fix. I can forgive wonky verb tenses and less-than-eloquent transitions because editing those problems is easy. What isn’t easy is trying to make sense of a discombobulated narrative.

Solution: Make an outline. Outlines direct your writing in a sequenced way. Your fifth grade teacher knew what she was talking about.

Even better solution: Make an outline before you write and then outline paragraphs after you are done to see where you went off course. What’s the main idea of each paragraph? Write all those main ideas to the left of each paragraph and you will quickly see where your logic jumps around or where you repeat an idea.

Problem: Too much background

The reader needs a little bit of background to understand what you’re talking about, but they don’t need to know every decision you made along the way.

Solution: Try to capture your process in 4-5 sentences. A short, focused paragraph should pass the “mom test”. That means if you tell it to your mom (or someone else who knows little about your work), they will understand what you’re talking about. When writing for the web, less is more.

Even better solution: Have someone read your paper and summarize your main points. Ask them specifically if you are boring the reader with too much background detail.

Problem: Sloppy mistakes

Spell check won’t catch sloppiness -- incorrect verb tenses, weird grammatical choices or antiquated language.

Solution: Get an editor or opinionated colleague to review, then let those opinions strengthen your work. If you send your work to someone and they give you no feedback, find another reviewer. Writing is never perfect, so find the person who's willing to point out what isn’t working.

Problem: What writing guidelines?

When an author doesn't read the submission directions, it is painfully clear to the reviewer. If the word limit is 500, many publications will throw out your 1,000-word work before it even gets to the review team.

Solution: Read the directions! For bonus points, check out some other articles or posts in the publication. You’ll get a great idea of the publication’s voice and what gets published. I’m not alone in this belief. Debbie Allen, the editor of the Journal of Extension, agrees with me that to become a better writer, you should read.

Need some more inspiration? Check out advice from my colleague, Kate Walker. Writing can be hard, but it’s a wonderful way to get your ideas out into the world. I challenge you to try writing something and share it. Just don’t make your reviewers angry.

What are your writing tips? What writing faux pas get under your skin?

-- Samantha Grant, evaluation director

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  1. Great article! I think your list of writing problems are right on! Not everyone is a great writer, however have someone review your work before sharing it. I always think that someone else might read something in what you have written that you didn't intend, due to their interpretation. I also believe it is best to write concisely, using the least amount of words that are needed to get your point accross.

  2. Hi Nancy. Great tips. I was just telling my 6 year old about the KISS rule (keep it simple, stupid.) :) Not surprisingly the rule stuck in her head, so now I'm just hoping she can apply it one day. Editing out words is always a smart move.

  3. As a journal editor, I love this! Reviewers play such an important role - and their concrete, candid and constructive feedback is immeasurable. But they should not have to do the author’s job for them! I’m sharing this post via JYD’s social media.

    1. Thanks Kate! I'd love to hear if other reviewers agree. Many thanks for the great work our journal editors do too!

  4. Great article. I'm going to share it with a friend who is a writer.


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