Book Review: Writing Your Journal Article in Twelve Weeks, by Wendy Laura Belcher

by Jonathan Adjemian

Published at 2019-09-04

For academics across disciplines, writing and publishing journal articles is an unavoidable part of professional life. Anyone who’s been or been close to a scholar starting out in their career, struggling to find work, or approaching tenure knows that the need to publish can be a tremendous source of stress. The huge field of journal publishing can seem arbitrary and impersonal, and the connection between quality of thought and acceptance for publication can seem elusive or non-existent.


Wendy Laura Belcher’s Writing Your Journal Article in Twelve Weeks: A Guide to Academic Publishing Success, 2nd ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2019) offers a practical course in demystifying journal publishing and its place in scholarship, while guiding the reader in preparing an article for submission. In the book’s first edition, published by Sage in 2009, Belcher, professor of African literature at Princeton University with appointments in Comparative Literature and African American Studies, wrote with scholars in fields close to her own in mind. The book’s success prompted this expanded and revised second addition, which provides informed and discipline-specific advice for papers across academic fields, including medicine, the sciences, the quantitative and qualitative social sciences, and the humanities. Belcher outlines trends and provides history and explanation for current practices in publishing, giving an insider’s perspective to facilitate access — and as women and people of colour continue to be underrepresented in the all-important metrics of article publishing, the issue of access is important in establishing work hierarchies in academia.



A Full Course in One Book

Writing Your Journal Article in Twelve Weeks is a workbook; while the book is over 400 large-format pages long, reading it is only a small part of the work, which includes exercises in shaping arguments, surveying a field, choosing an appropriate journal, revising argument, structure and language, and finally submitting the article. Using a common twelve-week course design, the workbook calls for a time commitment of at least six to eight hours a week, and Belcher recommends readers work through the book in groups (Writing Your Journal Article would also work very well as a course text, as Belcher and others use it). The book is full of worksheets, detailed exercises, and feedback and reflection questions to help readers prepare their article for publication and in the process learn to understand the whys and hows of academic journals and their publishing practices.


The book assumes that readers are beginning with a piece of writing — for instance a course paper or dissertation chapter — that they will revise into a publishable article over the twelve weeks. A supplementary “Chapter 0” helps readers without a draft in hand get to this stage, although this potentially lengthy task falls outside the twelve weeks. While this might seem like a significant issue, the book’s target audience — beginning scholars looking to land their first publication — are probably much more likely than not to have a piece of writing ready for revision.




Practical, Detailed, and Balanced Information

Belcher takes a very practical approach to writing, while acknowledging how difficult it can be and identifying common problems. She acknowledges complicated feelings around writing, how difficult it can be to establish discipline, and how common fears and insecurities can affect writing choices. The book offers detailed and no-nonsense discussions of important and sensitive fields like plagiarism, the politics of citation, and journal rankings. The ideas are consistently linked to practical exercises, all of them directly part of the process of revising and submitting the article. Many exercises involve work or interaction with peers, other scholars, and journal editors; advice on how to conduct these communications is included.


The level of detail is impressive throughout. The impressive diversity of examples helps scholars from different fields connect the book to their work, while also contextualizing practices a scholar may know from there field within broader academic practice. Belcher is sensitive to a range of learning types and writing styles, even suggesting places where some people might want to veer from the book’s proposed structure. But overall, the structure — moving from refining argument and contextualizing in the field, to finding the right venue for publication, to structural and argumentative revisions, and then to “microrevision” or fine-tuning language — follows a well-thought-out path, designed with pedagogical and practical value in mind.



A Specific but Highly Valuable Resource

Writing Your Journal Article in Twelve Weeks is full of information that would be useful to anyone involved in academic writing and publishing. But, as Belcher reminds us often, the book really needs to be put into practice to have its full value. And while there’s lots of solid advice on writing and structure, the book focuses very specifically on argumentative essays written for publishing in academic journals, and does not provide a guide to other types of writing and publication. But for its target audience, Belcher’s book offers a remarkable learning opportunity.


University of Chicago Press is famous for publishing writing guidelines in its Manual of Style, but the Press also maintains a strong collection of other books on writing that combine practical advice and thoughtful explanation. (I’ve reviewed a couple of others here and here; on academic writing in general also see the recent post by guest blogger Mary Goitom, PhD.) Writing Your Journal Article in Twelve Weeks offers a demanding but very well-presented opportunity especially for young scholars looking to make their way into the complicated and sometimes intimidating world of article publishing.



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