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On writing

By Susan Sterett
Law & Society Review Co-Editor

One thing I know for sure after having co-edited Law and Society Review for almost three years is that just about every college and university would like more publications from faculty members. Many colleges and universities around the world want people to write for peer-reviewed journals, so like other journals, Law and Society Review has been getting an increasing number of submissions. Some journals have big backlogs. Some journals have stopped accepting submissions. Everyone is overwhelmed with content. How can you prepare your paper for LSR? This post will point to a few resources that could help, based in my experience from editing, conversations with other editors, and my conversations at the wonderful 2017 sociolegal studies early career workshop at the University of Cape Town. All have made me rethink how I submit to journals.

A few thoughts, most of which are readily found on the internet. Even so, many people may not be aware of them, and we all have a hard time following suggestions. Repetition could help.

To start with the manuscripts that are submitted to LSR: 
Most pieces could use clearer theorizing, which includes clearer situating within sociolegal studies, or, to state it simply, clarifying why people not interested in your particular topic should care. Think about your paper’s fit with the journal. If you can’t find relevant pieces from LSR to cite, maybe it’s not the right journal. I’ve talked to enough editors of other journals to know fit and theorizing are common problems. Most pieces could use a clearer statement of data and methods as well. The Academy of Management has great guidelines for theorizing and explaining data and methods under Publishing in AMJ, which you can tweak to revise your paper for LSR.

Sociolegal scholarship is rich, with many opportunities to build on existing work. You can also theorize within sociolegal studies by critiquing a predominant focus, or discussing what it misses. Mihaela Serban wrote for the LSR blog about how often theorizing centers on the Global North. Critique Global North sociolegal theorizing, if it fits your work. If you write from a world that funds scholarship on immediate policy recommendations, write on that focus and what it does to theorizing sociolegal processes. Somehow, though, you need to engage the central mission of the journal. Why would you want to be in the journal otherwise?

Other resources and tips
Wendy Belcher’s Writing Your Journal Article in 12 Weeks is invaluable. Other useful texts include Lisa Ede’s Work in Progress, and the blog Patter. Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird is entertaining on work, patience and managing self-criticism. (Gretchen Rubin synthesizes Lamott’s tips in a blog post.) For helpful coaching, try the National Center for Faculty Development and Diversity. For inspiring stories about professing while Black, see Terri Givens. For thoughts on writing and rejection, see the 2018 symposium in PS: Political Science and Politics. Most of what I mention is centered in the global North; share work from other perspectives.

Most of the advice on academic writing advice focuses on practices. Practical advice is great. However, it doesn’t help keep sight of why you write. If it’s only to get or hold onto a job, you could have a hard time finding your voice. Anne Lamott argues in Bird by Bird: “Writing has so much to give, so much to teach, so many surprises. That thing you had to force yourself to do--the actual act of writing--turns out to be the best part. It’s like discovering that while you thought you needed the tea ceremony for the caffeine, what you really needed was the tea ceremony.” We all might learn something.

A couple of key points from all of the above
Write every day, or every weekday. Start with one thing you want to fix in an existing manuscript. Say, a misplaced parenthesis in a reference. Then you’ll see another small task and then you will be writing. Don’t write every day you feel like it, or every day you don’t hate everything you say or write, or every day when your family members are getting along or your colleagues are nice to you. 

Write every weekday.
If you don’t have a manuscript you can work with, write a few words. Write about how you can’t write. As Belcher argues, you will eventually get sick of yourself and something will happen that’s good. Be patient, and write bad first drafts.

Turn down Radio KFKD. 
If Anne Lamott’s Radio KFKD (pp. 116-122) broadcasts voices in your head about why you can’t or shouldn’t write, or about why you should but that sadly every word you actually write is awful, turn down the volume. Recognizing the radio station helps. Lamott recommends taking a deep breath. She also recommends putting the voices into little bottles and stoppering the bottles and watching them try to get out. That requires too much imagination for me. Talk back to a voice. Pet a dog. Go for a walk. Stop having an opinion about your writing. Look at your work kindly, like you would for a friend.

Tastes and intellectual homes differ. Write in a format that works for you—vocabulary, structure, tone. Craft it with a place in mind and find the right place for it, with the right audience. Think about the structure of articles as like form for poetry—a sonnet, say. It structures what you can say, but you can still say quite a lot.

Checklist for submission
Work through a checklist of tasks required to finish the piece. Belcher has a good list. So does the political scientist Mirya Holman, list available here. Her checklist is both systematic and funny.
Then send it in. 
A big difference between people who got published in LSR and you? They sent in a manuscript. Let someone else reject you. Don’t take yourself out without giving yourself a chance.

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