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  • Writer's pictureCatie Phares

2024 goals: Aim high and avoid a desk-reject

Happy New Year!

Are you someone who resists the cultural narrative to set goals and intentions each January (if you are, you may like this validating article by academic writing coach Jo Van Every)? Or do you relish it, embracing all that “fresh page” energy as you outline your hopes for the year?

Either way, you probably have some submissions to great journals in mind for 2024—and we at CS Phares want to help you get them accepted!

To that end, in addition to booking an edit with us this year, here are 7 things you can do to avoid the dreaded desk-reject when submitting. 

1. First and foremost, make sure your paper explicitly aligns with the target journal in terms of two things:

  • Subject (e.g., if the journal is a human resource one, do you frequently and effectively engage with/cite human resource scholarship?)

  • Paper type (e.g., how many empirical papers does the journal you’re aiming for typically publish? If the answer is few or zero, it’s probably not your best bet for submitting an empirical paper)

There are innumerable resources on choosing the right journal for your work, but once one has been recommended (either by a tool or a supervisor, colleague, etc.), it’s easy to overlook the possibility that that wasn’t a great recommendation after all, and your paper doesn’t really fit (or perhaps just doesn’t clearly show how it fits) in the chosen context. 

2. Review and follow the journal’s guidelines

Seems obvious, but you’d be amazed how many people disregard this easy win. Even with more journals (thankfully!) moving to embrace format-free submission, if your paper uses a mix of inconsistent heading types, spellings, citation styles, and more, you’re making a journal editor’s life harder. At best, this kind of oversight says, “I’m too tired to care anymore/not very detail-oriented”; at worst, it says that you don’t value their time. Either way, it’s an easy desk-reject unless the research is uncommonly compelling.

3. Keep it concise

There’s a reason we charge a premium for body text over 10,000 words, and it’s not just because more text takes longer to edit; rather, we’ve noticed that papers under 10,000 words are far more likely to be accepted in most business journals (with exceptions—some disciplines/journals are fine with longer manuscripts). It makes sense, right? Faced with two novel, fascinating ideas, one of which requires both reviewers and readers to invest way more of their time than the other… which would you pick? Our editors are happy to do the trimming for clients who prefer that, but if they can reduce the word count themselves, we know the paper is that much more likely to achieve the result they want. Pro tip: when considering what to cut, scan the text with one question in mind: Is this helpful/interesting, or is it strictly necessary to understand the paper? Some of the former might need to go (painful as that can be!) if it means meeting the journal’s length requirements.

4. Make the complex as simple as you can 

Practical tips for simplifying include:

  • Asking a nonexpert to read your paper and underline any areas where they feel disengaged or confused; then see if those areas can benefit from plain language principles.

  • Avoiding specialized terminology where you can (e.g., I find vis-a-vis can almost always be replaced with “in relation to”). 

  • Explaining specialized terms up front when they can’t be avoided. The fix for many of the confusion and clarity issues that we see flagged is to define every important term the very first time you use it.

5. Go for depth not breadth 

Scope is always a tricky issue but in general, you’re better off investigating one thing really well versus 10 things superficially. Of course there will be exceptions to this advice (e.g., when the whole point is to review an entire literature); however, know that in most cases, the more material, perspectives, definitions, etc. that you have to bring into your paper, the more room there is for confusion and overwhelm on the reader’s part.

6. Use sections to their full and intended purpose

The introduction and discussion sections shouldn’t just be the two thin, stale slices of bread that turn your paper into a proper sandwich—we want some thick and chewy artisan sourdough here, please! Use the introduction to lay important groundwork and clearly answer the questions that any reader has upon picking up a paper (what’s the problem, where does it exist, how has it been tackled before, how does this paper tackle it and how is that different, etc.). Use the discussion to review the findings and describe their very real implications for other scholars and for the world in general. 

While the discussion should end your paper on a high note, emphasizing the paper’s key takeaways and impact, the introduction is the real star here. In fact, it’s fair to say that the introduction is the most important piece of any manuscript, so if you’re wondering how to formulate consistently excellent ones, please head over to my “Outstanding Introductions” course to unlock this magic bullet.

7. And finally, be sure you’ve answered the following question at least once in the paper: 

What is the danger if no one ever reads this? 

The bigger and more immediate this danger is, the better; this doesn’t mean we should stretch or exaggerate (“people will die if we’re not more precise about how we theorize leadership!”) but it does mean you should ditch the widespread tendency across academia to hedge and downplay (“improving workplace safety may prevent serious injuries”—no, it’s safe to say it definitely will).

As we all know, success at a top journal is rare (even rarer at first submission), so to ensure your manuscript makes it past the first hurdle, follow these tried and tested strategies. 

Wishing you a happy, healthy, and successful 2024!

-Catie Phares


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