This post isn’t about getting a monograph published or getting published in edited collections. It’s about publishing articles in academic journals, which in most humanities fields and many social science fields make up the bulk of your research record. Articles are generally considered less prestigious than books but more prestigious than essays in edited collections.
I’ve been publishing articles and scholarly notes since 2011, and I’ve gone through a lot of trial and error. To date, I have around 30 journal publications. I’ve been a reader for several journal submissions, too, and since 2016 I’ve been a co-editor of the Yearbook of Langland Studies. At this point, I understand the process from all sides.
The mechanics of getting published in humanities journals are not completely intuitive, so I’ve compiled this how-to. I just assume that you have a well-written, fully documented piece of original research in hand. (How to compose academic research is a subject for another day.) This advice may only hold true for the humanities, which tend to have a slow and contentious publication process.
- Select a journal. This is the most important step. If you submit to an inappropriate journal, your essay will get rejected regardless of how good it is. One place to locate possibilities is your own footnotes. Which journals keep cropping up? Another is articles in your field that you admire. Where were they published? Sometimes a particular journal becomes known for a certain approach, topic, or text. If you are responding directly to a previous article, it can make sense to submit your essay to the journal that published that article. Know the hierarchy of journals in your field and subfield and aim high: you can always resubmit elsewhere. For MLA fields, I’d say ELH, Modern Philology, PMLA, and Representations are considered a cut above the rest. They get many, many submissions.
- Sidebar: select a journal with the appropriate audience, or revise your essay to match. For example, there are certain things I need to explain when writing about medieval poetry in ELH that can go without saying in the Journal of English and Germanic Philology.
- Follow the style guide. It’s a small thing, but bringing your article into alignment with the journal’s style guide demonstrates that you are serious. You can usually find the guide on the journal’s website. Yes, this means that if you end up sending it elsewhere you’ll have to redo the style.
- Send it in. Most journals these days accept electronic submissions. You want your e-mail to the editor(s) to be polite and brief, 1-2 paragraphs. The purpose of this e-mail is to
- introduce yourself,
- identify the title and topic of your work,
- explain its relevance for the journal, if that is not obvious,
- attach an anonymized copy, and
- identify any scholar who should not serve as a reader (useful if your essay strongly disagrees with someone).
- Wait. Personally, my favorite part of the process. I like when things leave my desk, freeing up brainspace. If you have not heard from the journal for six months following their initial response to your submission (or shorter if they specify a shorter turnaround), then it’s OK to politely inquire about the status of your submission. My record for longest wait time between submission and readers’ reports is two years. . .and counting.
- Read the report(s).* It might hurt. Anonymity can cause readers to adopt an aggressive tone they wouldn’t use to your face. Plus, they’ve presumably been selected because their research overlaps with yours, triggering turf wars. A good editor chooses readers with open minds–where available!
- Pause. Don’t immediately fire back with a lengthy self-defense. Let the reports sit for at least a day or two. In my experience, most reports contain a kernel of truth. Even when they’re hostile, they might unintentionally indicate a better way of stating your case. (Sometimes it’s as simple as modifying the wording of certain key sentences.) If your essay has been rejected outright, you can now go back to step 1 and choose a different journal, after making any changes that this set of reports might prompt you to make.
- Revise. In most cases, your essay won’t be rejected outright, and it won’t be accepted outright, either. Based on the reports from the reader(s), the editor(s) will request revisions.
- Know your audience. At this point, your audience is the editor. The editor will make the final decision in light of your correspondence plus the reports plus the editor’s own reading of your essay. It follows that your task is not to do everything the reports recommend, only what the editor asks. Pay close attention to the wording of e-mails from the editor. Often editors look more favorably on an essay than the cranky reader(s) they’ve commissioned; they may be looking for a reason to say yes.
- Account for changes. In your next e-mail to the editor, attach your revised essay and explain what you’ve done. Some journals ask that you highlight changes in green font or track changes. This e-mail should be 1-3 paragraphs. The goal is to demonstrate
- that you understand the reader’s or readers’ criticisms, and that you are grateful for the time they’ve devoted to your work;
- that you are willing to change aspects of your presentation, citations, or wording to match industry standards as interpreted by the reader(s) and editor(s); and
- that you can defend essential aspects of your ideas politely but firmly when challenged.
- Repeat. The editor(s) might send your essay out to the same readers or new readers, initiating steps 4-9. Or the editor(s) might request a second round of revisions without sending the essay back out, initiating steps 7-9. Or the editor(s) might now accept the piece outright or (much less common in my experience) reject it outright. After one round of revisions, you can assume the editor is at least partly on your side. They want you to succeed.
- My record for rounds of revision with a single reader was four. The reader clearly wanted the piece to be something other than what it was, but I made small concessions without fundamentally changing the piece. Eventually, the editor acquiesced. (Who wants to read four reports and four versions of a long essay, only to turn around and reject it?)
- Acceptance! Everything after this is clerical: cosmetic edits, publication agreements for you to sign, page proofs for you to proofread, and electronic and/or physical publication.
*At some journals (such as the Yearbook of Langland Studies), editors regularly read and comment on submissions before they go out to readers. In these cases, steps 7-9 occur prior to steps 5-9.