Writing for Publication: An Essential Skill for Graduate Students with Disabilities

Kathleen Kendall-Tackett, Ph.D.
Committee on Disability Issues in Psychology
American Psychological Association

Do you have something you want to say? A point you want to make? A perspective you want to share? Then you must write. Writing is one of the most important skills for you to acquire, whether you are in academics or clinical practice. Yet this skill is often overlooked in graduate training. Let's face it. Graduate school is demanding even for the able-bodied. Free time is scarce. As a graduate student with a disability, you may have even less free time because the activities of daily living just take longer.

So why should you bother? Because in the academic world, publications are the coin of the realm. And people with disabilities are not well represented among people who publish. If you want to advance in your field, you must publish. Remember, science moves forward via communication among scientists-and articles are the way by which you do this. Writing also helps establish you as an expert in your field of study. By writing articles, you have the opportunity to review for journals, giving you yet another opportunity to influence your field. Publications are also the vehicle that leads to job opportunities and promotions. This can give psychologists with disabilities, especially those who are not employed full-time, a chance at a level playing field. I work part-time because of my disability, but I have almost 80 articles published, 2 books, and 2 more that are due next year. Having a good publication track record has opened up many opportunities for me that are generally not available to part-timers.

So how do we do this?

In this article, I concentrate on taking articles through the publication process, since this is the most difficult part for many people. I focus primarily on journal articles, since they can be the hardest kind of publication to get. But you'll find that the advice I offer below also applies to other types of publications as well.I often characterize publication as half skill, half attitude. Approach this process with confidence and persistence. Here are some tips that will get you started.

Pick your journal before you write

Before you write a single sentence, know where your article is going. So many professionals write the article, and then start shopping for a journal. Each journal has its own style, requirements, and type of article it likes to publish. Always remember that you are writing for an audience of a particular journal, and the needs of readers should be foremost in your mind.

To pick an appropriate journal, think about the main journals in your field of study (and don't limit your search only to APA journals). Which journals do you tend to cite most frequently? Which are read most often? Which ones publish the type data that you have (e.g., don't send an article that describes a survey to a journal that mainly favors experimental studies)? Don't fall into the trap of always trying to write for the "most prestigious" journal in your field. Your work may not be appropriate for it. Send it to a journal that will be read by your colleagues. As you write, you may change your mind. But thinking about the journal ahead of time will help you focus.

Learn to handle "revise & resubmits"

One of the most difficult aspects of writing is negative feedback. Whenever you get a rejection, or even a "revise and resubmit," you can feel that like the only one who has ever had someone say something mean about your work. Our peers and colleagues are often reluctant to share their negative reviews with others. The good news is that everyone-even "stars"-get occasional negative comments. Revise and resubmits may be your most common response. Often, authors don't know how to handle these and may do nothing for months (or even years). Here are a couple of ways that you need to deal effectively with them.

  • Limit your period of mourning. Comments from reviewers can be quite hurtful and rude. Go ahead and be mad, but limit your mourning period to a week. Then get to work on making the revisions.
  • Know that reviewers are human. Just because a reviewer doesn't like a particular paper doesn't mean that it is bad. Your paper may be outside his/her area of expertise. Your paper may not express your ideas as clearly as it could. Or the reviewer may be having a bad day. Be open to constructive criticism, but also know that reviewers can be wrong.
  • Realize that you don't have to make every suggested change. A comment from a reviewer usually indicates that something in your paper is not clear. However, you do not need to make every change. Acknowledge the reviewers' concerns, and politely explain why you decided not to make the change in your letter accompanies your revised manuscript.
  • Be polite. And speaking of letters, always assume that reviewers will receive a copy of yours. Pointing out the reviewer's obviously flawed thinking is ultimately not in your best interest. If a reviewer asks for a change that is wrong, politely point out the problem, and perhaps indicate a related change that you did make.
  • Get emotional support. It can be very discouraging to spend time and effort on a masterpiece, only to have some thoughtless reviewer rip it up. Have someone in your social or professional circle you can commiserate with. But then get back to work!

Consider alternative vehicles for publication

So many of the reward systems of academics focus on journal articles. We often forget (or maybe never knew) that other types of publications will get our work known, and even be helpful. Articles I've written for newsletters and magazines have had more readers than many of my journal articles. And when it comes to having our say, this is an important consideration.

  • Brief reports. Brief reports are mini journal articles. These are great for when you have a little bit of interesting data that doesn't warrant a full-length journal article. Many journal editors like these too, thereby increasing the likelihood that they will accept your article. The instructions to authors will list length requirements.
  • Newsletters. Newsletters can be another great place to publish your work. These articles can be especially helpful to clinicians because you synthesize research and suggest clinical applications. Newsletters from professional organizations and APA divisions are often good places to start. Contact the editor to see if he/she is interested in an article, and what the requirements are.
  • Electronic media. Publishing on the web is just in its infancy. Over the next few years, we will see an explosion of information available via the Internet. This is yet another opportunity for you. Find out what types of publications are available and if they would be interested in receiving an article from you.

Act like a professional

I am always amazed at the number of people in our field who make commitments to do work, and casually miss or blow off deadlines. Editors often tell me that I am the only one who met the deadline for a chapter or article. I strongly advise you to keep your commitments. Just because "everyone" misses deadlines doesn't mean it is a good idea for you. Take your deadlines seriously and do your best to meet them. If you must miss a deadline, contact the person who is requesting the article and let them know when you will be able to get it to them. Your behavior will be so unusual that soon others will want to work with you too.

In closing, I suggest that you write with boldness and give yourself permission to learn. That includes making plenty of mistakes. If writing were easy, everyone would do it. Your work is important, and so is your perspective as a person with a disability. See you in print!