Did you know that you were a creative writer?
As an academic, you may be saying, "Nooooooo, I do research!" And you certainly do. You research, you write, you revise, and you publish, and all of those things require creativity.
Somehow along the way, we've made a false dichotomy. We've made a distinction between creative and academic writers that really doesn't serve either. It especially doesn't serve us as academics.
In fact, by applying some of the tried and true techniques of creative writers, we can engage the reader from the opening sentence until the very last page.
If you can engage your reader like this, you are much more likely to GET PUBLISHED.
1) Find Your Research Arc
Screenwriters and novelists know that the easiest way to bore a reader is to take away the narrative drive of the story. The same is true for your academic book or article. If there is no clear hypothesis or argument near the beginning, readers will become uncomfortable and distracted. They may start skimming, and in so doing, may miss what you're trying to say.
It's important for you to be able to express your argument clearly and immediately and then to keep coming back to it throughout the work. This is what publishers and editors call “finding the arc of your research.” It's the organizing principle that makes your work whole.
2) Keep Your Subjects and Your Verbs Close Together
The further apart your subjects and verbs are, the harder it is for readers to track your sentences. You don't have to follow a simple subject-verb-object sentence structure, and your sentences don't have to be short. But just make sure that you know where your subjects and verbs are and that there aren't lengthy phrases between them. In particular, try to structure your sentences so that lengthy parenthetical citations do not interrupt the subject-verb flow.
3) Beware of Lists
Academic writers too often rely on lists, separated by semi-colons, particularly when they are discussing previous research. Try to avoid this, or if you have to have a long list, make sure that each item in the list follows the same sentence structure as the rest. One way to do this is to take the list and put it in bullet form during the revision process. Once the list is in bullets, you can examine each item and make sure all the parts of the list are grammatically correct and parallel. Then you can put them back in prose form.
4) Use "Beta" Readers
Novelists use "beta" readers for feedback on the second drafts of their novels -- academic writers can also use this strategy. Share your work early, so that you don't become too attached to it, and with readers who will be supportive during those initial stages. Remember to repay the favor by reviewing your readers' work too. Eventually, you will develop a strong network of colleagues who can review for you, and vice-versa, and you will become increasingly comfortable sharing your work.
Finally, remember that, as Wallace Stegner said, "hard writing makes easy reading." Good writing takes work, energy, and time. But if you're willing to put in that time, you can improve not only your writing itself, but your chances of getting that writing published. You can get into that top-tier journal, get that grant, or get that book contract.
Publishers and editors do want original arguments and convincing results, but they also want work that readers will actually read. Keep this in mind as you work on your current projects, and as you brainstorm projects to come.