I recently put out a call for chapters for an edited collection on research methods in times of crisis, together with my co-editor Su-ming Khoo from the National University of Ireland. We received an astonishing 102 proposals in response, and selecting chapters for publication was a really tough job. It also taught me a lot about what works – and what doesn’t – when responding to such a call.
We made our requirements very clear (if you want to take a look, you can download the PDF here). The call was circulated via social media and our own networks. Proposals began to arrive within hours, though over half arrived in the 48 hours before the deadline. I have learned a lot from this process and I’m happy to share it here.
- Address the editors politely and personally. Dear Dr Kara and Dr Khoo – fine. Dear Dr Helen and Dr Su-ming – also fine. (In some countries the former is commonly used, in other countries the latter. They’re both polite.) Hi Helen and Su – we were OK with this too as informality is increasingly acceptable by email. Dear Sir Or Madam – very much no. To Whom It May Concern – also no. If the editors’ names are on the call, use them.
- Don’t bang in something you wrote for another purpose in the hope that it will pass muster. It won’t. Take the time to prepare a proper proposal.
- Think about topics and themes that are likely to be common in the responses, then write something different. (We had a lot of proposals from researchers who wanted to write about how they had planned in-person interviews or focus groups, and now they were conducting interviews or focus groups online. This is understandable, but no editor is going to accept more than one of those.)
- If the call states a word count, stick to it; it’s there for a reason. (In our case, we knew the word counts for the chapters would be tight, so we needed to see that potential contributors could write effectively to a tight word count.)
- Use all or most of the allotted word count, especially if it’s low – unless you really can say everything that needs to be said in fewer words. Only one of our contributors did this effectively. Others submitted proposals around half of the length of the word count we specified. We have no idea why. Maybe they were trying to impress us, but it didn’t work, as they were unable to tell us enough about their work to give us confidence that it would make a good contribution to the book.
- You don’t have to include references in the word count – but in most fields we would suggest you reference lightly, if at all. Remember you’re only writing a proposal for a chapter, not the chapter itself. (I am grateful to my co-editor Su-ming Khoo for the latter point, and for approving the rest of this post.)
- If you want to reference the work of the editors, do so sparingly. Peppering your proposal with their names will not increase your chances of success. In fact, they are likely to read your work even more critically.
- Do not try to get around a word limit by adding extra information in the body of your email. The editors are unlikely to take it into account.
- In fact, keep your email brief and business-like.
- If the editors ask for specific information, provide it in your proposal; they are asking for a reason. For example, we asked for the location of the research, so we could ensure a good geographical spread. Some people responded with statements such as ‘online worldwide’, which was perfectly acceptable. Others didn’t state any kind of location which was unhelpful.
- There may be something relevant to your research that the editors haven’t asked for. If so, work it into your proposal. For example, we didn’t ask for information about the use of theoretical perspectives, because (a) we’re creating a practical methods book and (b) many methods can be used with more than one theoretical perspective and vice versa. (There’s a longer discussion here about the relationship between theory and method – and, indeed, practice. I’ll write about all that one of these days.) Even so, some contributors told us how they were using theory. That was useful, though never the deciding factor.
- Meet the deadline.
If you do all that, you are maximising your chances of success. That said, there are never any guarantees. We had to reject over 50% of the proposals we received, for a number of reasons; ‘didn’t meet the submission requirements’ was rarely the only reason. Sometimes we had two or more good quality proposals featuring much the same method, or approach, or participant group, or theme, and we would have to find other ways to choose between them. We spent hours on Zoom weighing up the pros and cons of different proposals and combinations of proposals. We spent more time negotiating with the publisher, Policy Press, to find ways to accept as many proposals as we could. The good part, though, is at the end of all this we’ll have an excellent book – or three!
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