Guide to writing for International Socialism


Posted: 6 August 10

The aim of International Socialism journal is to put across theoretical, analytical and historical arguments that meet the highest criteria of scientific rigour. But we try to do so in a way that avoids falling into academic in-talk. Such jargon can make articles inaccessible not merely to a general socialist audience, but also to others not involved in the internecine debates that take place in narrow academic niches. Writers for the journal should therefore minimise the use of academic terminology, and explain its meaning when they are forced to use it.

Some of what follows is simply advice about how to write as clearly and accessibly as possible. But contributors to International Socialism are expected to follow the guidelines about references, bibliography, and other points of house style. Contributors to academic journals are expected as a matter of course to follow the house style and there is no reason why International Socialism, with its very limited resources, should be any different.

  • Do not use words that may be fashionable in certain academic milieus but have not entered the general vocabulary of most English speakers—eg “trepid” or “trope”.
  • Do not use words from other languages that are not in everyday use—eg write “worldview” not “Weltanschauung”, “presentation” not “mis en scène”.
  • Do not use obscure words and phrases just to make yourself seem learned (something all of us have fallen into on occasions).
  • If you use specialised terms—eg “ontological”, “fetishised”, “reified”, “realisation of value”, “post-Althusserian”, “post-structuralist”—explain what they mean.
  • Sometimes it is necessary to take up in detail certain arguments used by other people. But often this is not so, and people throw in asides to display their knowledge in a way which detracts from the main points being made, making the article more difficult to follow.

Certain simple rules make what you write more accessible

  • Begin sentences with the main clause as often as possible. For example, the sentence:

Despite the long term tendency of the rate of profit to fall and the impact of this on the competitiveness of the biggest firms, US capitalism expanded through the 1990s.

is much more readable if it is turned round:

US capitalism expanded through the 1990s, despite the long term tendency of the rate of profit to fall and the impact of this on the competitiveness of the biggest firms.

  • Do not use double negatives. So replace:

Profits rates were not undiminished.

with:

Profits rates fell.

  • Do not squeeze too many subordinate clauses into the same sentence. So avoid sentences like:

Serge’s novels are particularly interesting because they display a capacity to express the feelings of people caught up in the Stalinist machine, which was dedicated to accumulation at all cost, a product of intensified competition at an international level, as Bukharin explains in the Economics of the Transition Period, before he embraced Socialism in One Country, an abandonment of the goal of international revolution which Lenin and Trotsky saw as necessary to overcome the backwardness of Russia and the weakness of its proletariat.

  • Avoid sentences that are a single paragraph long in length. Most sentences that appear in the journal could be shorter. This does not mean falling into a staccato effect unsuitable for articles of journal length, but it does mean recognising that any sentence over about 35 words is too long.
  • Do not use quotations from other people which are obscure or too long. Academic texts are often nearly incomprehensible and are usually badly written, while politicians are invariably long-winded. Do not be afraid to use parts of quotes rather than the whole—cutting what other people say is fine, providing you do not distort what they are trying to say. If necessary cut out obscurities, or intersperse phrases where you make clear what the meaning is. Remember at all time that your quotes have to make sense to non-specialist readers.
  • Do not take something for granted early in an article which you explain later.
  • Do not assume that the general reader knows something which is taken for granted in a specialist milieu.
  • Do not assume that new readers have the same understanding of names and phrases as older ones. For example, if you use, or quote, references to pre-1914 “social democracy” indicate what its meaning was then. Beware of expressions such as “Second International Marxism”.
  • Do not use initials and acronyms excessively. Some organisations are widely known by their initials—eg Nato, the UN. Others, however, are only known in particular milieus—eg Alca, PCF, FDI. So spell out the full name the first time you use it, with the initials in brackets—and remember that you are creating difficulties for readers later on if they have to thumb back through the pages to find the place where you explained what the initials meant.
  • Do not fall into the awful academic trend of writing, for instance, CMP for the capitalist mode of production.
  • If you do have to use the occasional obscure word or name, provide a glossary or use a footnote to explain what it means.

Footnotes

Our style in International Socialism is now to use footnotes, rather than endnotes, for references.

  • You should use the automatic footnote feature on Microsoft Word when you are writing for the journal. In the footnote itself you should give the author’s surname, the date of the work and the page numbers referenced. For instance:

Jenkins, 2006, pp23-25.

  • If you cite more than one work by an author for a given year, add a letter (a,b,c…) after the date to distinguish the different works. For instance:

Jenkins, 2006a, pp23-25.

  • You should include a full list of references used at the end of the article, arranged alphabetically by author surname and then by date. You should provide the full name of the author, the publisher (or city of publication for older works) and the date of publication of the edition you are using. For instance:

Jenkins, Simon, 2006, Thatcher and Sons: A Revolution in Three Acts (Allen Lane).

  • Where possible you should also give a website for the reference. For instance:

Bensaïd, Daniel, 2006, “The Return of Strategy”, International Socialism 113 (winter 2006), www.isj.org.uk/?id=287

  • For articles that only appear on the web, try to cite the website on which the article first appeared, and be aware that while some websites are well established and stable, others may change overnight or vanish altogether.
  • As far as possible, follow this policy for newspaper articles. Eg:

Watt, Nicolas, 2013, “Labour to Examine Housing Benefit and Retirement Age in Event of a Win”, Guardian (9 June), http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2013/jun/09/labour-ed-balls-curb-welfare-spending

  • If you are unsure of our style for citations refer to any edition of the journal from issue 115 onwards.
  • Use footnotes when it is necessary to show where a fact or a quote comes from if it is contentious, or if you want to let readers know where they can find it. This is not necessary for things which are well known. For example, you need to provide a footnote if you are giving figures on the level of poverty in, say, Cuba or quoting an unpleasant statement by someone supposedly on the left. You do not need a footnote if you are giving the date of the Russian Revolution.
  • Normally footnotes are not necessary in book reviews. You do not need to give the page where an author you are reviewing says something, unless it is something particularly surprising, contentious or useful to readers. If you are quoting from the book reviewed and do need to give the exact page, simply put the page number in brackets.
  • Do not use ibid and op cit. These are bits of Latin with no special meaning (“ibid” means “the same” and “op cit” means “work cited”) and which most people do not understand.

What is more they cause havoc if we reorder or cut an article: we will be left with references to citations that have been removed.

  • Put the titles of books or journals in italics.
  • If you are referring to an article in a book or periodical, put the name of the article in quote marks.
  • If you are a referring to a web page, provide the full web address.
  • Don’t feel you have to sprinkle your article with footnotes just to make it look impressive. They are often necessary to guide people to a source or to prove that you have not made something up. But there are occasions when what you write is self-evident and uncontentious and does not need a footnote.
  • Make sure that you set your word count to include textboxes, footnotes, and endnotes. Otherwise, if you haven’t been able to follow the preceding piece of advice, you may seriously mislead yourself about the length of your article.
  • Please follow these guidelines and include complete footnotes (to repeat, using Microsoft Word automatic footnote feature) and bibliography. Failure to do so can create a lot of work for our hard-pressed editorial team. We are, moreover, likely to be worse placed to generate accurate footnotes and bibliography for your article.

Points of style

The journal, like every other publication, chooses to do some things in one way, not another. It makes things much easier for us if you take them into account when writing your articles.

  • Use double quote marks (and single quote marks only for a quotation that appears inside another quoted passage). For example:

Stalin first used the phrase “socialism in one country” in 1925. Trotsky said that “’socialism in one country’ is a reactionary utopia”.

  • Put full stops before final quotation marks when these end a sentence. So:

Marx wrote, “Workers of the world unite.”

rather than:

Marx wrote, “Workers of the world unite”.

  • However, if the quote requires a footnote, the full stop should follow the quotation mark and the footnote reference should follow that. For example:

Marx wrote, “Workers of the world unite”.21

  • Do not capitalise words such as state, government, people, spring, summer, trade union, council, parliament, president, mosque, whites, blacks.
  • Do capitalise adjectives based upon proper names such as Trotskyist, Marxist, Leninist, Christian.
  • Use “-ise” and “-sation”, not “-ize” and “ization”:

Nationalisation, rationalisation, realise.

not:

Nationalization, rationalization, realize.

  • Do not use square brackets to begin a quotation. So do not write:

“[A]ll that is holy is profaned,” said Marx in the Communist Manifesto.

since no one in their right mind is going to object to:

“All that is holy is profaned,” said Marx in the Communist Manifesto.

  • If you think some academic will make a big deal about putting a capital letter where they did not, then find some other way of using the quote, since square brackets used in this way make the text more difficult to read.
  • Do not put a full stop between initials or in “eg” and “ie”. So:

E P Thompson went to the US.

not:

E.P. Thompson went to the U.S.

  • Write dates in the form 22 August 2004, not August 12th 2004.
  • Write percent, not % or per cent.
  • In general, spell out the numbers one to ten and use numerals for numbers greater than ten, except when giving percentages, quantities of currency, and so on—eg 5 percent, £3.
  • Use single spaces between sentences.
  • Avoid excessive uses of dashes in sentences. If you use more than two dashes in a sentence it will be so fragmented as to be very difficult for the reader to follow your meaning.
  • Avoid using language that may be considered racist, sexist, homophobic, or offensive to old people or disabled people. Avoid gender specific terms. For instance, write “firefighter” rather than “fireman” and “humanity” rather than “mankind”.

Book reviews

The journal is now running far more book reviews than at any time in the recent past. Some of these will be extensive articles that will engage with extremely important and detailed arguments. However, often reviews can be much shorter—800 words or fewer.

Each review, of whatever length, should start with the name(s) of the author(s) plus, if it is an edited collection ‘(ed[s])’, the title of the book (italicised and in bold), the publisher and year of publication (in brackets), and the price.

E.g.

David Harvey, A Guide to Marx’s Capital (Verso, 2010), £10.99

Please help us by including all these details.

Short reviews, which are appropriate for books of relatively low importance, can simply say what is good or bad about a book, or what useful arguments readers can find there. They allow the journal to engage with the vast number of books being produced by left wing publishers each year without having to spell out the content of these works in great detail.

As an example of how terse a review can be, here is Tony Cliff’s (205 word) review of The Hundred Flowers, which appeared in International Socialism 3, first series (winter 1960-1):

EPHEMERAL FLORA

The Hundred Flowers, edited by Roderick MacFarquhar (Stevens & sons), £2 .2s

Once upon a time a Communist ruler called upon his subjects to criticise his regime. This was in May 1957 when Mao Tse-Tung called for “a hundred flowers to bloom”. He invited all organisations and individuals frankly to criticise all deficiencies of party work. Assurances were given that no action would be taken against critics. Mao thought that this movement, carried our “as gently as a breeze or a fine rain” would provide a safety valve and ease social tensions. Alas, the breeze turned into a storm. And a bare month later criticism was clamped down upon severely. The hundred flowers wilted.

The short-lived period of unrestrained criticism revealed many aspects of the tensions rending Mao’s regime. The book under review partly documents this criticism but does not stress sufficiently the underlying tensions.

The author pays too little attention to workers’ and peasants’ complaints compared to those of students, government officials, industrialists, etc. The latter are more voluble and the author has a capitalist bias.

The book fails completely to explain why Mao allowed this liberal experiment. There is no “correlation” of the “hundred flowers” period with the general historical development of Chinese Communism and of world Communism in the period following the Hungarian Revolution.

T Cliff