These days I've been working with researchers who need to publish their results and grad students who need to present their PhD research proposal and sometimes I feel like the advice I'm giving seems too obvious, but then I remember that I had to learn those same lessons the hard way myself. The advice focuses on two key areas: 1. Who are you writing for? and 2. What inspired your research?
When I was in grad school and trying to get my papers published I would write first and then look for a publication to send it to second. This works when you are writing papers for your grad courses and then looking for places to publish edited versions of them. However, when you are writing up your research results and your job security rests on getting published in top-tier journals in your field, you need to pick a journal before you start writing. That being said, a researcher friend reminded me that it's okay to have an outline of what you want to cover before selecting a journal.
Picking your journal before writing helps you identify your target reader (are they specialized in your field or is the publication for a broader range of readers?). It also gives you a opportunity to look at that journal's style guide which includes reference and citation guidelines, how to format charts and tables, and provides word counts for titles and abstracts. Additionally, you can look over sample articles to find out what topics have not been covered recently (or have been covered but could be improved on) and the average length of the articles they publish including the format and length of the individual sections.
Writing an article that looks like a typical article from that publication will increase your chances of being accepted. Following the rules for submission helps your article get an unbiased read. When I worked on the editorial board of a journal as a front-line editor, going over word limits and not following our prescribed referencing style was an easy way to clear that file off my desk (and into the trash can). After all, this was unpaid work and I didn't have time to critically read articles from authors that didn't have time to read our submission guidelines.
Regarding the inspiration for research, I remember planning the survey items for my MA thesis and choosing topics and questions that interested me. During my defense, my committee crushed me for not basing my survey items on previous research. Sure, they could have mentioned this MUCH EARLIER in the process but it was a valuable lesson that I have tried to pass down to my students.
Last week, a student was practicing her presentation for her PhD research proposal and her labmates were being very critical about the experiments she was planning. They were asking her why she thought it would work and were pointing out very specific critiques. When I asked which articles led her to want to run these experiments, she looked stunned. I think she just thought they would be interesting to try. It took my back to my MA thesis, since that was a version of what I told my committee members. I was curious to see what the results of my survey would be. The problem is that academic research needs to stem from previous research. Budding researchers need to let peer-reviewed studies guide them to holes in what is known in that field that need filling. They need to read everything they can get their hands on for the topic they plan to research.
If you are reading this and thinking that this advice is all common sense, you might be as surprised as I was when I found out how many people didn't know it even at a time in their academic careers when you would think they should. But I'll ask you to think back to that moment when you figured out that you need to pick a publication and an audience to write for and that you can't just try an experiment tat pops into your head and expect to get it published in a top-tier journal. I would wager that many of you, like me, were not taught these lessons in a classroom but were smacked in the head by reality when your article was rejected and learned them the hard way.