The Good, the Bad, and the Bit of Ugly: Writing and Getting Published Online

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About nine months ago, I knew nothing about online publishing. Now I’m sharing the good, the bad, and the ugly of my experience publishing sixteen articles in nine different online venues (thanks to six glorious months of writing leave) in hopes of making your own journey easier.

Although I had followed some of the more popular online writing forums, I had never seriously considered writing for them, in part because I didn’t know what to write about or much about the submission process. My mindset changed one day after my colleagues and I from Air Command and Staff College’s Department of Airpower began discussing a recent online article about how many bombers the U.S. Air Force needed. We had exchanged brief online comments about some of the article’s weaknesses, but an email from my department chair ultimately triggered my jump into online publication. He challenged us to respond to the article, arguing that any Department of Airpower worth half its salt needed to be weighing in on these kinds of debates. (Note one lesson War on the Rocks subsequently taught me: in responding to other articles, ensure that yours can stand on its own rather than solely responding to another article). 

Since receiving that email from my department chair, I have begun an exciting and rewarding adventure, although of course it also has its frustrating and disheartening moments. I want to share some of those experiences while providing an overview of different online publication opportunities. I am unable to touch comprehensively on each and every publication, but I will seek to offer some brief insights into those with which I have experience.   

Beginning to publish online can be intimidating for several reasons. First, there is the issue of risk, especially for those not covered by academic freedom. The Strategy Bridge recommends determining “what the left and right limits of your organization & leadership are.”[1] This can be gauged by talking to trusted mentors. 

If your chosen topic is outside those limits but you fervently believe your perspective needs to be heard, consider anonymous publication. Online publishers that seem welcoming to anonymous authors include Divergent Options and Small Wars JournalWar on the Rocks also recently published a series of articles under the pseudonym “Ned Stark” about problematic promotion tendencies in the Air Force. Moreover, sites like Real Clear Defense often pick up these anonymous pieces, thereby providing wider circulation. 

Another intimidating factor is that publishing work online puts it into the sphere of public discussion forever, and that can be a scary thing. But, as The Strategy Bridge points out, it is essential to “Get over being right or wrong. Unless you’re doing mathematics, there is no such thing.” Even for a professor with a PhD, this is easier said than done, but the advice is absolutely correct. Alas, there is no answer book to consult to determine if your article is right or wrong. All you can do is make a compelling argument backed up by persuasive evidence while recognizing that readers benefit from contemplating a range of perspectives. 

It can also be challenging figuring out what to write about, thus it is helpful to use social media, especially LinkedIn and Twitter, as ways to keep up with current news and opinions. These sites enable users to follow a broad variety of perspectives and insights, thus triggering writing ideas. 

Having decided upon a topic, it is time to start writing. Personally, I just like to rip off the bandaid as quickly as possible. I begin by setting the goal of writing about 500 words in one sitting. Most online publishers seek pieces that are between about 750 and 2500 words. Thus, with 500 words, I am just short of the desired word amount to be considered for online publishing yet I have room to expand my ideas. 

At this point I do not worry about finding sources or making anything sound pretty. I just write as efficiently as possible to get to my desired word count. Once you have done this, the hardest work is out of the way. From there it is just a matter of expanding and refining your ideas, and often this occurs by taking a break. (I promised you the “good” part of online writing, didn’t I?) Walking away from your writing is incredibly important in gaining perspective and improving it. 

In my second draft, I expand my word count while incorporating sources. (The safest bet in formatting at this point is to place hyperlinks in your footnotes with no other formatting information until you have decided where you want to submit your article; most sites accept hyperlinks, but if you are doing more academic writing it can be hard to use hyperlinks. One way I get around this problem is by doing searches in google books using quotations from my article.) I also will start working on organization and transition sentences as I flesh out my article and do some polishing. 

At this point, if you have not already done so, you want to ensure that you have a clear thesis that runs throughout your paper. As War Room advises, “Keep the IDEA at the center of the essay. In short form writing, you get one idea per essay. ONE!!!” You don’t get to solve climate change and world peace in one fell swoop. 

At any point in this process if you happen to get the dreaded writer’s block, there are some easy solutions to help you work through your thoughts and improve your analysis, most of which involve walking away from your computer or notepad. Once I had been working on one article all morning when I received word that I needed a title for another article on a completely different topic. My mind struggled to think of anything because it remained stuck on the first topic. But then I put my dog on a leash and inspiration struck before I had left my driveway with little to no effort on my part. Don’t worry if you don’t have a dog, or a leash. The magic happens when you engage in activities where your unconscious kicks in during mindless activities like running, hiking, or even taking a shower. 

It is then time to tackle the third draft, where you refine details, such as ensuring you have a catchy title and introduction to hook your reader. You also want to perfect your writing at this point to the best of your ability. Having arrived at something close to your final word count, you should consult the submission guidelines of a few target publications. Read the guidelines more than once to make sure you are adhering to their requests. 

Then it is time to have trusted colleagues and mentors read it, making the final round of edits before—if you are employed by the U.S. Department of Defense—sending it off to your base public affairs officers for review. They generally will approve it within about a week. 

At this point in time, you should cross your fingers while hitting send to ONE and ONLY one publisher for review. It can sometimes take up to 10 days to get an acknowledgment, depending on the publication. Try to be patient, but after a reasonable amount of time go ahead and reach out politely to determine what is up with that article you worked so hard on and have been agonizing about since hitting send. 

Once you have submitted your article, you can expect the online publication process to take from one day to about six weeks, depending primarily on how much editorial assistance your chosen online publisher offers. Some sites like Small Wars Journal warn readers that they sometimes publish articles as-is, which is a good reminder to make sure you polish your article before hitting send. If in doubt, you can also email publications for guidance about what to expect. Other sites may go through one, two, or even three rounds of editing depending on how much assistance the article needs. One of my articles even went through four rounds, but it ended up that much better because of it.

If you do receive detailed editorial suggestions, there are a couple of things to keep in mind. First, if you fundamentally disagree with editors’ suggestions, let them know and politely explain why. Please keep in mind, however, that editors often have a far wider and clearer perspective on your work, and thus they can see problems in your argument more clearly than you can. Most editors are volunteers who have full-time jobs. They simply want to make your work the best they can. Keep this in mind as you begin the process of responding to their comments. 

While you are tapping your fingers waiting for your article to show up online, it is time to get online and start networking, if you have not done so already. You can also begin working toward membership in sites like Military Writers Guild, which provides its members with publishing support in a variety of ways. For further information on the opportunities and challenges of online writing provided by members of Military Writers Guild, also check out the following resources: 

Once your article goes online, you can expect a range of positive and negative feedback. Sometimes I will respond to those who critique me online, always seeking to respond in my professional rather than personal capacity. At times, these critiques can be extremely harsh. One former professor who used to teach where I do, for example, once harshly informed me via email that my ideas were dangerous to teach to Airmen. Ouch! But you just have to ignore the naysayers. In other far less severe cases, it will be quite apparent that individuals making negative comments have not even made it past the headline. Remember that your article is serving military professionals by broadening discussion about a range of important issues, and not everyone is going to appreciate the insightful brilliance of your argument!   

Thankfully, I have had far more positive experiences than negative ones. Through my writing, I have acquired a richer network of acquaintances and received opportunities to collaborate and travel. At the end of the day, I see it as another important way to serve. Ideas matter, so just do it. 

Here is a quick albeit imperfect reference guide to getting started, again based mostly on my own experience:

Looking to reach the broadest audience? Foreign Policy (1000 words), War on the Rocks (800-2500 words)
Seeking to get published ASAP? Small Wars JournalNational Interest (650-2000 words)
Want to get rigorous editing, frequently by PhDs who often also are in the military?  Strategy Bridge (1000-2000 words)
Want to publish about leadership, get editing help, & sometimes respond to writing prompts? Field Grade Leader, (1000 words), Company Grade Leader (800-1500 words)
Have a longer article? Wavell Room (UK) (1000-5000+ words) 
Have a topic that is a little more cutting edge?  War Room (1200-1500 words)
Want to publish something about airpower?  From Balloons to Drones (1000-3000+ words), Over the Horizon(1000-2500 words), Central Blue (Australia)(500-1000 words)
Want to publish about the Army?  Grounded Curiosity (Australia)(500-1200+ words), Modern War Institute (600-2500 words)
Want to publish about the Navy or Marine Corps? CIMSEC (1000-3000 words), U.S. Naval Institute Blog
Want the option of choosing your own topic or using writing prompts?  Divergent Options (1000 words or less)
Want to publish about the future of warfare in the 2030-2050 timeframe? US Army Mad Scientist Blog (800-1200 words)

Heather Venable is an assistant professor of military and security studies at the U.S. Air Command and Staff College and teaches in the Department of Airpower. Follow her on Twitter at @Heather_at_ACTS. She also volunteers her time editing for Field Grade Leader. She has written a forthcoming book entitled How the Few Became the Proud: Crafting the Marine Corps Mystique, 1874-1918. The views expressed are the author’s alone and do not represent the official position of the U.S. Air Force, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government. There are many other wonderful sites out there. I primarily have focused on the ones I have used to publish, thus accounting for the overly U.S.-centric approach.

[1]All quotes in this article are taken from Twitter or personal correspondence with the named sites.