The Gift of Writing: Navigating Writing for a Peer-Reviewed Publication in Just Six Steps
You know there is a lot of effort that goes into writing a peer-reviewed journal article. Many evaluations are never published. Some people do not see the value of spending time, money, resources, and energy on a peer-reviewed journal publication that many will never read.
Walking in two worlds as a researcher working in academic settings (University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, University of North Carolina Greensboro, University of New Mexico, and Oklahoma University Health Sciences Center) is a delicate balance. Some evaluations or research will never be published in a peer-reviewed journal article. The reasons why are infinite and beyond the scope of this narrative. But I will say that topics I feel passionate about – recovery, social justice, health equity, research ethics, and community-based work – I like nothing more than to see these published.
Dyani Bingham is a colleague, friend, elder by just six months, and anchor. I have known Dyani for about 15 years. Our relationship runs deep through recovery, similar personal lives and experiences, and a heart for public health and Indian Country. We sat down to write "Rethinking Recovery: A Qualitative Study of American Indian Perspectives on Peer Recovery Support" several years ago after working for six years with a tribal organization on a peer recovery support grant. I was the evaluator; Dyani was the coordinator and later project director. This is our story of how we published this evaluation.
We were really focused just on doing the work, collecting the required client-level data, entering it, submitting reporting on time, and keeping the funding going. This was our life for over six years. In the end, we thought about what we learned and what questions we still had. I wanted to know what we learned about recovery, what people need to fully recover, and what is missing from the traditional prevention, treatment, follow, up recovery approach. So many people. So many families. So many relapses. So much suffering.
One of the peer mentors (someone with lived experience of recovery working with other people in early recovery) helped us collect data. We trained her in qualitative data collection methods and also trained a peer (an active participant in the program). Over several months we developed an interview guide and talked about how to reach people, how to document their responses, and what this would look like at the end. It was a lot of back and forth and a non-traditional approach to data collection, evaluation, and research... to put it mildly. We paid the peer mentor and the peer – compensation, equity, and reciprocity are at the core of evaluation and our work in recovery.
Data came in via notebook papers with handwritten responses, text messages, audio files, and phone voice mails. While not ideal, this was really about meeting people where they were at and using a data collection method that they were comfortable with.
We analyzed the data using basic content analysis methods. We talked about what the data meant, the themes, and the main message. We asked ourselves, “What do we want people to walk away knowing after they read the paper?”
We confirmed themes and recommendations with the peer mentor and the peer – this was our way of validating what we published.
Why Does This Matter To Us?
There is limited research and evaluation available about how people really recover. We know that 22 million people are in recovery from a drug or alcohol problem (Kelley 2022), but we do not know how they got there. As evaluators and researchers, we have a difficult time distinguishing what aspects of a program or intervention helped an individual sustain recovery.
What We Learned
Peer recovery support approaches work because they are based on a relationship of respect, equality, and expertise that comes from a lived experience. Recovery is a spiritual process and peer mentors can facilitate spiritual practices like talking circles, prayer, smudging, and ceremonies. Peers involved in this evaluation identified multiple factors that helped them in their recovery.
Relapse. Spirituality. Gratitude. Community. Belonging. Giving.
Our journey through data collection, analysis, writing, and publishing told us there was more to recovery than just abstinence. Recovery is about finding meaning, purpose, and connection—this program helped American Indian peers access recovery over time, with relationships that extend beyond program timelines, treatment periods, or grant-funded requirements.
Steps to follow for publishing your work
Work with the community or client to discuss the benefits of publishing, and get appropriate approvals, and support early in the process.
Consider the data that you have, what the data tells you that is not in the published literature, and how the data may be used to help other communities, programs, and individuals.
Identify journals that have published similar articles. Select one based on review times, costs, and the likelihood of publication.
Begin the writing process. Outlines work well. Assign writers to different sections of the paper. Take nothing personally in the writing process. Edit like you are Anne Lamont.
Meetings, drafts, edits, rejections. These are all part of the writing process.
Once your paper is accepted, celebrate, and share it widely. Post on LinkedIn, websites, and with programs and communities potentially impacted by the findings.
Writing for publication is not for those who give up easily. But the journey is worth the reward.
There is something so satisfying about publishing findings to elevate the work, reframe concepts like recovery, and engage communities and historically underrepresented groups. This is the gift of writing.