Marxist Left Review Style Guide

The purpose of the MLR 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 debates that take place in narrow academic niches. Writers for the journal should therefore minimise the use of arcane terminology, and explain its meaning when they are forced to use it. Our articles should be comprehensible to an educated layperson.

This guide contains two sections. The first is advice about how to write as clearly and directly as possible. Writers can take or leave each specific point, but if we judge pieces to be too opaque then we reserve our right to not publish. The second section is about compulsory points of style, including guidelines about references, numbers, punctuation and so on. These are not optional, failure to follow the rules set out in that section just creates a lot of mundane work for our editors and subeditors.

 Tips for accessible writing

1. Overall structure

The key to a good article is a good structure. Try to come up with a structure for your piece before you begin writing it. That way your paragraphs and argumentation will flow more naturally. A few other tips:

  • Your intro should entice people. You should make a case for why someone should read the piece, what it offers them. This will differ from piece to piece, but don’t take your reader for granted. Outline the significance of the topic and your contribution to it. 
  • Having said that, do not take something for granted early in an article which you explain later. 
  • Think hard about the order of presentation of your argument. What do people need to know in order to make sense of higher-order or more complex arguments towards your conclusion?
  • Make sure that your article flows, in the sense that there are clear signposting or linking sentences between major sections, and that the direction of the argument within a section is logical.
  • Try to limit each paragraph to one substantial points. Topic sentences help to achieve this. If your paragraph starts off talking about the Australian economy, and ends up talking about the politics of the environment movement, there probably needs to be a separation and further development of each point

2. Words and phrases

Think carefully about the words you use. Often when researching a topic you will need to delve into specific debates in order to generate an informed position. That is entirely appropriate, but you should be aware that these discussions generally build up a vocabulary and common-sense well beyond the understanding of the vast majority of society.  We want to draw from and engage with this specialist research where appropriate, but in a way that translates them into language and argumentation that is aimed at a non-specialist and non-academic audience. As such writers should:

  • Try not to use words that may be fashionable in certain academic milieus but have not entered the general vocabulary of most English speakers—eg “biopolitics” or “temporality”. There are almost always simpler alternatives.
  • Do not use words from other languages that are not in everyday use—eg write “worldview” not “Weltanschauung”, “presentation” not “mis en scène”.
  • If you use specialised terms—eg “ontological”, “fetishised”, “reified”, “realisation of value”, “post-Althusserian” —explain what they mean.
  • Do not use obscure words and phrases just to make yourself seem learned (something we all do on occasions). If you do have to use the occasional obscure word or name, make sure you explain what you’re talking about.
  • 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. Be cautious about using expressions such as “Second International Marxism”, that are both contested and somewhat obscure, without first explaining what you mean.
  • 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 FDI, CPA, ABCC. So spell out the full name the first time you use it, with the initials in brackets. Remember that you are creating difficulties for readers later on if there are too many to learn.

3. Sentences and paragraphs

Shorter and more direct sentences are always preferable. If you have a paragraph that consists entirely of a single sentence, then you’ve got a problem. This does not mean falling into a staccato effect unsuitable for articles of journal length. A few general tips:

  • Sentences more than 35 words long are probably too long.
  • If you have more than a couple of commas in a sentence, it’s probably too long.
  • Try not to make more than one point in a sentence. Sometimes that point is itself a juxtaposition of two contradictory but related things, but in that case the contradiction is the point. Do not try to introduce or explain two fundamental concepts or arguments in a single sentence, they will be underdeveloped and/or confused.
  • An example that combines all of the above:

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.

  • 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.

4. Responding to other thinkers

Sometimes it is necessary to take up in detail certain arguments used by other people, indeed sometimes that is the entire point of an article. But often this is not so, and writers will throw in asides and references to display their knowledge in a way which detracts from the main points being made. These intellectual flexes run counter to the essential goal of every article, which is to be as clear and comprehensible as possible. A few practical suggestions:

  • 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 your own phrases to make clear what the meaning is. Remember that your quotes have to make sense to non-specialist readers. For instance: 

In his resignation statement he explained his decision as follows: “Podemos is falling into these kinds of problems because it no longer has the time to meet with the small circles, because it’s more important to get one minute of television airtime”, and identified a growing schism between “people who are more moderate, and people who want to stick to our origins”.

  • In general, quotes are usually less impressive to a non-specialist reader than to someone who has had their head in a topic for months. Use them sparingly. 
  • Similarly, do not simply throw in a name into your article unless you plan to explain the aspect of their theory that is relevant to the topic at hand. 

Style rules

1. General rules

  • Document name should start with MLR + issue number, followed by a hyphen, then a short but comprehensible version of the title, e.g. MLR6-Women and work.
  • Single space following a full-stop.
  • Double quote marks at all times, except for quote-within-a-quote.
  • We use en dashes (–) with a space either side. Some versions of Word will automatically convert two hyphens to an en dash when you type them and then press the space bar.
  • Dates: day/month in words/year, no punctuation. e.g. 27 May 2011.
  • Don’t use superscript for 19th etc. When referring to centuries, use words rather than figures, e.g. nineteenth century. Do not capitalise “century”.

2. Commas

  • Don’t use serial commas (or Oxford commas – the comma before “and” in a list of three or more items) except to avoid confusion, especially in a complicated list with multiple conjunctions. You need a serial comma in this example: “Today’s pies are steak and onion, chicken and leek, and vegetable”. Otherwise it may be unclear to the reader that there are three pies and not two. Serial commas can also prevent confusion like this: “We invited the strippers, JFK and Stalin” vs “We invited the strippers, JFK, and Stalin”. In the first instance, at a glance it might seem that the strippers’ names are JFK and Stalin, whereas in the second sentence, it’s clear that you’ve invited strippers and two dead statesmen.
  • In general, commas only need to be used in the following cases:
    • Around nonrestrictive clauses. A nonrestrictive clause provides additional information about a noun that can be removed from the sentence without fundamentally altering its meaning. Eg “The workers who had been bullied went on strike” means something different from “The workers, who had been bullied, went on strike”. In the first version, “who had been bullied” functions restrictively, adding information about the workers that is essential to the sentence’s meaning. Additionally, “My sister, Jill, is an anarcho-syndicalist” implies that you have only one sister, Jill the anarcho-syndicalist. But “My sister Jill is an anarcho-syndicalist” implies that of your (multiple) sisters, it is Jill who’s an anarcho-syndicalist.
    • Between coordinate adjectives. The easiest way to tell if adjectives are coordinate or cumulative is to see if you can swap their position in the sentence or insert “and” between them. So you need a comma in the phrase “the violent, elitist black bloc”, where you could also write “the elitist, violent black bloc” or “the violent and elitist black bloc”. But you don’t use a comma where adjectives are cumulative – that is, where they each add to the noun, forming a kind of unit, eg “a democratic workers state” or “an expropriated luxury vehicle”, “red leather saddle bags” etc.  You can also think about it in terms of what noun the adjectives are modifying. In the first example, both adjectives modify the compound noun “black bloc”. That’s why there’s no comma before the adjective “black”, which is functioning here as part of a compound noun.
    • Before a coordinate clause. That is, an independent clause, with a subject and verb, linked by a conjunction – eg “Consciousness does not determine life, but life determines consciousness”.
  • You don’t have to use a comma after an introductory phrase, but it’s sometimes necessary for clarity – for instance, if the phrase is very long.
  • More examples here.

3. Numbers

  • Use words for single digit numbers (one to nine), except for currency, percentages, decimal figures, page/chapter/volume numbers; use figures for numbers 10 and above, unless at the start of a sentence. In that case, use words, with hyphens, e.g. “Forty-two years ago…”. Large numbers: separate thousands with commas, e.g. 5,200. Use words for vague and general numbers (“hundreds”, “tens of thousands”).
  • In general, use words rather than symbols, except for currency. For example: 50 percent (NOTE: not per cent) rather than 50%. If specifying Australian or US dollars, use eg A$20 million/US$20 million. Spell out measurements in full in body text (eg kilometres, degrees, millilitres etc).

4. Hyphens

  • Use hyphens for compound adjectives (“a right-wing government”, “working-class people”). This aids reading by removing uncertainty as to whether a word is part of the adjective. It can also prevent misreadings (eg forty-odd guests vs forty odd guests).
  • The exception is adverbs ending in -ly (“a considerably long time”, “a strongly worded letter”).
  • For compound nouns, refer to the Macquarie dictionary to see if you need a hyphen (if you don’t have a log in, don’t worry – these will be checked in the editing process).

5. Capitalisation

  • Use minimal capitalisation, ie only proper nouns need to be capitalised. Don’t capitalise words like government, state, trade union, president or chief operating officer (but: CEO). Capitalise Prime Minister Scott Morrison, but “Scott Morrison, Australia’s prime minister”. (Cabinet, however, is capitalised to avoid confusing it with a cupboard, and capitalise Chair when referring to the Chair of a meeting.) Capitalise “Indigenous” and “Aboriginal” etc when referring to Australian First Nations people, but not in any other context. Officially recognised place names and regions should be capitalised (Southeast Asia) but not vaguely defined areas, eg, north-western Australia. Do capitalise adjectives based upon proper names, such as Trotskyist, Marxist, Leninist, Christian.
  • Capitalise the first letter of each word in headlines and book titles, except prepositions (of, for), conjunctions (and, or), and articles (a, the). Only capitalise the first letter of the first word in subtitles and subheadings, as well as the titles of journal and newspaper articles – even if it is an article or conjunction (eg Anarchism: A Marxist critique).

6. Formatting

  • As final layout is done in A5, specific margin settings are not required.
  • For emphasis, use italics. Do not use upper case, bold or underlining unless there is a specific reason for doing so (eg if used in a quote). Writers are not otherwise required to format articles. (If you know how to use Word Styles, a blank draft document with built-in styles is available from Tess; email her at [email protected])

7. Quotes

  • Use double quote marks at start and end of a quote, single quote marks within a quote. In the case of block/paragraph quotes (more than a couple of lines or sentences) there is no need to indent, as this will be done during the editing process – just make sure you don’t forget the double quote marks at the end so that sub-editors know where the quote ends! Also use double rather than single quotes for “scare quotes”.
  • If it makes more sense to start a quote with a capital letter when it’s lower case in the original, use a capital in square brackets, eg “[T]hey have nothing to lose but their chains.” (Similarly if It makes more sense to start with a lower-case letter than a capital – lower-case letter in square brackets.
  • Use an ellipse (…) to indicate omitted words. No space before or after an ellipse within a sentence. Ellipse plus a space before start of a new sentence. No ellipse at the start of a quote. Ellipse at the end of a quote only if sentence is incomplete.
  • Punctuation with quote marks: If the quote is preceded by any punctuation other than a full stop, put punctuation after the quote marks. Only if the quote is a complete, stand alone sentence does punctuation go before the quote marks.
  • You can edit quotations for MLR style – ie capitalisation, hyphens, spelling – unless, say, the author was using a term in a specialised sense.

8. Misc

  • Be conscious not to use words and phrases that are considered bigoted or offensive, and avoid gender specific terms. For instance, write “firefighter” rather than “fireman” and “humanity” rather than “mankind”.
  • No full stops. e.g. ACTU, US, WTO etc. (unless otherwise in a quote or title).
  • Try to minimise the use of abbreviations such as eg, ie, etc. Unless it becomes too cumbersome, consider using “for example”, “that is” and “and so on” instead.
  • Do not put a full stop between initials or in “eg” and “ie”.
  • We use Australian English spelling (e.g. organise, not organize; colour, not color; travelled, not traveled). Reference: Macquarie Dictionary. Make sure your document is in English (Australia) before doing a spellcheck.

Referencing

We use footnotes for references, with a full reference list at the end (i.e. only things that you’ve actually cited, not everything you’ve read). The idea is to have any urgent information or commentary on the reference accessible to the reader on the page in front of them, with bibliographical info for subsequent research left to the end.

1. Footnotes

  • You should use the automatic footnote feature on Microsoft Word when you are writing for the journal. 
  • 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.
  • For 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.
  • Footnotes should be at the end of sentences, not in the middle, and they should be after the full stop. For example:

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

  • In the footnote itself you should give the author’s surname, the date of the work and the page numbers referenced, followed by a full stop. For instance:

Jenkins 2006. Or  Jenkins 2006, p23.

  • 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.

  • If you want to offer a very brief comment on the reference (use VERY sparingly) do so like this:

Jenkins 2006 contains useful empirical data despite the author being a tepid liberal.

  • 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. They also cause havoc if we reorder or cut an article: we will be left with references to citations that have been removed.

2. Reference List

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 instance:

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

  • 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 referencing a report or government document:

Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade 2019, “Composition of Trade Australia 2017-18”, January, https://dfat.gov.au/about-us/publications/Documents/cot-2017-18.pdf.

  • Put the titles of books, journals and periodicals in italics.
  • If you are referring to an article in a book or periodical, put the name of the article in quote marks.

3. Finally!

  • 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.
  • When editing we often delete dozens of footnotes where they are used to reference things that are self-evident, uncontentious or for some other reason does not need a footnote. Only reference things that need to be referenced. As a general guide these will be points of controversy  or of obvious interest for the readers. Back yourself to make arguments without referencing every person you might have got a part of it from.
  • Please follow these guidelines and include complete footnotes (to repeat, using Word or Google Doc automatic footnote feature) and reference list. Failure to do so can create a lot of work for our hard-pressed editorial team. 

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