How to Write a Journal Article (in 6 Steps): Step 4 — The Evidence

So, if you’re like me, you often start working on an article by beginning with the evidence — or, rather, you have a few pieces of evidence that seem like they should be the backbone of an article and you assemble them into some rough order. Evidence in need of an argument, like an army without a general, is often pretty aimless.

No-Dumping

Starting with your evidence can be a bad way to start, largely because it can be hard to gauge what any evidence is evidence of. We’re often drawn to evidence because it’s compelling to us as lone researchers, but it’s compelling primarily because it stands out amid a host of other evidence that we prefer not to think about (because it’s not so compelling). But whether or not the evidence at hand is interesting for others to think with is another story, and depends on establishing why it’s worth a reader’s time — which, hopefully, you’ve begun to flesh out in writing your conclusion and literature review. So, now that you have a sense of the journal you’re targeting and the audience that journal appeals to, as well as the broader debates you’re ready to speak to, it’s time to get into the evidence and make it work for you.

Generally, my rule is that for every 2,000 words in an article, you can use one case study. (I’ve discussed my case study approach to dissertation writing here, which might be worth taking the time to read if you haven’t already.) So, if you’re writing a 6,000 word article manuscript, you have roughly 2,000 words for the introduction, literature review, conclusion and bibliography. Then, another 2,000 words for the first case and another 2,000 words for the second case. For each additional 2,000 words in a word limit, you can add another case. But round down — it’s better to spend more time with a case rather than less (i.e. no 1,000 word cases).

If you’re writing an article based on dissertation content, I suggest writing the cases anew. Don’t copy and paste, but instead just write from memory (and maybe copy and paste transcription or description — the stuff that won’t change). There are a couple of reasons for this: first, there are often significant shifts in tone between dissertation chapters and articles, and it’s very difficult to iron out tone once it’s in the text. Starting fresh ensures that you’re carrying forward the same tone that you’ve established in your conclusion and literature review. Second, it can often be difficult to gauge what you absolutely need to cut from something you’ve already written (and people often have a hard time letting go); it’s easier to ascertain what you need to add. So, if you’re writing for an audience that’s in your same subfield or region, there are a lot of assumptions that you can make of your audience — if it’s a subfield journal, you don’t need to spend time explaining generic institutional kinds (e.g. you don’t need to explain what a hospital is to a medical anthropologist), and, likewise, you don’t need to spend time on well known context for a regional journal (e.g. while the history of Civil Rights is important to understand racial discrimination in the U.S., you don’t need to explain it to most Americanists). So, start fresh and write the cases up again — they should be looser than their dissertation versions, and easier to mold into your argumentative needs.

Because you’ve already worked through your literature review, you should have a pretty clear sense of what your work is contributing to in the field. But, if not, writing up your cases can be a way of clarifying what you have to add. Often, whether we know it or not, we find evidence compelling because it either runs counter to what we’ve been taught to think about a subject (or at least troubles assumptions) or it’s significantly different than the rest of our collected evidence. If it’s the former, it’s pretty easy to see how to build an argument with it: you’re challenging dominant ways of understanding a theoretical concept through a collection of contrary evidence, and you need to present that evidence in such a way that it logically unsettles disciplinary assumptions. If, however, it’s the latterer and it’s mostly compelling because it’s different than most of your other evidence, you have a different battle to fight. First, you need to provide your reader with a baseline (i.e. the boring stuff) and then turn to the exceptional stuff. So, with that structure, case #1 might be the boring stuff, and case #2 the exciting stuff.

Often, cases begin with some kind of hook — some juicy interview segment, or rich description of an event, person or place. From that hook, cases zoom out to explain the hook’s context, often situating it in its contemporary moment, and then providing some deeper context (history of a place, institution, event, individual) to understand why it’s worth thinking through. After that context is provided, further evidence of the same type (or slight variations of the same kind of evidence) are provided to flesh it out, often with the implicit attempt being to naturalize it. That is, what makes a hook a hook is that it’s not what your audience should expect. But by working through your evidence, they should come to see that the hook is actually suitably normative in your research context. Or, if it really is exceptional, then you work to establish how it’s exceptional by showing how all the other evidence you’ve collected is different from it. This might mean including other evidence without as much context as your first hook depends on, but that can often be okay because you’re providing this other evidence as further context to understand the hook and its merits.

For cultural anthropologists (and, really, lots of people in different humanistic and social scientific disciplines), it’s typical to begin an article with an anecdote, and then return to that anecdote in your first case. If this is the approach you’re adopting (and it’s largely determined by the journal you’re writing for), then you might take the first couple of pages of your first case and cleave them off. Then, rewrite the beginning of the case knowing that the first two pages are going to appear at the start of the paper. This may mean providing a brief summary of the hook that appeared in the introduction, or some other flag that reminds your reader what they’ve read; from there, you need to move into further evidence to flesh the hook out.

One of the persistent problems I see in articles that I’m asked to review for journals is that authors assume that their evidence is self-explanatory. Often, sections of articles dedicated to evidence read like infodumps: pages of unanalyzed and undermotivated evidence, which leave me with my eyes glazed over. Why, I ask myself, am I reading all of this evidence? And what in the world is it evidence of? My general rule is that for every line of evidence, there should be two lines of analysis. So, if you have a quote from someone or a text that runs four lines, you should spend at least eight lines discussing its relevance to your argument. This might include some historical or situational context, but it should primarily be based on your interpretive scheme and further your argument. This might seem like a no-brainer, but one of the problems a lot of people have is that they spend so much time with their evidence (in their dissertation, in conversation with others, in conference presentations) that they just assume everyone understands its implications and relevance to your argument. Let me assure you: they do not. Be sure to spell it all out, and make sure that every paragraph begins and ends with some reference to your larger argument, if only a glancing mention of keywords.

Which provides me with a segue to step five, developing your argument and the introduction of the article.

How to Write a Journal Article (in 6 Steps): Step 3 — The Literature Review

Okay, so, you’ve identified a journal to target with an article submission, analyzed a model article, and written the provisional conclusion to your article — now it’s time for step 3, writing your literature review. Literature reviews are an easy thing to malign, as they seem simultaneously pedestrian and Herculean. How can you possibly cite all of the relevant literature? And how can you make a literature review anything more than an uninteresting list of ‘necessary’ citations?

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Before I address those questions, it’s important to point out that a solid literature review does a lot of work for you as an anonymous author; a good literature review can allay many reviewer concerns and make a ‘revise and resubmit’ into an ‘accept with revisions.’ If you can position your work in its relevant fields — which are presumably fields relevant to the journal you’ve selected — even if there are problems with your presentation of evidence, the thoroughness of your analysis, or the structure of the manuscript, it should be obvious to the reviewers and the editor that there’s significant merit in your scholarship. Which is all to say that a solid literature review makes evident that you know the field and that your work is worth a reviewer’s time, even if the article isn’t in tip-top shape.

So there are two rules moving forward: write what you know, and keep it short. With those in mind, let’s talk about structure first:

In many respects, what you’re doing is duplicating content from your conclusion — at least in terms of citations. And you’ll be following a similar model, in that you’ll start by addressing literature in the subfield or geographic area of interest, and then shift registers into more theoretical territory. All told, your literature review should probably be between 3-5 paragraphs long, and usually only 3-4 paragraphs (if it gets too long, it either comes across as too anxious or too grad-studenty). I don’t think there’s a real prescription on which order these paragraphs should come in, but they should be organically arranged, and move your reader from your introduction into your cases — so it often makes sense to review topical or geographically-similar literature as the last paragraph (which I’ll explain more shortly).

Paragraph 1 starts with relevant literature in your subfield. Who are the people most immediately related to your topic? You should have already considered who these people are in writing your conclusion, but now’s the time to name them and to put them into direct conversation with your concerns. And, in so doing, what you’ll also be pointing out is how your work is different from theirs. So, for example, if I’m writing about sleep for a medical anthropology journal, this is the paragraph about how other people have approached sleep within anthropology and related fields.

Paragraph 2 then start to scale up and position your article in more theoretical literature, often most closely related to your field. So, following my example, this might be the paragraph about medicalization or some other medical-anthropology related concern. It should show your reader that you know the relevant theoretical literature in your field, as well as an awareness of the debates in the field and how you’re adding to them.

Then, paragraph 3 moves to the even more macro level in thinking about the theoretical aspects of your argument. So, continuing my example, this might be about subjectivity or temporality or whatever — something that’s of more general interest to readers in your discipline. Again, it should make evident to your reader that you have a clear sense of the debates and leading figures in the field, and these people may or may not be reflected elsewhere in your literature review.

Paragraph 4 scales down to regional literature, as a way to segue into your empirical evidence. But, if you’re writing for an area studies journal, you’ll probably flip the subfield and regional paragraphs (so 1 & 4 can be flipped). It’s important for this last paragraph to serve as a transition for your audience because it’s often the last or second-to-last paragraph before your case presentation begins — so keep that in mind as you structure them for your audience. If it’s for a subfield journal, this paragraph often includes things like: ‘when medical anthropologists study [context X] they focus on things like [phenomena A, B & C].’ And then you say something like: ‘Rarely do scholars focus on [your topic], and doing so shows that [reiterate thesis].’ If you’re writing for a regional journal, and this is your first paragraph, it tends to follow the same format, although it often starts with ‘Scholars of [context X] have highlighted the importance of [phenomena A, B & C].’ Which is followed by something like, ‘By focusing on [your topic] we see how concerns about [phenomena A, B or C] is complicated by [your approach].’

Bear in mind that your article manuscript will probably be sent to one or more people that you mention in your literature review. If an editor is looking for peer reviewers for you and they don’t know specialists in your field or who work on your topic or in your geographical area, it’s standard practice to look at someone’s bibliography and pick reviewers through citations. It’s not going to be the biggest names in the field, so it’s likely to be the people who work in your topical area, and probably more junior people (who agree to do things like peer review articles). Given that, it’s important to be even handed in your literature review — don’t pick any fights, unless you’re ready to pursue them.

Let’s get back to my two rules, mentioned above: write what you know and keep it short. A short, 6,000-8,000 word article manuscript, probably has room for 25-30 bibliographic entries. Most of these are going to be listed in your literature review and introduction. That means — doing simple math — that you’re citing about 8 people in each of the paragraphs listed above.

You might be tempted to spend a week of your life identifying recent scholarship relevant to your literature review — but don’t. You won’t get dinged for not knowing something published in the last 24 months (even by the person who wrote it, most likely), but you will get funny looks for avoiding to mention key texts published within the last 5-10 years. You should be familiar with this older stuff, and it might have even been the basis for your qualifying exams. So, write what you know and don’t worry about what you don’t know — if there’s something really critical, your reviewers or the editor will point it out to you. And, plus, you’ll have time to freshen up on your reading while the article is out for review…

And, as I’ve suggested throughout, keep it short. Four paragraphs is plenty long enough, and 25-30 citations is going to cover most of your bases. Try and write your literature review in a day. Maybe there will be a couple missing citations, but you should be able to regurgitate key citations and their respective summaries pretty quickly — it’s only about 700 words, after all. You can always go back and add more later, once you work through the whole manuscript. (I’ve come to believe that there should be no citation surprises: if you’re going to cite someone in your conclusion, cite them in the literature review too.)

There are exceptions to this generic form — like arguments against the literature, where the whole article is a deep rehearsal of the literature and its problems as based on your research — but the exceptions are generally for later in one’s career, when you’re ready to make enemies and defend yourself… And you have a reputation that allows you to make such grand claims.

Back to where I started: hopefully a literature review no longer feels like a Herculean task. It should be short, and it should be based on what you already know. Now, as far as not being dull? That’s a more difficult thing to gauge. It’s okay if it’s a little boring, because it’s relatively short and readers are ready to be bored for a page or two. But if you’re putting the literature together in compelling ways — generally in asking questions of a topic or set of theories that have yet to be asked (which can be as simple as focusing on a topic that hasn’t been attended to closely) — then you should have a highly readable and maybe even exciting literature review. It takes time, so plan on your first few literature reviews being a little more on the ‘necessary’ and a little less on the exciting side of things.

The next step? Your evidence.

How to Write a Journal Article (in 6 Steps): Step 2 — The Conclusion

After you’ve analyzed a model article from the journal you’re targeting, it’s time to write a conclusion to your own article. If that sounds crazy, bear with me.

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Often, in my experience and in those I’ve talked with about article writing, it seems that people write in a fairly linear fashion — that is, they have some empirical material they want to work with, and so they plop it into a document and then set about writing an introduction for the article. Then they write the literature review, work through their material, and write a conclusion. The result of this is often that the conclusions that get written are very narrowly focused and the introductions are vapid — too many generalities in both. This is probably due to people not really having a sense of what the article is about when they draft their introduction, and so they tend not to say terribly much; and when it comes to the conclusion, you’ve spent so much time working through the material that you can’t see the forest for the trees.

Tackling a conclusion at the outset can give you a clear sense of your intended audience and the material you plan to cover in the article. So, in the most flat footed way, you might consider starting with a ‘In this article, I have argued that [insert argument here].’ And follow that with a ‘In order to make these claims, I have drawn upon my research on [insert data umbrella] to elucidate how [phenomenon X] operates in [situation A].’ Then give summaries of the evidentiary cases you’ve presented. Briefly overview them with an eye toward summarizing them and how they relate to your argument. Taken together, this should be about a paragraph or two — not much more than a page of double-spaced text.

What follows from that should be 2-3 paragraphs on the contribution that you’re making to the journal’s field of inquiry. I find it useful to think very practically about the scholars in the field who might be interested in the case. Consider a person or set of people as the focus for each of these paragraphs and answer for them why they should find the case generative to think through. And it can work well to scale up, so start with the most immediate, empirical body of literature and move up to more theoretical concerns.

For the first of these paragraphs, consider: who else is working on the same topic or in the same geographical area as you? What does your evidence help to show that extends the conversation about the topic or the field? This can be a good place to consider how your case is exceptional — that is, are people talking about what you’re talking about or not? If not, what does including your area of interest do to the subfield or study of a geographical place? If people are writing about what you’re writing about, how does your set of cases extend the conversation in new ways or point out previously overlooked factors? (This might take a couple of paragraphs if you’re contributing to both a subfield and a regional interest, but be sure to separate them — at least at this point — into discrete paragraphs.)

The succeeding paragraphs should extend your contributions to more abstract fields. Given your contributions to your subfield and geographic area, what are the more widespread debates you’re entering into? These debates shouldn’t be wholly divorced from interests in your subfield and geographic area, but should grow out of them, although they might be novel or surprising because your case is exceptional and points in new directions for future scholarship.

So, for example, if I’m writing about sleep for a medical anthropology journal, my first of these paragraphs might identify existing literature about sleep in anthropology and the social sciences, and what looking at this literature does from the perspective of medical anthropology. Then, I might write a paragraph that’s more focused on medical anthropology: what does focusing on sleep do to existing theories of medicalization, illness narratives, embodiment, etc.? And then, building out from there, I might write a paragraph about a more macro-level theoretical concept, say biopolitics, subjectivity, phenomenology, neoliberalism, etc. It’s possible to address many topics in your conclusion, but not so many that you try and address everything. Pick a few that are immediately relevant to the mission of the journal and focus your efforts there.

Generally, the last paragraphs of conclusions are the most far-reaching in their intent, often making suggestions about how your case and the insights it provides might affect the discipline more generally. If you’re following the suggestions so far, this is the culmination of your other contributions, and might be a distillation of them all and their potential, collective impact. So, extending my example, what does focusing on sleep in American society potentially do for anthropologists who aren’t interested in sleep or the U.S.? I always find this the hardest paragraph to write, in part because it depends on imagining a reader who is fairly alien to me. But if you can make your work relevant to that person — someone fundamentally disinterested in your case — then you have a pretty successful argument.

This should be a clarifying exercise. By the end of it, you should have a good sense of the content of the article (in terms of the evidentiary cases you’ll be using), as well as the sets of literature that you’ll be contributing to with your scholarship. In the past, when I’ve taken this approach — often with just the germ of an article in mind — it’s immensely helpful in identifying which journal I might send something to: based on the kinds of evidence, the imagined readers, and the overall contribution, I get a sense of whether or not I’m writing a long, highly detailed piece aimed at the discipline, or a short, targeted piece aimed at a particular subfield. (I know this contradicts my ‘analyze a model’ first step, but once you’ve analyzed a bunch of models from different journals, you can often start with a writing exercise like this one, and then move back to picking the right journal.)

Once you have your conclusion drafted, it’s time to move on to your literature review, which you should have already begun to think about by way of writing your conclusion. You can read about Step 3 here.

How to Write a Journal Article (in 6 steps): Step 1 — Analyze a Model

Writing an academic article isn’t as difficult as it might seem from the outset — as long as you have enough evidence, a clear sense of the existing literature, and a good model to work from. In this first of several guides to writing a journal article, I want to work through this last element: a good example from an appropriate journal. (This is intended for anthropologists, but it might apply more generally.)

1The first thing to do is identify a journal you’re interested in publishing in. If this is your first article, target a journal that focuses on your subfield or geographical region of interest. Generally speaking, these smaller journals have word lengths of approximately 6,000-8,000 words. These short articles tend to focus on one key idea from your research, and mobilize 2-3 cases to support it. Once you have a significant number of dissertation chapters written, it should be relatively easy to weave together a first draft. But putting something together and making it relevant to the journal you’re interested in publishing in are two different projects. So the best thing to do is to find a good article published in the journal you’re targeting and work from that to get a sense of what the journal is looking for.

A good model isn’t one that comes from a senior academic. Instead, find one published in the last 12-18 months by an assistant professor or someone recently graduated from their Ph.D. program — someone roughly like you. Your model author will also be working from dissertation material, which is significantly different than the kinds of evidence later-career academics work from. Moreover, because junior people are working to position themselves in the field, the burden of their articles is significantly different.

If the editorship of the journal has changed hands since the publication of the article you’re working from, be sure to look at any introductions to the journal that the new editor(s) has written. If the journal is changing its focus or generic form, the new editor(s) will generally make that known early in their leadership.

Once you have the model in hand, read it once all the way through. Then, circle back with a highlighter and read it again. You’re going to need a few different colored highlighters for what’s about to come, and each time you read the article, it will get shorter and shorter…

On this first pass, highlight all of the primary evidence in the article — all of the actual empirical content generated by the author’s research. So for most anthropology articles, this means descriptions of spaces, people and events; it also includes quotes from interviews and other qualitative (and sometimes quantitative) data.

On the second pass, highlight (in another color) all of the secondary evidence in the article, but focus your attention on the content outside of the literature review. This often includes paraphrasing other authors, as well as historical or other anthropological work on the same topic. This does not include theoretical citations.

On the third pass, highlight (in yet another color) all of the argumentative content — the thesis, the topic sentences, and wherever else claims are being made (there shouldn’t be too many in the introduction or conclusion). This may include theoretical citations, especially if the author’s purpose is to argue with a set of theories or theorists.

On the fourth and final pass, highlight (in still another color) all of citations in the literature review section of the paper. Most journal articles should have 1-2 pages where the author is positioning the research alongside other work in the same subfield, other approaches to the same topic, and other research on the topic and subfield in the same geographic region. In some cases these sections can be quite long, but in most subfield and area journals, they’re relatively short.

Once you have this set of tasks completed, you should have a well marked up document. It will provide you with a few things: 1) a sense of how much evidence you need for an article of the same length, 2) a feeling for how much secondary literature you need to engage with, and 3) a scaffold of an argument and its relation to the empirical content that supports it.

With this evidence in hand, you should begin to think about your work and what might be successful at the same scale. Short articles in the 6-8,000 word range usually only have one substantial argument, and use a few cases to argue it. (For an example, you can look at an early article of mine, here.) Generally, your argument can’t get too complicated — you need a well defined problem and interpretation of it for a short article — so it will often be less than a dissertation chapter, or might borrow content from a number of chapters.

Like I discuss in relation to developing a publishing strategy for your early career, often when you’re writing for subfield or area journals, you’re making an argument with the existing literature in that field. So, what does your dissertation research add to dominant approaches to your subfield, area or topic? Just tackling that question is enough for a first or second article, because, in the beginning, you’re trying to do two things: First, you need to get people to pay attention to you, and, second, you need to start putting out articles that you can cite to support later, more complicated arguments in longer, more complex articles… But early on you need tight, short articles that make it clear to your readers what your interests are and what debates you’re contributing to at this stage in your career.

And here is Step 2.