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.

The 5-Page Dissertation

Starting to write a dissertation is a daunting project. I’m all about formal conceits, though, and find that they can be very helpful in making dissertation writing a much more agreeable process. With my own dissertation, I used a method that relied on 5-page, case-oriented sections (which I’ll describe a bit below, and which you can still see the remnants of in the structure and content of The Slumbering Masses; if you feel really daring, you could also look at my actual dissertation). Each chapter of my dissertation was comprised of 5 or more of these 5-page sections, as well as an introduction and conclusion. All in all, my dissertation ended up being comprised of more than 50 of these 5-page sections, which included evidence assembled from fieldnotes, interview transcripts, and archival and textual content.

Sandro_Botticelli_-_The_Abyss_of_Hell_-_WGA02853

Not every section adhered to a strict 5 pages, but my general rule was that if it was less than 5 pages long, then it wasn’t enough to count as a section — so it either needed to be paired with other data, or it needed to be expanded with more data or analysis. If it is longer than 5 pages by more than a couple of pages — i.e. it was closer to 10 pages than 5 — then it would need to be broken into two smaller sections that were clearly argued.

My general writing philosophy is that no one wants to read  about any one thing for more than 5 pages, and even if they do, they forget why they’re reading about it after page 5. So, both for the purpose of keeping people interested in your dissertation, and making sure they know what they’re reading what they’re reading, 5 page sections make sense.

Sections like I’m describing can also be fairly easy and stress-free to write. If, at the beginning of your dissertation writing, you can set aside theoretical concerns and structural conceits, writing up evidence in this 5-page case fashion can go fairly quickly. Yes, you’re deferring the heavy lifting, but it means that by the time you get to the analytic work, you have a significant amount of data, and a clear sense of what’s going into the dissertation (evidence-wise).

There’s also inherent modularity to 5-page sections. That is, if you need to move content from one chapter to another, if it’s in 5-page chunks, it’s relatively easy to relocate, and usually only requires a little rewriting in the section’s introductory and concluding paragraphs (and maybe in some of the analytic sections).

So, how did I (and how might you) structure 5-page sections?

I always tell people who are writing their dissertations to start with the evidence: just start writing up fieldnotes and transcribing interviews, beginning with the stuff that really stands out, and working from there. Don’t worry about why you’re writing this stuff up, just focus on assembling evidence. These nuggets of evidence provide the basis for your 5-page sections. These initial evidence-focused drafts can be quite short, anywhere from 1 page to 3 or 4. If they get longer than that, think about where it might be broken into 2 sections for the purpose of later development.

As you write these small sections, it’s worth marking them with keywords — these can be very straightforward descriptors or theoretical terms — which you can then use to move to the next stage. If you compile all of your sections into one document, it also makes it easy to keyword search for sections that might be associated with one another.

Once you have a significant number of these 5-page sections written (say 20 to begin with), you can start to arrange them into the skeletal framework of chapters based on similarities in themes or content. On first pass, each chapter probably needs 3-4 sections; as you move ahead, you might write new sections to complement the ones you already have, or move sections from one chapter to another. It will also become increasingly clear what other evidence you need to type up, so although you might only start with 20 or so sections written, by the end of the process you’ll have significantly more.

After assembling skeletal chapters, you can begin to write the analytic content for each of the sections and work on tying them together. This is the real difficult part of the process, and nothing makes it easier. But having solid evidence-based sections will ensure that there’s a firm foundation for each of the chapters.

You might also find that you end up with a number of sections that don’t ultimately fit into the dissertation. This isn’t cause for alarm, but instead might provide the basis for future articles or book chapters. Dissertation writing is about creating an archive of content that you can mine over the next five or more years (when the likelihood of new research opportunities is low), so the more you have by the time you finish your dissertation, the better. It doesn’t all need to be in the dissertation though, so don’t worry about producing too much since you’ll inevitably find uses for it.

Any questions about the process? Other suggestions for how to tackle dissertation writing? Desire to read a whole How-To book about the idea of dissertation writing this way and possible strategies? Post everything in the comments.

For another approach, check this out.

Planning a Dissertation: Articles or Book?

Here’s a question from a friend:

Just had an interesting conversation w/ my advisors where they gave me the option of writing 2 articles instead of a long dissertation. I would love to know your thoughts on this esp. since at some pt., like you, I’d like to write a book. Had a conversation w/ an editor at UofM Press and he said the book chapters look totally different than the dissertation chapters–everything gets rewritten/reorganized anyway. Thoughts?

I’ve thought about this a lot over the last few years. I really tried to write my dissertation as a book manuscript, in part because my committee suggested that I approach it that way. I think it largely worked out, but the version I submitted as a dissertation and the one that’s finally being published as The Slumbering Masses are wildly different things. So I’m not sure that it needs to be as book-like as it was; and, in reality, it wasn’t very book like at all (since it had to be rewritten). I ended up having to do a lot of work to get it into an actual book manuscript, as I’ve talked about elsewhere; if I had just planned everything as articles and then revised them all into a book, it would have been as much or less work. It definitely wouldn’t have been more work…

I’ve mentioned before that one of the first things you should do with your dissertation is prepare a couple chapters for publication as articles. Approaching your dissertation as a set of articles really makes a lot of sense — it saves you from having to convert something from a chapter to an article, only to have to convert it to a chapter again later for the book. Instead, you just have the one article to chapter conversion (with eventual revisions). So writing a dissertation as articles can really save you a lot of time, and it can get you on the professionalization fast track. (I should also mention here that one of my chapters was written as an article that later appeared in Body & Society — it was the first thing I wrote and it took as long to appear in print as it did for me to finish the rest of the dissertation.)

Part of your thinking about this should really be shaped by the academic publishing market. Right now, due to state budget shortfalls, many university presses have cut back in their publishing plans, so they aren’t accepting as many books for publication. Meanwhile, there are more and more journals all the time, and they’re looking for content. So aiming for publishing a few articles while or shortly after dissertating makes tons of sense. And planning the whole dissertation as articles to be sent out for review is also really sensible. That being said, not all committees are up for it, and so it’s up to them as to what they’ll accept as a dissertation. A book will only be made better by publishing some articles and getting the feedback of people beyond your committee and immediate peers anyway…

The biggest thing to consider about what your dissertation should look like is this: what will you need to get tenure at the kind of institution you want to be at? The grim reality of being on the tenure track — or adjuncting while you wait for the tenure track — is that there isn’t a lot of time to conduct new research and to fabricate whole new pieces of writing. If you’re having a hard time writing even a couple articles as a graduate student, when your schedule is relatively free (although it might not feel that way), pursuing a tenure track job where the demands will be much greater is something you really need to consider. In addition to getting stuff published, there’s teaching, meetings, advising, and developing a new research project, which may include significant amounts of grant writing.

A dissertation should really provide you with a rough draft of everything you need for the next six or more years; it will be your archive for the foreseeable future. If 2 articles is enough to get tenure in your discipline and at the kind of institution you want to be at (and these are primarily liberal arts or second and third tier research universities), then that’s a sufficient dissertation; if you see yourself at a tier one research university, plan on many more articles plus, possibly, a book manuscript. If you write a short dissertation — only a couple articles — being on the tenure track might prove to be very stressful.

There’s a lot to think about in planning a dissertation, and building a significant archive of written material is the most important thing of all. So maybe not 2 articles, but maybe 6-8…