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.

The Elements of Productive Peer Review

One of the most important academic practices to learn is that of peer review — both producing peer reviews of other people’s work, and learning how to read peer reviews productively. And yet, we’re rarely taught how to write generative peer reviews, and even more rarely are we taught how to read peer reviews to improve our work. So, here’s a first stab.

Preparing Peer Reviews

At the outset, I should say that many journals have peer review expectations, and these are embedded in forms that they ask peer reviewers to fill out at the time they submit their peer reviews to the editors. At the most basic, they ask reviewers to evaluate the submission in terms of its ability to be published (e.g. publish without revisions, publish with revisions, revise and resubmit, do not publish). Beyond that, though, most peer reviews are rather free form and are left up to peer reviewers to do with it what they will. That being said, useful peer reviews tend to share some qualities:

Make sure that throughout your review to flag what the author needs to address and what she or he may choose to address. More than anything else, this can really help make the difference between a useful review and one that’s not so useful…

Start with a summary of the author’s argument, as you understand it. This is a pretty good index to the author as to whether or not he or she is conveying their argument, and what, if any, interpretive problems are happening on the reviewer’s end. If the reviewers just aren’t getting it, then there’s a big problem. Or if the reviewers are missing a nuance in the argument, that’s important to see too. This summary needn’t be long, but it should paraphrase the thesis and then cover the argumentation (i.e. the argument is X, which is followed in the paper by discussions of A, B and C). If there are logical inconsistencies in the argumentation, this is the place to point that out. If there are argumentative problems, this section can be much longer — upwards of two pages. But if it stretches beyond that, it needs to be broken into subsections to help the author interpret what to do and where specific problems lie.

The middle section of a peer review usually falls into the realm of free association, which is where the reviewer can spend some time discussing the relative merits and shortfalls of the paper, the paper’s linkage to other existing scholarship, and the overall consistency of the paper. Throughout, it’s important to flag which comments need to be addressed by the author and which are not so critical: it’s fine to go on for a paragraph or two about a pet peeve or some flight of fancy, but if it has little bearing on how the author should be rewriting his or her paper, make sure to flag that (e.g. ‘The author might be interested in…’ rather than ‘The author needs to address…’).

In the middle section of the peer review, it’s worth taking the time to discuss each of the sections of the paper (as the author has it broken down), including a brief description of the section along with some evaluative language (does it work or doesn’t it?). If there are parts of the paper that just don’t work or parts of the paper that really do work, this is the place to point them out. Praising things about the paper is just as important as saying critical things: if one reviewer really likes a section and others do not, it’s helpful to see why that’s the case.

Connecting the article to existing literature that hasn’t been discussed by the author also usually falls into this middle section. Again, it’s important to flag what needs to be addressed and what might be addressed. If an author is making vague references to a body of theoretical literature and would really do well to spell out her or his assumptions more directly, point that out; if an author has a huge blind spot in his or her discussion of relevant literature, point that out too. But if there’s some tangentially related literature that you know but the author doesn’t — and it won’t really have any bearing on the article anyway — make sure to mention that citing that work isn’t consequential, but might be interesting to the author.

The last section of peer reviews usually focuses much more on very specific things that need to be addressed by the author: are there specific awkward or vague sentences, missing citations, bibliographic errors, etc.? This isn’t to say that a peer review’s job is to find syntactical or grammatical problems, but if there are writing issues that interfere with the ability of the paper to be read, these problems need to be pointed out to the author.

The final paragraph of the review should succinctly restate your overall assessment of the paper and outline the major things (if any) that need attention on the part of the author.

It may seem paradoxical, but a really good review can actually be a bad review for an author. I’ve received reviews that say things along the lines of ‘This paper is ready to be published; the author shouldn’t change anything.’ (Usually only after already having passed through peer review multiple times, mind you…) But if the other reviewers are highly critical of parts of the paper, such a blanket positive peer review doesn’t help much. Instead, working through the positives of the paper is more helpful for the author, so that she or he can see why you like sections or the paper as much as you do — if you like things that others do not, it’s vital to see why that is. And, if there’s an editor involved, they’re more likely to be swayed by articulate, negative appraisals than a blanket and vague positive one.

Interpreting Peer Reviews

If you’re an author and have peer reviews that look roughly like what I’ve outline here, there should be very little problem in interpreting them. But, more likely, you’ll have peer reviews that don’t strictly (or even closely) follow this format. The best way to tackle reviews is to read through them and identify those things that reviewers think need to be changed (and thereby isolating them from less pertinent critiques). Often, the best way to do this is to see if there is convergence between readers: are people having similar problems with the paper? If they are, that’s fairly easy to see and address. If they’re having wildly different kinds of problems, it’s worth writing down the criticisms and seeing what the problem lies: is it that they really understand your argument differently? Are they coming from very different interpretive traditions? Sometimes you can address these problems; sometimes, it’s just the luck of the draw. And the important thing here is to isolate what you actually need to address and what you don’t. In not addressing some concerns, it’s important to point out why — sometimes in the body of the paper itself (which may be a way to get your argument more precise).

If you’re preparing to resubmit a paper after peer review, editors will often ask that you enumerate the changes that you’ve made to the text — and which changes you haven’t made and explanations as to why. If you have a list of requested changes, this is a fairly easy document to prepare, as you can list which changes you’ve made, how the criticism has been addressed, and where the change appears in the paper. Doing this can be helpful both for the editor and for peer reviewers, who often want to see that you’ve made the changes that they’ve suggested.