The Best Advice I Have to Give About Writing Dissertations

Reading other people’s dissertations as an adviser and committee member has familiarized me with some common oversights that writers make, which basically fall into two camps: being too ambitious and overlooking the obvious. Now, this might all seem a little straightforward, but, honestly, that’s what a dissertation should be, and yet they often aren’t. These are recommendations based on cultural anthropology dissertations, but they probably translate to a lot of the more humanistic social sciences and humanities — and there are always exceptions to be made. So these are recommendations to get people started on conceptualizing what they’re doing when they tackle writing up a dissertation project. As usual, what your specific committee, adviser, and institution expects may be different from what I lay out here — but this might still be a decent place to start a conversation.

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That’s R. Crumb’s Kafka struggling with something akin to a dissertation…

1) Start with a chapter that lays out the people, places, and things that you’re going to be talking about for the rest of the dissertation. This is not your introduction, which is much more conceptual (see below) — this is really just what it sounds like: who are these people, where do they live and work, and why are you writing a dissertation about them? These are all questions you should have answers for, and their obviousness might lead you to not write this chapter (I’ll admit: I didn’t) because you’ve been working on the project for so long that these things are just assumed. But they aren’t for your dissertation committee, nor will they be for any potential future reader of the dissertation and the eventual book. It doesn’t need to be high concept — in fact, it should be the opposite in the sense that all you’re doing is giving your reader a deep sense of context so that as you discuss these people, places, things, and events later in the dissertation, your reader has this background information in mind.

Now, you might have some reservations — say, you don’t have a specific place, because the project is multi-sited — but, let me assure you, there is a chapter to write that gives your reader context for the rest of the dissertation, whether it’s about individual people, a set of institutions, or a concept, thing, or event that the rest of the dissertation is tracking. If you think you covered this in your dissertation’s introduction, your introduction might be too long or you might be doing too much in your introduction. A solid contextual chapter can go a long way to making sure your dissertation is legible to your committee.

2) Pick a set of theory to work with. One of the nice things about graduate school can be that it introduces you to a wide variety of theorists and theoretical approaches — but when it comes time to write a dissertation, you really have to pick what you want to work with. One of the problems a lot of students seem to have is that their conceptual tool kit becomes overfull when it comes time to write a dissertation — there are so many possible conceptual explanations that it can be difficult to choose just one. But, choosing one explanation is at least pragmatically necessary: a chapter needs to come to some kind of conclusion. Knowing that Marxism is on the table, and psychoanalysis is not means that you can focus on one set of possibilities and ignore others.

A former adviser, Hai Ren, once recommended that you need three theorists to write a dissertation, and over time I’ve really come to see the wisdom in that approach. As I advise students, I’ve come to realize that limiting your conceptual concerns in this way provides you with a strong body of language to draw from and a delimited set of ideas to explore. This combination of theorists and ideas can be complementary or antagonistic — that is, you can draw from three staunch Marxists, or pit Lacanism versus Latourianism — but the most important thing is identifying what’s on and off the table for the purpose of theoretical explanation. And you might commit to this physically: box up all the books you won’t be using and put them out of sight for the duration of dissertation writing.

When I was writing my dissertation, one of my committee members, Bruce Braun, suggested that I come up with a list of terms I didn’t want to use as well as a corresponding list of replacement concepts derived from the theoretical interests I have. So, I drew up a list of problematic Cartesian concepts and a list of Spinozist replacements. Just doing that — coming up with the list — profoundly shaped my vocabulary and meant that I wasn’t inadvertently wading into troublesome terrain or mixing terms that didn’t fit together. Once you know who your pet theorists are and what theories you’re working with, coming up with such a list can be very helpful in identifying key ideas to explain and how to structure what you’re doing.

3) Structure chapters around an idea. It was once the case that anthropologists could legitimately write a chapter each about kinship, economy, religion, political structure, subsistence patterns, etc., but the discrete nature of these distinctions has been largely abandoned — as least as comprehensive rubrics for chapter-length description and analysis. That said, there should be a set of key ideas that you’re working with and that you can arrange your evidence to support. These might be ideas that arise from the project itself — i.e. you might structure chapters around ideas that the people in your field site find important — or they might be ideas that derive from the theoretical questions that you’re concerned with. In either case, structuring a chapter around an idea helps to delimit what goes into that chapter.

Alternatively, you might think about structuring chapters around specific cases — whether they be people, places, or events — and even when that’s the case, it’s important to identify what the case is a case of. Having some kind of identified structure can lead you to ask whether or not any particular set of evidence needs to be in the chapter (which is to say that it’s absolutely okay to leave evidence out of a chapter when it doesn’t fit — better to be short and persuasive than long and unmoored).

The other vital thing here is that when it comes time to write articles based on your dissertation, they too will need to be organized around an idea (or maybe two coming into contact with one another), and starting with this kind of framework can lead you to have a more modular dissertation that you can mix and match to produce articles, and, later, more complex book chapters (but they needn’t!).

4) Make sure all those chapter ideas and pet theories appear in the introduction. Dissertation writers are sometimes motivated to write their introduction before they write the chapters of the dissertation, but it’s usually best to start with the chapters and work back to the introduction, if for no other reason that there tends to be a lot of drift when people work the other way (which is to say that what you think your dissertation is going to be about before you start writing it is probably not what it will actually be about). Once you have the ideas in place for each of the chapters, and you’ve written most of those chapters, it’s worth sketching out the introduction to see how all the ideas fit together as some kind of conceptual package. And then you have to explain why they fit together for the sake of your committee…

Again, if you have a delimited set of theories that you’re working with, writing an introduction around a set of ideas can be pretty straightforward: you can explain the ideas, where they come from, and what your contributions will be. That way as you work through the ideas in the dissertation itself, your committee has something to fall back on as to why your interests are as they are.

Introductions also benefit from a taste of the empirical content of the dissertation — which is different than the contextual chapter mentioned above. Give your readers a sense of the kinds of situations, quandaries, or events that are of interest throughout the dissertation, and use an example or two to motivate your engagement with the set of theory and ideas you’re employing. This helps stop an introduction from being too abstract and can compel your committee to engage with your readings of a set of shared theoretical texts in a new way.

5) Go easy on yourself. Dissertation writers often get hung up on identifying the ‘big idea’ of the dissertation before they actually write it — but, it took me three years after submitting my dissertation to really have a sense of what the big idea behind it was (and that had a lot to do with teaching and realizing where what I was doing fit into the field more generally). I had a passable big idea — sleep and its relationship to industrial capitalism — but as far as how that idea could travel, it took a long time to flesh that out.

And, no dissertation is perfect: it won’t feel that way when you turn it in, and it won’t feel that way years later. The best that a dissertation can be is an archive of evidence, ideas, and experiments that you can use for years to come — for conference presentations, articles, and eventually a book. If it’s also coherent and persuasive, consider it a victory.

 

N=1 Article Writing Challenge

Are you up for a bit of a challenge? And interested in some professionalization advice testing? Do you want to see how quickly you can churn out a short article manuscript? Then you might be up for my inaugural summer break article writing challenge. Starting July 1st and ending July 14th, I’m asking people to read my series of blog posts on preparing article manuscripts and to provide me with feedback on their experience of following my advice. If you’re interested, send me an email and let me know that you’re on board.

Over the last several weeks, I’ve been posting a series of entries about the production of academic articles, largely intended for first-time article writers, but applicable to us all. Over six* steps, I discuss identifying the right journal, analyzing an appropriate model to base your manuscript on, writing introductions, literature reviews, your evidence, and conclusion, and the final steps to prepare the manuscript for submission to a journal (but not in that order).

These posts grew out of an alternative spring break I’ve begun to offer for anthropology graduate students in the University of California system to spend a week talking about and concentrating on writing an article manuscript — a week-long event that has grown out of my ongoing professionalization workshop series (which you can read summaries of here). By inviting everyone everywhere to participate in this writing event, I’m hoping to gather feedback to add to and revise the Six Steps in future blog posts and professionalization events (which may be coming to a conference near you sometime soon).

As a means of thanking people for helping out in testing my advice, I’m collecting names and will facilitate peer review for those people ready for feedback by July 14th.  That is, if you email me and let me know that you’ll be participating, when your manuscript is complete, I’ll email it to another participant so you can get a round of peer review in the revision process. Before you email me, take a few minutes and read about publishing strategies and Step 1 and send me the name of the journal you’re planning on targeting. As we collectively work through the Six Steps, you can either email me your feedback on each step, or respond to the steps in the comment sections of the relevant post.

I’m looking forward to the challenge, and hope you’ll join me for it.

*It’s actually 7 steps, but the first step — on publishing strategies — was published a long time ago.

How to Write a Journal Article (in 6 Steps): Step 6 — Fine Tuning

After writing your conclusion, literature review, empirical evidence and introduction, you have a full article manuscript in hand, and it’s time for some fine tuning before you send it off for peer review to your journal of choice. Fine tuning is really about being deliberate and making sure that the whole manuscript works as a piece of sustained argumentation. More than anything else, you want to make sure that your manuscript is consistent. It doesn’t need to be perfect — peer review is there to get it as close to perfect as it can get — so just make sure it’s 85% complete and that there aren’t any huge gaps.

sand-patterns

The biggest challenge in sending a manuscript out for review is coming to terms with it not being 100% complete. But, fundamentally, a manuscript is never done — and it’s up to the peer review process to help you finish it (at least enough for it to be published). An article isn’t a definitive statement, but rather part of an ongoing conversation (or maybe a conversation starter). As such, the burden is just to carry the conversation forward — not to bring it to a conclusion. Accept that an article is never complete, and get ready to send it out for peer review.

With that in mind, here’s the checklist:

1) Make sure that your argument is well articulated and flows throughout the manuscript. Along with that, make sure that keywords that appear in one part of the text appear throughout (e.g. if you’re talking about biopolitics in the conclusion, make sure that it’s in your introduction, lit review and cases). Read it through once on paper or in some other not-easily modified way and take notes on what to fix (editing at your computer can descend into lots of new writing, and you should avoid that at this point). Maybe take a day or two off and read it again. And then sit down to work through the corrections on the manuscript. I tend to find that having someone else read it during this time to be helpful, as I get a little myopic in my reading of my own work after working on it closely for a while. So a fresh reader can be a great asset, especially when it comes to seeing the inner workings of an argument.

2) Verify that there aren’t any non sequitors or holdovers. Hopefully you haven’t done a lot of copying and pasting into the manuscript, which usually increases the number of these kinds of artifacts. In any case, read through the manuscript and make sure that everything you say will be done is actually attended to, and that you don’t make any presumptions of what happened early in the manuscript at late points (look for those telltale ‘as mentioned above…’ and ‘below’). And make sure that you don’t refer to any evidence that isn’t in the manuscript.

3) Check your citations and bibliography. Make sure that everything that should be cited is cited, and that the citations appear in the bibliography. It’s always a headscratcher as a peer reviewer to check a citation that’s unfamiliar to find that it doesn’t appear in the bibliography…

4) Ensure that the manuscript meets the journal’s formatting guidelines. Every journal should have this information posted on their ‘For Authors’ or similar page, including their bibliographic style preference and other style concerns. Make sure you follow these as closely as you can (although sometimes things slip through the cracks — which isn’t anything to worry about), and know that the more closely you can follow them, the more clearly you demonstrate to the editor that you’re serious about publishing in his or her journal and have done your homework. The most important thing here is to make sure that you meet the word limit requirements, usually a little short of target so you have room to revise when it comes time for that.

5) Write your abstract, pick keywords, and write a cover letter. The length of abstracts can vary quite a bit, so make sure you know what you’re shooting for — they tend to be anywhere between 150-250 words. I usually find it helpful to take a summary paragraph from the conclusion of an article manuscript and whittle it down into an abstract. Such a technique ensures that you’re talking about all the things you need to: the argument, the evidence, and the structure of the article. Remember to pick keywords that aren’t in your title (which would be redundant). And prepare a cover letter that briefly states the source (e.g. your dissertation research), intent and word length of the article manuscript. (This all might be worth an additional post…)

If you can, try and do a peer review swap with a friend before you send your article out for review. Make sure that your prospective peer reader is aware of the journal that you’re sending it to and the subdisciplinary or regional debates you’re entering into — you don’t want them to read an article as a ‘general’ reader, since that’s not exactly who you’re writing for. Instead, make sure they’re reading like a specialist. You want to make sure the comments they’re giving you are relevant to your immediate needs, and although a general perspective can be helpful, when you’re targeting a specific journal, such comments can often be a distraction.

So that’s it. Get to work (or keep working), and know that it can be anywhere from 3-12 months to hear back from a journal’s editor. Don’t sit on your hands and wait though, get to work on the next article manuscript

How to Write a Journal Article (in 6 Steps): Step 5 — The Introduction & Argument

It might seem a little perverse to wait until the penultimate step to discuss introductions and arguments, but like I mentioned in step 2, it’s often helpful to work through most of the other material in an article manuscript first, so that when you get to the introduction and argument you have a clear sense of what your argument actually is. So, if you’ve worked through steps 1-4, getting down to the brass tacks of your argument should be a lot easier than if you try and start with the argument — which can be daunting and freeze many writers in their tracks…

intro(In case you want to know what my chalkboard writing looks like, here’s the diagram from my alternative spring break.)

Often, in cultural anthropology at least, articles begin with a little ethnographic vignette — some kind of hook to get the reader’s interest piqued. As I mentioned in step 4, these vignettes are usually linked to the cases that make up the evidence in the rest of the article, and tend to be about a page or so long.

A successful introduction — ethnographic vignette or not — should give your reader a sense of why she or he should keep reading within a page or two, and a good rationale to keep reading is a question or quandary that’s of broad appeal, but which you can provide the answer for. So, it might be an ethnographic vignette, or some other compelling set of data posed in a way that begs questions rather than provides answers, or it might be a question about the existing scholarly literature, or a case from popular media or current events (although I tend to think that current events don’t stay current for long…). Regardless of what your introduction is comprised of, it needs to be returned to later in the article — and where you return to it should make sense based on what the introduction is (i.e. if it’s an ethnographic vignette, continue the vignette in one of your cases, if it’s a problem in the literature, return to it in the literature review, etc.).

After you have your reader hooked, what will actually keep the reader reading is a well articulated argument. One of the most critical things is to not bury the lead — which is to say, make sure your argument appears by the end of page two of your article manuscript (which means it will be on page one of your published article). If your argument comes too late, you risk losing your reader, or, at the least, having your reader begin to wonder why they’re reading what they’re reading. A good argument, posed early on, will do a lot of work for you and ensure that your reader keeps reading — so don’t get carried away with your introductory hook.

What makes a good argumentative thesis? That’s probably the hardest part of this whole project, and it really takes time and experience to develop a solid thesis that you can substantiate with your evidence. I can’t tell you specifically what will make a good thesis for you, but I can give you a few guidelines, some of which are going to seem like no-brainers:

First, a good thesis is motivated by your evidence. This might sound totally crazy, but one of the biggest mistakes I see in articles I peer review is that the thesis makes evidentiary claims that aren’t supported by the evidential cases in the article. My sense is that this is due to people writing articles linearly, starting with the introduction and thesis and then moving onward, and failing to bring the cases in line with the thesis. But if you tend to your literature review and cases before turning to your thesis, you should have a clear sense of what your contribution to the literature in your field is and how your evidence relates to it. One way you might start here is by writing a sentence like ‘Based on [Case 1] and [Case 2], we see that X is actually X1,’ where X is a particular theoretical concept or assumption about a region and X1 is your claim about the same. Once you have that clunky sentence in place, you can work on revising it into something a little more eloquent…

Secondly, a good thesis poses causality. I’m using ‘causality’ here in the broadest sense of the term, mostly because I need some kind of shorthand for all of the kinds of interpretive work that you might do and need to embed in a thesis. In fact, you might be talking about causality (‘X is now X1, because of Y’), but it might also be a little more subtle than that (‘Attending to Y shows that X is actually X1.). Try a sentence like one of those, where Y is what you’re focusing on in your cases. If your two cases are different from one another, then you probably have two sentences here to explain the nuances that each of the cases adds to your claims.

Third, a good thesis engages with questions in the existing literature. Since you’ll be tackling the literature that’s relevant in your literature review — which is coming up very quickly — you don’t need to get into fine details here, and you can often get away with theoretical shorthand, i.e. you can just use keywords, as long as you return to them in your literature review. The right keywords will often motivate a reader long enough to get them through the introduction — as long as you sincerely engage with them as theoretical concepts and make it apparent to your reader how the terms relate to your argument.

It’s often difficult to capture all of these qualities in one sentence (and unwise). It’s best to break them up into sentences in their own right, or at least to start that way and work towards integration. In the end, you should have a paragraph — and it might be a short one — that brings all of these concerns together and gives your reader a sense of the stakes of what you’re focusing on and a clear sense of why she or he should give you the next 30 minutes of her or his time. The weaker or less articulated the thesis, the less likely your reader is going to stay motivated for the whole article…

After your thesis paragraph, you should take the time to detail your methodology in a paragraph. This paragraph can be difficult to write — mostly because it’s difficult to be excited about it — but once you have a good methods paragraph, you can copy and paste it with minor variations for every article you write thereafter. A good methods paragraph lays out the duration of the research, where the research was conducted and what those contexts were like, and what the sample size was (which, for cultural anthropologists, is the number of people interviewed, events attended, etc. — the stuff that makes up your cases). This paragraph might also legitimate methodological choices in reference to key theoretical-methods literature, particularly if the methods are unconventional or experimental for the audience of the journal.

After your methods paragraph, you should turn to your literature review. By now, you should have a pretty clear sense of why you’re discussing the literature that’s in your literature review, so working through it again to revise it is worth the time. Given your argument, tighten up your literature review, both cutting some literature that’s no longer relevant to your argument, and also making sure that you’re highlighting what you should be about the literature that you’re keeping.

The last paragraph in your introduction should be a transitional paragraph that lays out the content of the article in relation to your thesis. So, often what you’re doing is moving from the fairly broad claims in your literature review to the specific content of your cases and surveying them in a sentence for each case. But this is all preceded by a recapitulation of your thesis in a shortened form. ‘As I will demonstrate in the following, X is due to Y resulting in X1. This can be seen in Case 1, where X is A. Further, in Case 2, X is B.’ That feels a little symbolic-logicky, but hopefully you get the idea. You should also explain what will occur in your conclusion, so there are no surprises, i.e. ‘In the conclusion, I discuss the implications of X as X1 for [subfield or regional interest].’ Basically, you’re once again motivating your reader to carry on reading the article, and also ensuring that there are no substantial surprises — your reader needs to be able to anticipate everything that’s coming up (without all of the nitty gritty details). Anticipation is motivation.

All told, your introduction should be about 5 pages long (maybe up to 7, but rarely any longer than that). Five pages might seem really short, but a good introduction shouldn’t be too long (it’s an introduction, after all) — anything longer than 7 pages is really going to tax your reader, and she or he will be wondering when they get to the good stuff (outside of your opening couple of paragraphs, your introduction isn’t so much ‘good’ stuff as ‘necessary’ stuff). Strive for brevity, knowing that it will help your reader stay motivated. And, when the peer reviews come back, know that you’ll have a little wiggle room in your introduction to address the concerns of your reviews.

Once you have it all weaved together, adding your new introduction to your cases and conclusion, that’s your article manuscript. Easy, right? Now it’s time for some fine tuning

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 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.

conclusion_blacknwhite

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 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.

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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.