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 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.