The N=1 Article Writing Challenge Starts Today!

Welcome to the inaugural N=1 article writing challenge! The goal is to produce a 6,000-8,000 word article in two weeks, by following these steps: identifying the right journal (and stuff to publish), analyzing a model article, and then writing the conclusion, literature review, case studies and introduction. If you’re participating, please post feedback as comments on the individual steps — or, if you prefer anonymity, send me an email. At some future point, I’ll put together an addendum to the steps, and include material from the comments and emails I receive.

ImageAfter years of editing a journal and serving as a peer reviewer, I’ve become very aware of one critical misstep most authors make: audiences are important. One of the things my steps to article writing try and address is how to conceptualize your audience and write for it. Having a clear sense of who you’re writing for and why can speed up the writing process — both in terms of working from scratch and revising the article when it comes back from the journal for revisions (which it will, and that’s perfectly normal).

The biggest challenge I see among junior academics is knowing what to publish. Most people seem to think that they need to make a big splash right off the bat. But that’s both unrealistic and misguided. If it’s in your dissertation, it’s probably worth publishing — especially if no one has written about it before; it just needs to find the right audience. The ‘big splash’ is generally intended for your whole discipline, and that can wait. What you need in your first couple of publications is to endear yourself to your subfield or regional colleagues, and publishing about obscure events or cases from your research is a great first step. So don’t get hung up on what to publish — find the audience you want to write for, and then figure out what they might be interested in. It’s in your dissertation, so use it.

Godspeed in your writing — and let me know how the steps are working for you!

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.