How I write a research article

First, I have to give a shout out to Wendy Laura Belcher for writing the ultimate guide to academic publishing success. I bought that book when I was starting my PhD and it is the one I consistently recommend to all new scholars.

For this blog, I’m going to break down my process for writing academic articles. I like to try and stick to the same formula because I’ve found that it’s the best for breaking through the fear of the blank page. Not to brag, but I’ve had some success in writing and publishing in the academic space, so I’m going to stick to this method until I find something better.

This is by no means the best approach, but it’s the one that works best for me.

Step 1: Keep up to date with the literature.

This is super important, because it gives me the flexibility to think about texts with the most recent research in mind. I’m a textual and media theorist, so when I’m engaging in a new text (books, films, TV, etc), then I’m often engaging with half a mind on whether it fits in current trends, etc.

I put in time every day to read new articles, books, etc. I keep notes in an Evernote folder – everything I read, no matter how seemingly useless, goes in that folder. Important quotes go in there, too. Everything I might need to jog my memory or find the article again by searching key terms.

Step 2: Mindmap

Getting all of my brain thoughts onto paper so that I can see how things link up and what I’m working with. It gives me the chance to see what the important ideas are and which ones have more legs than the others.

Step 3: Write an abstract

This feels like I’m going backwards right now – the abstract is usually kept until the end of the writing process so that the author can include their findings and conclusions. But I think that the abstract allows me to solidify my ideas and understand my own research enough that I can express it in less than 250 words.

It gives me the chance to break down what my argument is, why I’m bothering with this research, and what I’m hoping to get out of it.

The abstract might change later on, but at the beginning of the writing process I think it’s necessary to give myself some structure.

The abstract formula that Wendy Laura Belcher recommends for Humanities papers is: Purpose/Context, Argument, Methods, Findings, and Conclusions. I usually write these out as subheadings. This is what it looks like on the page:

From there, I begin filling in my ideas. In particular, I focus on the argument and the conclusions because they’re the things that editors tend to look for when they’re judging the strength of a paper.

The abstract is the first step to really getting to the core of what I’m trying to achieve and why I’m writing the paper. It also keeps me from getting distracted by things that aren’t relevant to the paper, which I tend to do a lot. When I’m writing, I keep the abstract next to me so that I don’t forget.

Step 4: Structuring the article

More bullet points! Here, I write a list of the points that I need to cover, as well as the concepts I’m going to go over in the literature review. Seeing the bullet points laid out like this lets me see the overall narrative of the article I’m going to write.

This is a nebulous phase in the process – the bullet points can be erased and rearranged at any time, though the general structure remains the same (intro and methods, literature review, analysis, discussion, conclusion/take away). What’s important here is that I want to guide my reader through my argument. I want them to follow me and my evidence through the 5,000-7,000 words. So the structure needs to be tight.

Step 5: Writing the article

If only things were that simple. Yeah, no.

This is where the bullet points help, because I can just fill in the blanks and address different bullet points depending on my stress level rather than staring at the blank page with horror and fear.

When I say ‘depending on my stress level’, I mean that I’ll work on different parts of the article depending on how I feel. For example, if I’m not really feeling it on the day then I’ll work on the literature review. Since I’ve already done a lot of reading, this part is really just arranging other peoples’ opinions. This is relatively simple. If I’m feeling a bit more creative, then I’ll work on the analysis.

The intro and conclusion are generally left for last because they bookend the argument, so I need to see the whole argument before I start working on them.

I like to leave the bullet points until I’m getting ready to start the intro and conclusion.

Step 6: References

Literally the most time consuming and tedious part of the process!

As I’m writing, I’ll write my sources in bold – or just write (source) where I know that I’m going to have to include a reference later. Keeping them in bold helps me later when I’m formatting the style according to the journal I’ve chosen. Every journal has its own style, so generally I keep all of the references in bold until I’m saving the final submission doc.

Of course, there is software that can help you with this – Endnote and Word’s References come to mind – but I’ve never gotten the hang of these and I’m too much of a control freak to let a computer do this task for me.

Step 7: Edit, edit, edit.

This part speaks for itself, but I don’t like to get too hard core about this. In the end, no matter how much I edit, I WILL receive corrections from the reviewers. Here, I just make sure that the argument makes sense and that there are no obvious errors in spelling and grammar.

Step 8: Get a reader, or just hit SEND!

Either I’ll get a mate to read through the article for me, or I’ll just hit send once I’ve had a couple of reads through it myself. Whether or not I get a mate depends on whether I know anyone who is interested in this particular research sub-cluster. Sometimes, that’s just not the case!

And there we go – that’s the process I usually take to write a journal article. This is by no means the best way, it’s just my own method. Try it out and see if it works for you!


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