How I write academic articles

Writing academic articles is a stressful but significant portion of a university lecturer’s job.

There’s a saying among academics: publish or perish. The reason for that saying is that a lot of universities won’t hire or promote people who don’t have publishing credits. Now, I could go on a long tangent about how predatory the academic publishing industry is (from pay-to-play journals that ask for a fee to submit, to journals that charge the author thousands of dollars to allow people to read their research) but if I do that then I’ll just make myself angry.

Instead, I’m offering my process for writing an academic article. If you’re stuck, or new to the discipline and don’t know where to get started, I humbly offer the method that I’ve developed over about a decade of researching and publishing. I hope it helps.

Note: this is a method for humanities papers. My areas of expertise are literary analysis, comparative analysis, popular culture and fan studies. Other disciplines will have different approaches to things like research questions and methodology sections. In that case, maybe focus more on the order of the steps, rather than the content. Just take what you think will be useful and feel free to discard the rest.

Start with a Research Question?

It depends. If you’re doing a dissertation or thesis, then it needs to be super specific and well-formulated, but if you’re doing an article then the research you’re producing will necessarily be quite narrow because of the size and scope of the format. I think that means that you can get away with a slightly vaguer research question at the outset of an article, because you’re going to pull your ideas in very tight as you write. When you’re writing a thesis, on the other hand, it gets big and unwieldy super quickly and a strong research question will keep you from getting lost in the clouds.

Most of the time, I don’t start out with a research question. I start out with a research idea. I might think: hey, isn’t it weird that a lot of the books I’ve been reading lately have this or that trope? Or, hey – isn’t it cool that Kaz Brekker and Locke Lamora seem to have similar core ethics but they approach the world so differently? Then I’ll sit down and try to figure out if this is an idea with enough meat on it to pursue for about 7,000 words.

Because I study literature and popular culture, I usually come up with research ideas at random based on what I’m reading/watching at the time. The most reliable way that I’ve found for deliberately coming up with a research ideas is to read Calls for Papers. A lot of the time, Calls for Papers are quite clear about the kind of research they’re looking for, and will usually offer a list of the kinds of topics they’re soliciting – so they provide a lot of prompts and ideas for your brain to bounce off of. I often check sites like UPenn to look at what kinds of research are being done, and I try to think of how my interests could fit into the topics and requests that are being proposed. If I like the look of a project, then I’ll pitch the idea to them; otherwise, I’ll just use them as idea generators.

Write an abstract

Abstracts are 200-300 word introductions to a research article. Most journals and conferences require an abstract as a pitch before they decide to accept research.

The basic abstract format is: purpose/context, argument, methods, discussion and findings. If I can write an abstract, then that usually means that there’s enough of an idea there for an article – if it takes me ages to think of a reasonably interesting argument, or if I can’t think of a purpose/context besides ‘isn’t this cool??’ then it’s probably not worth pursuing as a peer-reviewed article.

At this point in the writing process, I usually only write the purpose/context, argument, and methods. The discussion and findings will come later when I actually do the research.

Plan and Do the Literature Review

Start with the general concepts that came up when writing the abstract. If the article is going to be about how young people keep dying in YA literature, then obviously the first thing I’ll do is start looking for other research papers about “young adult literature + death”. During that beginning reading stage, I’ll find that many of the other researchers who’ve done this focused on, say, the intersections of death, gender and class – so I’ll check some of those resources. Those are themes in the literature. While I’m reading, I might connect with the idea of ‘innocence’ and how it’s represented through young people, so I’ll look up literary and social representations of innocence as a concept.

Basically, I’ll make a big mind map of concepts and themes and how they connect according to the literature I read. I’ll then decide on which concepts and themes seem the most relevant to my research. I know that this is a bit vague, but to be honest the vast majority of the decisions I make when pursuing research are dependant on the things that interest me. That’s a privilege of the humanities, and part of the reason (I think) that I can produce so many articles – because I’m enjoying it!

As I’m reading, I’ll take notes and write quotes as necessary. I keep track of EVERY article I read in an evernote folder. When I’m writing the article itself, I will put the sources in bold text so that I can see at a glance how much research I’m using and where. If I write something that I know needs a source, but I don’t have it on hand, then I’ll just write (source) in bold. Quick and dirty – this is just the first draft, and its only job is to get done.

Plan the Actual Research

I’ve looked around at the scholarship, and now it’s time for me to actually do the thing. Since my research is mainly content analysis, it usually involves close-reading texts and occasionally a comparative study. Whatever it is, I have to plan out what I’m going to do and when. This involves breaking down the research into milestones and tasks, and putting them in my calendar so that I have a (usually flexible) completion date to aim for.

Do the research

Do the reading, take notes, examine what is there and ruminate. Once complete, lay out the findings and check that they are what was expected. Most of the time, they are what was expected, but somethings they’re not. If that’s the case, then go back to the abstract and re-word the argument to include this new data, or even re-write it altogether if necessary. Never, ever, ever, try to fudge or hide the information you find to try and fit it into your expected findings. That’ll get your article torn apart by peer-reviewers.

If there’s anything in the findings that might lead to another project, put it on a post-it note and set it aside. When it comes to that section in the article, you can just write that it’s ‘beyond the scope of this current research’, but point out that it’s an interesting thread for future research – research that you can do, if you play your cards right!

Write the Findings and Discussion Section

This is my favourite part of research, so I like to do it first because I believe in desert before dinner. The Findings and Discussion section are the parts of the article where I explain what I found and what it means. It’s where I can putter around in the details and explore the theories, and engage with the text I’m analysing in depth. It’s the whole reason that I do what I do.

The important thing in the Findings and Discussion section is to a) write what you found (with examples), b) write how you interpret that, and c) write what that means for the argument. If you do each of these three steps, then you’ll ensure that you’re always on track and that you’re not accidentally going off on tangents or adding things that aren’t relevant to the overall article.

Return to the Abstract and add the findings and conclusions in a couple of sentences. Now I have a completed abstract that I can use to pitch the article.

Write the Literature Review

As with the Findings and Discussion section, all of the stuff in the literature review should earn its place by being directly (and explicitly) connected to the article’s purpose or argument. I’ve done a lot of peer-reviewing and you’d be surprised how often I’ll come across whole sections of the literature review that are only loosely connected to the point of the article. Remember that the connections you draw in your mind are not always obvious, so you should make them overt in the writing. Write them out in plain English. If the peer-reviewer doesn’t like it, then they’ll ask you to cut it, but in my experience it’s best to over-communicate than under-communicate and leave your reviewer wondering how you even got to Game Theory in an article about Harry Potter.

Write up the Methodology/Description of the Research Process

Often, in my discipline, there’s no real call for a significant Methodology section. Just a paragraph about what the process of the research looked like should be enough. Remember the purpose of the Methodology section – it’s to make sure that the research can be replicated. It’s a good idea to put enough detail here so that a reader knows exactly how I came to the findings I came to, just in case.

Also, return to the Findings and Discussion Section and add in some of the literature references, so that there is some cohesion between those sections.

Write the Introduction

I use the abstract that I’ve already written as a guide. Each of the elements of the abstract (purpose/context, argument, methods, findings and conclusion) should have its own little section in the introduction. If your reader reads nothing else, the introduction should tell them everything they need to know.

Write the Conclusion

Like the Introduction – in fact, I often use the Introduction as a template for the Conclusion. The only difference is that the Conclusion will usually have a ‘so what’ section that connects the reader back to the article’s purpose and relevance to the wider community/research discipline. There’s also occasionally a ‘next steps’ paragraph as well, which explains what could be done by other researchers (or future you) with these findings.

Write the Bibliography

Putting the sources in bold throughout the article comes in clutch here. I scan the article and write each author that I referenced down in an excel sheet. Then I order that excel sheet from A-Z, and I’ve got an alphabetical list of author’s last names! I add that to the end of the document, then go back to my evernote folder and search for those names, copy, and paste the citation of the reference into the document. I don’t bother with formatting until I’ve chosen a journal to pitch it to, because I love myself.

Once I have alphabetical list at the end of the document, I Ctrl+F to find the word ‘Source’ and find all of the parts of the paper that I delayed adding a reference to. Now’s the time to do that. It will either mean more reading, or going back to evernote to find the appropriate sources and adding them in.

Read and Edit for Clarity

Finally, I read the entire paper top to bottom and make sure that the argument flows as well as it can from my perspective. I may need to cut whole sections, or add clarification to areas that don’t read quite as well as they did in the caffeine-haze in which they were written. I’ll also double-check that sentences make sense and that the paragraphs are all the right order. It’s very easy to fix a lot of common problems in understanding just be re-organising the text’s structure.

My goal is to make the research as accessible as possible – which has gotten me in trouble with peer-reviewers in the past, who didn’t like I was using such ‘unrefined’ (their words) language. The important thing, for me, is for the reader to finish the article without any questions. Sometimes I succeed, sometimes I don’t.

Once I’m done reading for clarity, I start the peer-review cycle. I don’t like to put more than about two days into getting the article ready for peer-review because I know that it’s unlikely that I’ll be able to find all of the article’s problems myself. There’s this rule called the 80/20 rule that I think is applicable here. It’s a better use of my energy to get the article as good as I can in a short time frame, then wait for the peer-reviewers’ feedback to get the article up to the highest standard it could be.

And there you have it! My process of writing a journal article from start to finish. Feel free to use this or play around with some of the elements so that you find a structured approach to writing that works for you!

PS – I love writing and I love eating! If you want to help with the latter (and ONLY if you want) you can maybe buy me a coffee?  🙂

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