Monday, April 28, 2008

1000 x 8

A standard journal article is about 8000 words long. Journal articles are different, so there is no single recipe for how to make one, but it is normally a good idea to think of writing an article as a set of discrete tasks. One of those tasks, of course, is putting it all together. This morning I want to talk about the parts, not the whole.

To begin with, then, let me divide a paper somewhat arbitrarily into eight parts consisting of 1000 words each. It's never that simple, of course, but it does offer us a way of breaking the task down into manageable units. You might want to keep Kafka's thoughts on how the Great Wall of China was built in mind. You can divide your own papers differently if you like, but here is one suggestion:

  1. Introduction
  2. Background
  3. Theory
  4. Method
  5. Results
  6. Analysis
  7. Recommendations
  8. Conclusion

Obviously these won't all end up being exactly 1000 words long. But there is nothing wrong with producing a first draft that follows an arbitrarily regular pattern. You can then have a look at it and decide which parts to elaborate and which parts to condense.

Consider section two. This is where you provide some journalistic context for your work. You tell the reader what parts of the real world and its history your paper is about; it should be relatively free of theoretical jargon and it should be epistemologically unambitious. (The most ambitious section in terms of knowledge should, of course, be your results section.) You are here saying things that the reader might not know but could easily find out and will have no difficulty understanding.

It's a particularly good section to work on in isolation, i.e., separate from your theory, results and analysis. What this section says should be true regardless of what your research has discovered. An unanalyzed illustrative example—an example of the sort of thing your results pertain to—could be one element of such a section. It may be an example of the problem your research offers an understanding of, even a solution to.

By a similar token, your theory and method sections should be comprehensible (to the relevant theorist and methodologist) without any reference to your particular results. Writing them as more or less stand-alone sections is therefore a useful exercise. It will give them a particular kind of strength.

The most important reason to divide your work into chunks like this is that it gives you a straightfoward procedure for generating your first draft. It can be carried through without making a whole lot of decisions about the shape of the final product, which should really be made as editorial decisions about the drafted material (not as decisions about something in your head). A thousand words is about three pages. Most people can produce a page of prose in under an hour, three pages in three hours. So it will take you 8 three-hour sessions to produce a first draft using a procedure like this.

I am not trying to sell this as the only way to write a journal article. But it is very definitely one way. Why not give it a try?

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