Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Article Design

Many years ago, as a kind of philosophical exercise, I tried to imagine the perfect object, the ideal thing. I quickly decided that it would be one that you'd immediately know what to do with when you see it. It would need no scientific investigation to understand. No owner's manual to operate. It would simply be obvious what it was for, and once you put it to that use you'd discover that it was perfectly suited to the task.

Scholars demonstrate that they know something by writing articles; and knowledge, I usually say, is the ability to write a coherent prose paragraph in 27 minutes. An article consists of about 40 paragraphs, so the problem of writing an article—or at least the first draft of an article—is solved during 20 hours of work.

The problem of article design is the problem of planning those twenty hours of work. It is the problem of mapping out the forty parts that will go into the larger whole. As a rough estimate, I normally say that an article is 3 parts introduction, 2 parts conclusion, 5 parts background, 5 parts theory, 5 parts method, 15 parts analysis, and 5 parts implications. If you go at it with the right attitude, these parts can be written in any order, but it's a good idea to write the introduction and conclusion first. Also, once they are written, you may find that my "ballpark" sense of their distribution is a bit off, i.e., that your paper will have a somewhat different form. That's fine. The individual parts still need to be made, and made "to specification".

The more articles you write, the better you will understand what a paragraph in each section must accomplish. While every discourse has its own requirements, its own particular style, the general rule is that a paper must engage your peers in conversation. In the coming weeks, I'll try to say something about how that can be done. But when designing our articles we should always keep Virginia Woolf's simple dictum in mind: "To know whom to write for is to know how to write."

In the background section you are trying to be informative. Who are you trying to inform? In the theory section you are evoking expectations of the object. Whose expectations? In the methods section you are trying to gain the reader's trust. Whose trust? Etc. The introduction is for the reader who has not yet read but would very much like to read your paper. The conclusion is for the reader who has just finished reading it. Once you know who that reader is, you know how to write. If you don't feel you know how to write, it may well be because you don't have a clear image of your reader.

Your article design, your image of your paper, should always be developed alongside an image of your reader. So, as I write about this in the weeks to come, I will always be asking you to think of your reader. Since I don't know you or your reader, my advice will necessarily be somewhat schematic. You fill it in, not just with your knowledge of what you want to say, but your knowledge of who you want to say it to.


Shuang said...

Hi Thomas,

Thanks for sharing! I have been following your recent posts on how to write papers and found them very inspiring! I am a bit puzzled by what exactly you mean by "know your readers" and have a hard time imagining specific readers of my papers.

On the other hand, I do normally identify an ideal journal for a paper before writing it, and I also have pretty good ideas when being asked to suggest potential reviewers. Is that good enough?

Thomas said...

Yes, your "reader" is certainly represented by your reviewers. If you can suggest potential reviewers by name, then you have a good basis for forming an image of your reader.

Your ideal journal, however, will often not tell you very much about your reader. Most journals are read by a wide range of readers, many of whom do not (are are not required to) take an interest in your work.

Your readership will normally frequent a range of journals and the important thing is to understand the community of scholarship that you are working within, again, not confined to any single journal.

One important thing your comment touches on is learning which journals (i.e., which editors) understand your paper well enough to send it to the right reviewers.

Paragraph for paragraph, however, you're writing, not for an editor, but for a reader. The reviewer represents your reader in the editor's decision.

Presskorn said...

Pangrammatical exercise: Many years ago, as a kind of poetic exercise, I tried to imagine the perfect subject…

Thomas said...

By George I think he's got it!

(That's a perfect pangrammatical supplement!)

"...I quickly discovered it would be someone that you'd master being seen with when you did anything with him/her. S/he would need no political negotiation to obey. No visible ownership to play with. It would simply be obvious who s/he was for, and once you engage him/her thus you'd decide the s/he was perfectly suited to the deal."