Wednesday, February 02, 2011

Five at a Time

I emphasize that a journal article consists of 40 paragraphs in order to get authors to appreciate the finitude of their task and to give it some immediate structure. The problem of supporting 40 claims is more structured and more limited than the problem of writing 8000 words. In fact, we can use our 40 paragraphs to carve those 8000 words up into smaller tasks of 200 words each. Next, we can group those tasks together in eight five-paragraph, 1000-word sections. Let your introduction and conclusion together count as one section. Here, then, is a possible outline for a paper:

  1. Introduction
  2. Background
  3. Theory
  4. Method
  5. Results (1)
  6. Results (2)
  7. Results (3)
  8. Discussion
  9. Conclusion

You can now conceive of each of these sections, except the introduction and conclusion, as a "five paragraph essay"; that is, think of it as a stand-alone text that establishes three claims about a single thing (namely, the background of your paper, your theory, your method, etc.). Obviously these sections may turn into four-paragraph or seven-paragraph essays as needed, and they may in the end not need to be as formal as an independent essay. I'll say something more about these sections in future posts.

The introduction and conclusion of the paper constitute a special problem. This morning, I would like to offer my all-purpose solution to writing these two sections, which you do well to write first and then return to as the text develops. First, divide the task into a three-paragraph introduction (roughly 600 words) and a two-paragraph conclusion (roughly 400 words).

The last paragraph of the introduction and the first paragraph of the conclusion should mirror each other: one announces what you are going to say in your paper, the other summarizes what you have just said. There should be a tight fit between these two paragraphs.

The introduction can take the following form. In the first paragraph, you describe the practical reality that your paper is about. In management studies, you will here describe the sort of organization that you are interested in or the management practices that your work discusses. (In literary studies, you might begin with information about the author or genre your paper is about.) The second paragraph now introduces the body of scholarship that has taken a relevant interest in the practical reality described in your first paragraph. Here you should cite the most important pieces of scholarship that shape your approach. The first two paragraphs combined should provide a good indication of the the problem you are interested in. Finally, in the third paragraph, you announce your thesis and outline the paper.

The opening sentences might look like this, then:

  • As tasks become increasingly specialized, many of today's businesses are turning to self-management to organize work processes.
  • A growing body of research into self-management has established three main challenges for managers and their employees.
  • In this paper, I show that successful self-management depends on strong shared narratives across all levels of the organization.

Each of these claims requires support. In the first paragraph you will need to provide evidence (with references) for the general trend toward self-management. In the second, you will need to cite the studies that have identified the challenges and suggest a consensus around them (i.e., there aren't really four or just two challenges). In the third paragraph, you will simply outline the paper, stating the major claim—historical, theoretical, methodological, analytical—of each section.

I have already talked about the first paragraph of the conclusion. The last paragraph of the conclusion should neatly fuse the challenges of the second paragraph with the narratives of the third and bring them to bear on the trends implicit in the first. That is, it should bring it all together. Wrap things up.

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