Writing a ‘killer’ article

‘Killer’ is a far cry away from how I would describe my own writing. Yet, every day, I strive to better my writing skills. Below, culminates my own thoughts with guidance from my favourite sources and brilliant minds that I have either been lucky to read or meet over the years.

PART 1: PREPARING THE PAPER
PART 2: WRITING THE PAPER
PART 3: FINALISING THE PAPER
PART 4: RESPONDING TO REVIEWERS

PART 1: PREPARING THE PAPER 

GENERATING (INFORMED) IDEAS: Conversations with like-minded colleagues, whether over a coffee, at a conference or other situations that facilitate (usually, informally) the exchange of ideas – is central to new idea formation. With a vague idea in mind, I typically search tabloid / broadsheets to generate a sense of public, policy and media discourse to ground my thoughts in societal issues. And remember, your research, on some level, must be interesting! As noted by C Wright Mills, as social scientists, we are to connect personal troubles of the people, public issues and our own research agenda – a sociological integration. Some of the questions I ask myself include: is there a reputable public or private organisation with hard fact, stat, evidence or narrative driving this issue? If so, can this organisation be part of the story and/or will they be able to provide key informant / act as a key gatekeeper to perspectives needed? Although not exhaustive, these questions are useful for most qualitative (particularly, applied and empirically informed) research papers – to be asked across the lifecycle of the research, not just at the beginning.

BUILDING ON MOMENTUM: Yet, if I’m being honest and I look back, most of my ideas seem to spawn from existing dialogue with co-authors and/or in a space where it is just me and my paper. In other words, I use the momentum of writing one paper to spawn new ideas for another – to build on the current idea/argument I’m writing. Usually, with virtually every paper, I realise that I have written too much. For example, I may have added too much theory, empirical data, sub-themes etc that make the paper too heavy. I take pleasure in breaking each article back up – simplifying the current one, and parking the rest for another paper. Creatively destroy parts of your work … a theme I discuss throughout this post;

FRAGMENT AND REFRAME YOUR DATA SET: If you’re predominantly a qualitative researcher like me, you are likely to collect complex data sets. Perhaps, the data collected will include different stakeholder perspectives, in different geographical settings, at different time intervals. Like any good film, the data is layered. Top layers, may well provide a powerful, descriptive insight into your research and subject. Deeper layers, may require more abstract conceptual analysis and interpretation. By and large, all layers can provide a contribution if framed appropriately. Data shouldn’t necessarily be discarded, but part and parcel of a jigsaw puzzle – a landscape you’re attempting to draw. Yet, the landscape is not fixed. Research landscapes for want of a better word are dynamic like natural landscapes, subtly shifting, always different in someway. Those with a half-glass-full-positive-disposition will see this as an opportunity to illustrate the nuance in your data, to re-draw the landscape as the layers unfold. This could be fuelled by a number of things: i) a product of the data being ‘layered’, ii) you’ve read a new text that changes your perspective on a given issue, iii) perhaps a change in your own frame of mind or social situation?

CHOOSE 2-3 TARGET JOURNALS, AND PICK ONE TO COMMIT TO: Sometimes the journal picks itself (i.e. you are building on a specific line of argument). Sometimes not. Either way, there are some simple rules. First, ensure you feed in to the aims/objectives and existing debate – whether conceptually, empirically, methodologically. Second, look at the ‘style’ of writing used in the journal – and – the way in which authors structure their argument and use one, maybe two, as a guide. Don’t go off-piste to start with, and build on existing approaches. In other words, evolution not revolution. Third, study key papers in the journal for content but also how they build the narrative. How is the Introduction framed? What facts/stats/evidence do they use? How do they build up to logic assumptions and conclusions? Use, not only content but structure to guide the development of the article.


Prof Rowena Murray, writing in The Guardian poses a series of useful questions you may reflect on in the early stages of writing a paper: “why do you want to write for journals? What is your purpose? Are you writing for research assessment? Or to make a difference? Are you writing to have an impact factor or to have an impact? Do you want to develop a profile in a specific area? Will this determine which journals you write for? Have you researched other researchers in your field – where have they published recently? Which group or conversation can you see yourself joining? Some people write the paper first and then look for a ‘home’ for it, but since everything in your article – content, focus, structure, style – will be shaped for a specific journal, save yourself time by deciding on your target journal and work out how to write in a way that suits that journal” (Originally published in The Guardian). I wholeheartedly endorse these points.


 

 

PART 2: WRITING THE PAPER 

  • WRITING ENVIRONMENT: Before embarking on writing the paper, set some ground rules. These include:
  1. Do not open emails and keep mobile phone on silent until after 3pm. Writing/research should come first. I write 8am – 3pm, then blitz emails/administration;
  2. Set a-side 2-3 days writing day blocks. Ok, sometimes this is not possible, especially during semester teaching time, but try. I’m an advocate for writing conceptual work in large blocks (e.g. 2-3 days solid), and methodological, introductory and more technical tasks in shorter bursts (e.g. guerilla tactics, grabbing an hour here and there). Works for me, but tweak to your preferences;
  3. Breakdown writing tasks into blocks and give yourself a strict deadline on each one before moving on. Inevitably, time allocation depends on the complexity of the task. At the end of each deadline, reward yourself: it could be a coffee, biscuit, walk the dog. Break large tasks (i.e. write my Methodology) into small tasks (i.e. clarify how and why my key informant and gatekeeper is central to my approach). Keep the writing and the way you approach as simple as possible.
  4. Have a ‘white light’ at the end of the day’s tunnel. In other words, plan something fun, interesting that you love doing after a long day’s stint writing. Boost your oxytocin levels and go for some dinner with friends, plan a tennis match – whatever you love doing. This is vital for keeping me focused, structuring my work-life balance, and keeping the whole academic writing cycle sustainable over long periods of time.
  5. Frequently work with a co-author – 2nd pair of eyes, and they typically keep you sane. Having another person to keep you on your toes helps with staying on your ‘A’ game and can help stick to deadlines. Depending on the stage of your career, you may choose to go out of your comfort zone and seek mentorship and/or co-authorship from a well-respected academic in your field. Helps to raise your standard, improve your own level of standard, and an extra impetus to hit deadlines. Relatedly, organise writing retreats with co-authors, meet up, talk through the paper, and share insights, challenges, new directions etc.
  6. Choosing a respectful co-author. Avoid co-authors who just want to use you for ideas, data and outputs. And, who fail to work with you, invest in your development, respect your career trajectory, and put in their side of the bargain. I won’t say much else on the matter – but if you know who these individuals are, finish what you’re working on and move on. That’s my best advice. Life’s too short and there are many supportive early career through to senior academics out there who will give you the respect you deserve;
  7. Set tomorrow’s agenda. After you finish all your small tasks in a day, create a set of small tasks for the next day and identify how what you’ve done and will do has contributed to the large writing tasks (e.g. toward the ‘Methodology’ chapter);
  • FRAMING THE PAPER AND THE CONTRIBUTION: With an idea and/or brainwave in mind, I write about 250 words for each of the following: “what we know is…..”, “what we don’t know is….”, “the contribution of this paper is/could be.….”, “the significance of this contribution is…..”. Read it, refine it, show it to peers – do you/they think it’s a goer? Does it pique your/their interest? If so, continue. My colleague Dr Alison Hirst referred to this as a the “High Impact Start” – likely to frame the article from get-go and wet the reviewer/reader’s appetite…

Check out Grant and Pollock’s (2011) ‘Setting the Hook’ article in the Academy of Management Journal– a brilliant read.

  • ‘SO WHAT’ TEST: Separate to the framing and contribution – consider those external to academe, and to the societal and/or economic implications of the paper. Ask yourself: “SO WHAT?”. Or, more candidly: “WHY SHOULD ANYONE GIVE A f*CK?” – obviously quoting Mark Manson’s recent NY Times Best Seller here. If you don’t buy it, no one else will. Indeed, here, many world leading conceptual papers may have never passed this test – yet still made an exceptional contribution. However, I believe, whether directly, indirectly, immediately or somewhere down the line – the “SO WHAT” has to be relevant;
  • FOCUSING THE PAPER: I look through the 1000 words max above and I distil these down to a set of key words to create a sort-of bubble to encase the article. These may include: i) concepts, ii) methods, iii) authors, iv) case study features. I try not to step too far out of this bubble, particularly when initially developing the article. At this point, I will typically draw out an early ‘theoretical framework’ with boxes and arrows, starting to map out the relationship and/or processes between ideas I wish to include and/or explain as a part of the paper’s contribution. As a structural point, I will tend to use 1 idea per paragraph when writing up the main body of the article, as to not overcomplicate the flow and structure of the argument;
  • SYSTEMATIC SEARCHING: Keywords provide search terms for being systematic / conducting a systematic literature analysis and collect as much academic, policy, industry related articles / pieces related to each key word. Each key word will be given a ‘Dropbox’ folder used to house everything related to that key word. Within each folder, I will create a hierarchy of which articles I will read first;
  • ANALYSING EACH ARTICLE / PIECE: My method has changed over the years. I used to write anywhere between 1-10 pages of notes on each paper. Now I podcast this out. I find it easier to get my head around and paraphrase the article. As I go through each paper, I create connections between them all and intimate where gaps/contributions emerge. Here, the principal is to try and distil the paper down to its core relevance to your paper – then, you will likely not need to refer to it. Bouncing between your notes and papers is very time consuming – this method by and large prevents this;
  • START WRITING SALIENT POINTS INTO THEMES: Before you start this section, ensure that you outline the main sections and sub sections. These will be likely based on the keywords selected and/or structure expected by your target journal, then start to synthesise writing from your analysis. Here, your initial keywords may change – indeed, this is part and parcel of research. You may omit points and lines of argument you feel have already been contributed to, whilst revealing and/or expanding others where the contribution looks more likely. At this point, it is usually a good idea to continually revisit the “FRAMING THE PAPER AND THE CONTRIBUTION”. Likelihood is your perceived contribution will have morphed, either substantively or slightly based on initial estimate. Explicitly, I am referring to the ‘INTRODUCTION’, ‘LITERATURE REVIEW/CONCEPTUAL FRAMEWORK’, and ‘METHODOLOGY’ here (I now refer to this as the ‘FRONT END’).

Click here for a (very) Good guide on developing literature review.

  • KEEP GOING, KEEP GOING KEEP GOING: Writing, refining. Writing, refining. Writing, refining is part of the struggle. Perseverance and grit are part and parcel of writing good quality articles – especially for those embarking on a PhD. Indeed, the PhD is in and of itself a test of true grit and determination – skills that determine success post-PhD;
  • MIMIC THE FRONT END WITH THE INITIAL ‘DISCUSSION’ PART OF THE ‘BACK END’ : Turning to the ‘DISCUSSION’ section (the initial section in the ‘BACK END’), you want to make your life easier. Remember all that hard work writing up the ‘FRONT END’? Well, use that as your ‘analytical framework’ for your discussions. In other words, align the subheadings you used in the ‘FRONT END’ as a structure to analyse data in the ‘DISCUSSIONS’ (i.e. let’s say empirical material in a case study) – this will create a logical flow (i.e. between your conceptual framework and empirical analysis);
  • EMPIRICAL DATA: Qualitative data, whether interview, focus group, or observational data provides you with a rich, complex set of thoughts, cognitions that provide a sneak peak into an individual’s social world. Comment on you find – and – what you don’t find. Be selective about what you choose to put into the paper and draw on data that supports / extends / refutes et cetera the conceptual framework outlined.
  • EMPHASISING THE CONTRIBUTION: Toward the latter stages of writing the 1st full draft – step back and consider, what EXACTLY does the contribution look like? Does it look like what you promised earlier? If so, how? If not, why not? What needs to change to help you move toward the desired contribution stated earlier? At this point I often get to a deflated point of: “oh, all I’ve really done is shown what existing ideas and lines of argument looks like in another context!”. Yet, almost always, as a next step I can see new insights emerge – the more I look. Sometimes, a new conceptual angle, or a new attribute/characteristic of the theory or the context that contributes a nuanced angle. Or, it may be a new data set, triangulated stakeholder perspectives that have shed light on the issue from another angle;
  • EMPHASISE THE LIMITATION: Be aware of the article’s weakness. Research is a reflexive process, and outline specific ways you could and/or will overcome these limitations in your own and/or for others who may wish to build on your work. Similarly to a job interview, play this section with a straight bat: be clear, open and transparent, and if possible turn weaknesses into strengths. Being reflexive and honest will help to ‘de-arm’ peer reviewers.
  • ENGINEERING IT DOWN: Top to bottom, over and over again, read through the paper. Initial drafts are likely to have too much theoretical proliferation that serves to weigh down and make the ‘FRONT END’ heavy and difficult to read. Simplify the theoretical framework to those ideas/concepts/lines of arguments that are pertinent to your contribution. Leave out clever prose that serves to obfuscate. Complex verbiage has to go. Tie up conceptual loose ends: if you don’t they will only distract from your argument. Consider every sentence in the FRONT END and ask: “is this really required as a precursor to my ‘BACK END’?”. If not – park it. This is the part I find difficult – especially if I have worked for weeks on the FRONT END, only to see my meticulous writing cast into exile. However, remember: it was not in vain – it helped you understand what was important, what was not.

 

PART 3: FINALISING YOUR PAPER AND THE CHERRIES ON TOP

  • PUT YOUR SPIN: This is a difficult one to write on. We all have our own style, prose, humour et cetera. My colleague Alison always tries to implant one deadpan joke in each paper. Others may leave ‘Easter Eggs’. However, in the era of ‘writing for REF’ and the instrumental rationalities related to writing and research production – putting a human spin, your own personality, soul (…) in to your work emerges as pertinent as ever;
  • CLEAN AND REPAIR YOUR WRITING:
    – Strip out every sentence to its cleanest components – cutting out long words and passive constructions;
    – Shorten sentences, and mix the flow of length – avoid similar length sentences when spoken otherwise your writing will sound monotone;
    – Take out all ‘weasel’ words. In other words, remove vague, passive, ambiguous words.
    – Strengthen your metaphors and be precise with your nouns and verbs;
    – Limit clauses and propositions in your sentences, don’t overcomplicate each sentence and the entire paragraph – you’ll lose the reader;
    – Group ideas together, don’t start sentences with individual authors and/or articles as use this as the basis for your argument. Group the views of various authors together – otherwise, your writing will show a lack of originality;
    – Review each sentence, and afterwards the paragraph and then, the whole section: is it logically written? Does it have its own beginning, middle and end? Keep paragraphs to 100-200 words (some journals only allow max 15 sentences per paragraph). Does it link well to the next paragraph, or conclude the section and link into the following? Max 20-25 words per sentence.
    – Always follow the same principal for constructing paragraphs: 1) TOPIC: indicated accurately what each paragraph is about, 2) BODY: analyses focal topic, elaborates, evidences, argues, justifies, reasons, connects to previous topics, and 3) WRAP: clarify overall point made, evaluate its contribution to the subject conclusions – don’t just re-phrase what you wrote in the BODY.
    – Remove feeble sentence openers: e.g. ‘there is’, or ‘it is important to note’;
    – Convert ‘constructions’ in to ‘active verbs’ (i.e. turn “have an influence on” into “influences”)
    – Each paragraph, ideally, should act as an ‘INNER MAP’ of the article. Sometimes you will use subheadings to organise, and then you may take this out before submitting (some critics disapprove too many headings and see it as unsubtle / weak writing).
    – Read aloud each sentence and place a comma wherever you naturally pause and take a breath.

An absolute MUST READ is Lynn Truss’s New York Times Best Seller: “Eats Shoots and Leaves”. This is in fact an instructor guide from the book on how to teach – great resource.

  • Refer to Orwell’s six rules for writing:
  1. Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech that you’re used to seeing in print;
  2. Never use to long word, when a short word will do;
  3. If it’s possible to cut a word out, always do;
  4. Never use the ‘passive’ when you can use to the ‘active’;
  5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word,  or jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent;
  6. Break any of these rules before saying anything outright barbarous.

Click here for PDF of the original version of Orwell – Politics and the English Language (1946) – a must read! YouTube audio version here:


Close colleague Prof Simon Down, in a writing workshop I attended in 2013 outline the following considerations for approaching and/or refining writing skills.

Key things to consider for writing, Prof Simon Down, Feb 2013


  • AGREEING ON THE TITLE: Avoid wordplay, clarify the concept(s), the time dimension, geographical focus, perhaps even the stakeholder perspective where appropriate. Clear key words, in theory, help other’s find your work.
  • FINALISING THE ABSTRACT: Keep to a ‘core’ message and thread that runs through your article. Less is more. Don’t ‘show and tell’ – either one or the other. Indeed, this is the most important aspect of the paper with respect to increasing readership – it is a marketing segment. Indeed, look at the style of abstracts in the journal you are submitting to – is there a style? What will be the two killer sentences at the beginning (i.e. 1st sentence, usually outlining the rationale for the article) and the end (i.e. closing sentence, outlining key contribution of your paper and next steps for future research).

 

PART 4: RESPONDING TO PEER REVIEW


Prof Rowena Murray, writing in The Guardian provides some key advice here: “What exactly are they asking you to do? Work out whether they want you to add or cut something. How much? Where? Write out a list of revision actions (click here for a template that I use with co-authors: Response to Reviewer Feedback document). Revise and resubmit as soon as you can” (Originally published in The Guardian). 


  • If rejected outright, I will still use this table to inform changes I will make to the article for the next submission;
  • BE CONFIDENT: Don’t feel like you have to respond and change your article based on every comment.
  • CONDITIONS VS. RECCOMENDATIONS: First, you can usually tell which comments are what I will refer to as a ‘CONDITION’ (i.e. what the reviewer thinks you MUST do to satisfy their quality benchmark) and ‘RECOMMENDATIONS’ (i.e. less central comments, but suggestions for improvement). Not all the time you can draw the line, but it is a starting point. If you believe a reviewer point is not warranted, gather your wits and evidence, and consider writing a ‘rebuttal’;
  • TECHNICAL MATTERS: Other points will be what I will refer to as ‘TECHNICAL’ requirements (i.e. where the reviewer points to an acronym that has not been explained, or a grammatical error on page 5). Indeed, respond to all of these, and kindly thank the reviewer.
  • RESOLVING CONFUSION / IDENTIFYING SALIENT ISSUES BY THE EDITOR: Other times, you will find that the Editor steps in, particularly if there is a lack on consensus between reviewers and there are some conflicting sentiments / advice. In my view, a good Editor will provide a steer on salient issues and less salient issues to avoid confusion for the author. If not done so initially, and you do not know which way to turn, politely explain your quandary to the Editor and seek advice – a key step to avoiding unnecessary second guessing and anxiety (jeez, the process is already stressful and complex enough without having more confusion!).  

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