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Friday, October 5, 2012

Writing a Journal Article. Part 2. Telling the Story

When you write a journal article, you are telling a story. The story starts by explaining what is already known, and what is important about the area. Then it sets the stage for your research by creating a compelling argument that your research addresses an unresolved but important issue in the field, one that meets the academic standards for value within your discipline, and that has broader social benefits (if you can swing that one without roflmao). You need to convince the reader that you have done your library work, and know what has already been published in the area (and you should do that anyway). In some fields, you brand yourself by which authorities you cite. Do that in a way that serves you. And it always helps to cite the important and relevant work that has been authored by likely peer reviewers and/or editors. :)

My thesis advisor, David Sherry, gave me a powerful metaphor for the structure of an academic article. He said that you should think of it as an hourglass. You start with a broad, general idea, and gradually lead the reader to the very specific point you are trying to make. Once you have made your point, you lead the reader back out again to the broader context, making it clear that your work has answered some broader questions, and contribute to both understanding and new questions in the field as a whole.

This metaphor is a useful one, because it speaks to the aesthetic of scientific story telling, the balance between the before-getting-to-the-point and afterwards. It also reminds you that there is something broader, that most people will not be experts or even particularly interested in your very specific expertise, and need to be shown how it fits into what they already know, and how your result can be useful.

Effective story-tellers consider their audience. What do they already know that will help you tell your story? What do they not know, that you need to provide for your story to make sense to them? What do they think they know that you need to correct in order for them to not misunderstand what you have to say? What are their interests, and how does your story speak to those interests? What will you tell them, and why will they remember, cite and use it?

Always check the journal first, to make sure you are following the expected narrative structure. If they say to use a structured abstract, use a structured abstract. Follow the sequence of sections that the journal says you should follow. Use the headings they ask for. If they want SI units and abbreviations, use SI units and abbreviations. Look at the format they want for tables and figures. This should be a no-brainer, but if your article is rejected and you are submitting to a new journal, it can be easy to overlook.

This is Part 2 of a 3 part series of articles. I wrote it because I was about to write all of this to send to a junior colleague as feedback about her article, and realized that it would be of more general interest/use. If you find this useful and wish to share it, please credit me.

(c) 2012 Christine L. Hitchcock, PhD.

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