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The Finished Article? by Claire Warden

In her latest post for PhD2Published, Claire Warden raises those all important questions about what it is that makes a good journal article.

In the feedback for a recently submitted journal article, the reviewer said that, although s/he liked it (phew!) it was just a little bit ambitious. Alright, a lot too ambitious. So, a little adjustment here, a little tinker there, take out 1000 words and change the focus of the argument completely and I would have the makings of a successful journal article. Rewriting an article is about as pleasurable as toothache so, at first I let out an audible groan and, in typical English fashion, made a comforting pot of tea.

Recently, in the wake of my first book, I have been writing a few journal articles and this has forced me to move academic genres, one of a number of transitions that we often make from book to conference paper, dissertation to article, blog post to review. Getting back into article writing has been a sharp learning curve for me and has forced me to reassess the genre entirely. What is the primary thing to think about when writing a journal article? Are we focusing on the need to improve our publication record, the importance of publications as we apply for those allusive tenured jobs or the joy of writing about something we find fascinating for a few months? I think I probably consider all these things. But more and more I have been thinking about my readership. Who is reading the article? Why are they reading it? What are they hoping to find? Which leads me to a question (yes, another one!) I constantly grapple with: what is my audience? To make an article engaging, this is a really important issue. If the journal is about crochet then you can safely assume that your readership knows about needles and wool. If it is not then you probably need to explain chains and slip stitches at the start.  

My recent article writing extravaganza led me to read a load of papers from different journals in an attempt to discover what an engaging reader-focused article really looks like. I came up with the following checklist:

  • A balance of academic rigour and accessibility – if I am going to talk about either difficult or niche topics then there is all the more reason for syntactical clarity and straightforward structure.
  • Brevity and specificity – these two important aspects are an anathema to my rather distended writing style but are both vital for article writing.
  • Niche but relevant – under-researched topics are fascinating but they need to be framed by recognisable theoretical models.
  • Explanatory notes and expository analysis – there is always a need to decide how much your audience needs to know: a full biography, a complete synopsis, a footnote for further study suggestions?

These are the four elements that I’ve noticed in the best articles I’ve been reading recently and often they are missing in the less impressive ones. So, returning to my own article dilemma, fuelled by the obligatory teapot, I got rid of 1000 words, added 1700 and it was accepted.

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