Details, details. More, or less?
Doctoral researchers may get feedback from supervisors or reviewers about writing less detail – too much here, be more concise – or conversely more, unpack this or more information needed here. Both types of comment mean you haven’t got the detail and length right. So how do you know when enough detail is enough? And how long is just right?
Writing at the appropriate depth and length is an important scholarly discipline. I mean discipline in both senses here – writing to the right word length and at the appropriate level of detail is an important part of what we do as scholars. And it does mean we must self-consciously manage what we write.
Achieving the right length and depth in any piece of writing is not a matter of rules, but of intention, format, convention and expectations. Understanding how these come together will allow you to write to the right depth and length.
I’ll just say that again. It’s not about rules. It’s about judgment.
I’m going to take each of those things – format, conventions, expectations and intentions – and briefly note some of the key issues involved.
There is clearly a trade-off between length and depth. The shorter the piece of writing, the less detail you can provide. But that doesn’t mean that your analysis and major points change when you move from long to short.
Think about this as a bit like looking at a portrait of someone – when you stand up close you can see a lot of detail, but as you move further away, the more the key features stand out. By the time you are standing a fair distance away, you can only see the outline of the face and the features. But the nose is the nose is the nose, regardless of whether you are up close or far away. Or perhaps as in the picture below, you can see that you don’t need the detail to see a bird, and if you know birds, to see it as a pigeon.
This is how it is with writing. You might write the key moves of your argument as three sentences in a paragraph, as three paragraphs, or as three long sections. The focus of each of your three sentences in the one paragraph shapes the ‘topic sentence’ of each paragraph and the heading and opening and closing paragraph of each section. But they are basically still the same thing. Like the bird. Or a nose on the face of a portrait.
You don’t change your argument just because you write short or long. It’s detail that is added, nuance, and evidence. Adding detail to your basic argument moves, thus making them longer, is the logic of working from an abstract, a Tiny Text, when writing a paper or thesis.
Whether we are writing a journal article, a conference abstract or paper, or a thesis we generally work with an explicit word limit. The word limit is usually a range, up to and around a particular number of words.
So the word limit on a thesis might be 80 to 100 thousand words. The range is explicit. You get to choose how many words within range. A journal article might be up to 6000 words. But that doesn’t mean you have to write exactly 6000 words. The convention is something around 6000 – so 5,600 to about 6,300 or so would usually be acceptable.
You can see from this example that a word limit is not an exact rule, but rather is something like – don’t write too much less than this and don’t write too much more. Too much less and we will think that you haven’t got enough to say. Too much over and we’ll think that you don’t know how to write things concisely. (Writing too much or too little for a journal article also create problems with publishers’ page limits.) But there can be some variation. It’s always wise to check the length of papers in the journal you are submitting to, so do try to ascertain the range of flex you have within the set word limits.
Expectations are often derived from conventions. A journal reviewer will expect to see a particular length of section about research design for example. They will expect a certain proportion of the paper devoted to discussion and conclusion. Their expectations are specific to the conventions of the particular journal and to the discipline.
Reviewers often address questions of detail. They generally won’t tell the writer how many words they have to make up or cut out, but they might say something like the conclusion is truncated or there is insufficient discussion of… or the paper glosses over… Or conversely, there is a very detailed report of x which could be presented in a table or some other form… or the balance between literature review and results seems somewhat out of kilter. These type of comments are clues that the writer has misjudged the tradeoff between depth and length.
Particular kinds of readers also have specific expectations. Some scientific and technical journal readers and reviewers expect that the writer will demonstrate technical expertise – they expect sufficient detail about this aspect of the research. A history reader might expect to see particular attention paid to sources. Other readers might expect more elaboration of evidence or more literature work. These expectations are not necessarily about word length but rather about the nature, focus, and emphasis of detailed material that is provided.
Despite format, conventions and expectations, you also have some say in how much detail, nuance, evidence and elaboration you provide, and about what.
If you think the conventions of the journal are somewhat restrictive you may want to challenge them. So, if your readers expect cursory details about your methods, but you think that is a weakness in the field, you may want to provide what you think is the depth i.e. detail that you think that readers/writers ought to aspire to. If you think that readers of a particular journal always encounter the same literatures, then you may want to deliberately pay more attention to the diverse resources you draw on, in order to make this point. And this may take more words and require more depth than is usually the case.
However, bear in mind that reviewers are likely to adhere to conventions and so the way that you chose to exercise your intentions may need some explanation.
So back to the beginning. Deciding how many words and how much detail is not about following rules. It would be easy if it was. You could just learn them and do it.
Alas. It’s about judgment.
Understanding the ways in which format, conventions, and expectations come together around length and depth is about learning the mores of your particular scholarly community. This is often opaque. It takes time. You often find out how much detail is appropriate when you break the conventions and expectations and are told, no matter how politely, that you have either waffled on too much or have been too cryptic.
And it’s also about exercising your power as author, working out what is required and then deciding what you want to do about it. You can choose to bend the format and the conventions, but be careful where you do this and in whose company. Some readers and reviewers are more tolerant of, or even excited by, this than others.
Your supervisors obviously are one source of help. See those feedback comments as long term helpful advice about the hidden conventions and expectations. But getting a more experienced writer to read through what you have written before you finalise your paper is also helpful. Researching a journal or a set of conference abstracts is similarly worthwhile.
And simply understanding that depth and length are in an ambiguous relationship and need to be thought about can also be of some use. Well that’s my hope!