Here’s the thing. Journal Editors say that one of the major reasons that papers are rejected is when the writer is not clear about their point, and their argument. Accepted journal articles have a point to make. They work with a single idea and the writer has a distinctive take on it. The top line of the paper is an argument which leads logically to the point.
The muddy, obscure and out of focus paper reads as if
- the writer didn’t know what point they wanted to make
- the writer wanted to make two or three arguments and hadn’t decided which is The One
- the writer was distracted by interesting ideas and had followed them all to the point that the top line argument disappeared altogether
- the writer was reluctant to make a choice – they were afraid to let some things go
- the writer used a free writing approach but had not revised the work sufficiently to refine the top line and point – the work still reads as a brain dump
- the paper was based on a report or thesis and the writer was afraid to choose one clear point from all of the possibilities
- the writer had an outline with a set of headings that they wrote to, but they were unclear about the point and the argument
- there was a point in the conclusion but it bore little relationship to the start of the paper or the process of the argument .
You see it’s not uncommon to not know the point. And the reality is that all of the reasons above may be wrong. Completely wrong. Maybe the writer doesn’t know their point – yet. They may still be working it out, working up to it. Learning what it is that they can say. Sorting out the big picture.. And trying to get a paper written is a step in the refining process. However. Rather a lot of people do send their papers in before they are ready, before they have their point sorted out.
It is not surprising then that some journals offer structures that they hope will help the writer make their point clear. Here’s two strategies drawn from journals that are trying to tackle the lack-of-point problem. You might think about how you could use these to help make sure you don’t fall into the point-less trap.
1. The structured abstract
Many Emerald journals require a structured abstract which follows a format: Purpose, Study design, Findings, and Originality/value. In order to provide the information for the last of the four – originality/value – writers need to have a clear idea about their contribution is. That is, they need to know the point they want to make and what it adds to existing understandings. Point + significance. Emerald also suggest that the last section should also address Research limitations/implications, Practical implications and Social implications.
Here’s an example I’ve chosen relatively randomly. The paper is Harris. B, Childs, B A, Axe, J, and Gormley, C (2022) Developing a university learning, teaching and research framework through practice conversations. Journal of Applied Research in Higher Education.
This project engaged faculty, students, alumni and staff in re-visioning their university’s learning, teaching and research framework. An extensive consultation process allowed participants to explore, discuss and critically reflect on effective practice.
This action research project provided a process for university community members to engage in practice conversations. In phase 1, focus groups and campus community discussions elicited the diverse perspectives of the community. The design-thinking process of discovery, ideation and prototyping aligned with the action research cycles to help a working group create a learning and teaching framework prototype based on the findings. In the second phase, surveys were used to elicit community members’ responses to the prototype, which was then refined.
The prototype was organized into three overarching categories, each containing several attributes. The attributes of the “Applied and Authentic” category were: interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary; experiential and participatory; flexible and individualized; outcomes based; and openly practiced. The attributes of the “Caring and Community-Based” category were: inclusive and diverse; community-based; supportive; team-based; co-creative; and place and virtual space-based. The attributes of the “Transformational” category were socially innovative; respectful of Indigenous peoples and traditions; impactful; and reflective.
This article should interest higher education institutions seeking to engage faculty, staff, students and others in practice conversations to develop a learning, teaching and research strategy. This research demonstrated that fostering practice conversations among diverse community members can be a powerful process for creating a common and integrated vision of excellent learning, teaching and research practice.
I’ve outlined in bold the point that the writers want their readers to get from the paper.( I note that the Emerald structure follows a report format which doesn’t really help writers construct their argument, they have to sort that out themselves. Nor does it allow for any context to be offered at the start. Just saying Emerald.) However, the advantage of the structure is that it does require the writer to get really clear and succinct about the point they want to make. For this reason it’s not a bad structure to play with as a development tool because it requires you to not only get to the point, but also express it very economically.
2. Highlighted features
Another example of a journal helping writers to get to their point is the recent move by the British Educational Research Journal to ask writers to write and abstract as they normally would be, but then to draw out key features. The writer must answer two questions:
- What is the main issue that the paper addresses?
- What are the main insights that the paper provides?
Don’t be fooled by question two – it is not an invitation to have two or more points in a paper. Nope. The Editors expect that writers will state a point and then one or two key aspects of it which have implications for research, policy or practice.
Again I chose this paper relatively randomly – it is simply the most recent ( at the time of writing this post) about higher education.
Here is the Abstract:
The role of parental expectations in determining children’s higher education participation is important in understanding both participation and potential policy responses. Using a nationally representative longitudinal survey of Australian households, providing repeat observations on expectations for individual children, this study extends the literature in several respects. First, it examines the adaptation of parental expectations over a 4-year time frame. Second, it looks at how parental expectations for school children are associated with actual higher education outcomes in the future. Third, the longitudinal aspect of the dataset permits more robust analyses of factors that shape parental expectations. The findings indicate that parental expectations of their children’s attendance at university are generally stable across time. Perceptions of children’s academic achievement at school are shown to be the key influence in shaping parents’ expectations, and behavioural issues at school adversely affect expectations. Australian parents from non-English-speaking backgrounds were more likely to form positive expectations of university participation by their children, consistent with studies from other countries. A more nuanced picture of the formation of expectations for sole-parent mothers is also presented. Positive effects of parental education and children’s enrolment in a private school on parents’ expectations, over and above any effect on school achievement, highlight these socioeconomic factors as potential causal channels for the intergenerational transmission of socioeconomic outcomes.
When you read this abstract, you may not be entirely sure what the big point is, But you can clearly see the point in the writers’ answer to the two questions.
What is the main issue that the paper addresses? This paper examines the role of parental expectations in determining children’s higher education participation. It uses longitudinal data from Australia to examine key determinants of parental expectations and the extent to which expectations change over time and affect eventual higher education participation.
What are the main insights that the paper provides? The main insight is that Australian parents’ expectations of their children’s attendance at university are generally stable across time. The key influence on expectations is parental perceptions of children’s academic achievement, moderated by factors with positive (e.g. non-English-speaking background) or negative (e.g. school behavioural issues) effects.
There is an important explainer attached to the big point and these are key to the ways in which we understand the big point. It is also these “modifiers” which may have significant implications, these are not requested.
The addition of the key features, insights, has three benefits. First, the questions act as a guide to writers to this journal – they must make sure that the insights and their paper and its abstract are one and the same. Writing the insights may be an important aspect of their planning process and revision. Second, the insights section is a boon for anyone doing a very initial cull of literatures. A reader can see very easily at a glance where the paper will be of significance to them and if so how. If it is, then they can read the paper in more detail.
Third, and finally, the exercise of answering these questions may be of help to you as you are writing. Even if you are not submitting to this journal, and I’m sure a lot of you aren’t, the exercise of answering the two questions can really help in getting your big point sorted out when you begin to write your paper. Alternatively, answering the two questions could be a good way to move from a brain dump to a paper proper, or to help you as you revise a paper that doesn’t yet seem to be quite on track.
P.S. The tiny text is also good for sorting out your point.