Writing a journal article – 8 steps to so what and now what


This post is a generalisation. Be warned. But the general stuff in this post does hold for most things you’ll write for most journals. Just not all.

The message in this post is simply this – journals generally do not publish only research results. Yes, you heard me. But let me put it another way. Research results alone do not a journal paper make. Or here’s another formulation. Most academic journals expect you to do more than report your research results.

Journals are interested in your results. For sure. But they also want you to spell out why and how your results matter. Why should readers be concerned with your research results? Why should they be bothered with reading this piece? Why give up half an hour of their lives to get to grips with what you’ve written?

In other words you have to say what your results mean – in terms of scholarly understandings about the topic and/or in terms of policy and/or in terms of professional practice. And you need to say what should happen as a result – more research? different research? Bringing different knowledges and/or practices together? Doing something differently? Thinking differently about something?

These more-than-the-results are generally known as the So What and Now What.

However, you don’t just think about So What and Now What at the end of your paper. You have to think about it all the way through – and even before you start writing. It’s a very good idea to think about these two questions in order to structure the paper and construct your narrative.

You anticipate the So What and Now What at the start of your paper when you set the context for your study and this particular focus. You say why it is important that this research matters. And then at the end of the paper you go back and say why and how your research matters and what should happen because of it.

Thinking So What Now What at the start of your writing is helpful. Once you understand that dealing with most journals are looking for more than your results, then your task as a writer becomes clearer. You are not constructing a paper which simply reports. You are constructing an argument for why your take on the particular topic is important.

So the advice in this post is this. Don’t write your paper around your results. Write the paper around the So What and Now What.

Oh I hear you ask- how can you do this? Well here’s A way to approach structuring your paper around the So What and Now What, rather than the results.

When you begin to think about writing a paper it’s helpful to focus on the puzzle or problem your paper can resolve, even if only partially. Then you:

  1. set out the puzzle-dilemma-problem up at the beginning – this is a proposition, a problem statement, perhaps a hypothesis if you are doing this kind of research.
  2. say what piece of the puzzle-dilemma-problem you are going to address in this paper
  3. indicate what literatures you’ve drawn on to construct the research that answers the puzzle-dilemma-problem you’ve outlined. You may need to include the theoretical or conceptual framework you have used to construct the research and/or to analyse the results.
  4. say how you did the research and show why the reader can trust it
  5. report your results and analysis
  6. explain what the results mean – the results are the evidence for the answer you are providing for your take on the puzzle-dilemma-problem. You have to explain what and how the results evidence something. Thus may mean bringing in your theoretical framing.
  7. reprise your initial purpose in addressing this puzzle-dilemma-problem and say why your results are important, to whom and why. What have you added to the literatures? To more general understandings?
  8. say what needs to happen now more is known about the topic.

Now my eight steps don’t have a handy acronym – although I could give them one if I chose. The reason I haven’t given them a catchy title is because I wanted to focus on the expanded meaning for each step.

And I wanted to focus on the narrative arc that I’m setting up. So here’s another iteration.

  1. Here’s my take on this important puzzle-dilemma-problem – I’m setting out the big context for you to show you it’s significant.
  2. Here’s what I’m going to focus on in this paper and why.
  3. Here’s the key bits of other people’s work I’ve used to construct the research that produced the evidence I’m going to use to answer the puzzle-dilemma-problem. I’m setting my work in the body of existing literatures.
  4. Here’s what I did and how – you can trust this work because I’ve provided key details about my study.
  5. Here’s my results and analysis.
  6. Here’s my explanation of what these results mean.
  7. Here’s why these results and analysis matter for our understandings about the  puzzle-dilemma-problem. You know more now right?
  8. And here’s what should happen and come next.

Yes, I know I’ve just repeated myself in different words. That’s because I may not have explained the steps well enough the first time around.

So I’ve had another go moving from the second person – me telling you what happens – to the first person – here is what you can think to yourself as you’re organising and writing.