Writing a journal article – identifying “the two paper problem”


If you’re writing a journal article, you need write it so that you make one big point. Right? One unavoidable, spelled out, take home message. There may be nuancing of the point, of course. But there’s basically just the one. Any more than one big point and your article is not only difficult to write, but also to read.

Now, there are a load of planning strategies you can use to help sort out the point of your paper. Like the Tiny Text. But sometimes, even if you’ve used all the tried and tested approaches, you may still find yourself in a sticky place. Your argument just takes too many steps. You eventually get to the point, but it seems a very elongated and unnecessarily complicated process. There is a load of foundational work you have to establish at the start before you can get into the meat of the paper. So much preliminary stuff that it’s almost impossible to meet the word length.

But maybe this is not you. If you are not a planner, but someone who sculpts a text from a tangled mass of free writing, you may still find yourself in the same messy situation. You know the point you want to make, and the various pieces of the argument do fit together, but the whole thing just seems very unwieldy. The text is unduly complex. Not pleasing.

You may also find yourself in the long paper twisty argument situation if you are writing from a PhD. You’ve spent so long putting the pieces together it seems almost impossible to un-assemble them. The papers don’t fall neatly out of the chapters and what you want to write just seems very difficult to sort out.

If you ever find yourself in this frustratingly stuck and stuck-together situation, as I have been recently, it’s always worth taking a deep breath and asking yourself if you actually have not one paper but two. Two. Asking this question is difficult, as it potentially means dumping a lot of what you’ve already done, and starting again.

But don’t be deterred. It’s all good. Let me tell you about my paper writing problem to explain what I mean by two papers in one. And why it’s OK to ask if you have a two paper problem.

I recently began writing a paper. I had a mass of stuff to work with. We’d analysed transcripts from a very large number of focus groups and sorted the material into large-ish themes and supporting sub-themes. And I could see that these themes spoke to a current interdisciplinary scholarly concern. I could also see that they could say even more if they were subject to further theoretical work. So I had A = themes, X = interdisciplinary scholarly concern, and Y = theory. It was a possible paper.

However I saw that the analysis also spoke to Z = current education (my field) policy. Why not,I thought, put all of this together!

So I tried to construct an argument which said X is a current interdisciplinary scholarly concern and Z is current education policy. These seem to be much the same thing. But our research says A theorised through Y (the point). A through Y (the point) not only suggests that X and Z are different, but that both X ( interdisciplinary scholarly concern) and Z (current education policy) leave a bit to be desired.

Now I am sure that you can see, as I spell this out, that this is just way too much to put in a paper. It’s too complicated. It might in fact be the basis of a book if I added few more strands. It’s certainly not a simple paper.

But could I see that at first? No. I’m no different than any other academic writer in thinking through what and how to write a paper. I stayed mired in the morass I had created, bogged down for some weeks. I could absolutely see how the overall complex argument might go, but I just couldn’t make it work. Every day I did a bit on the unsatisfactory paper trying to whip it into shape. Multiple versions. Multiple days. No luck. Gah.

Eventually, after a few days away from it, I took my own advice and asked myself whether this was actually two papers, one about X ( interdisciplinary scholarly concern) and the other about Z (policy). The answer was yes. I could indeed prise X and Z apart. Although they had been conjoined in my thinking, it was possible to break them apart. Once X and Z were separated, I could see the shape and structure of two much clearer papers.

And then I had a choice. As I couldn’t use the analysis twice, which paper did I really want to write? One for an interdisciplinary audience? Or one for my own field? Which was more important? What might add most to current thinking? Who did I really want to read the paper? In the end, the paper is about Z (education policy). I want people in my field to have this paper – and I hope it might add to the conversations about policy Z.

I was sad to see X (interdisciplinary scholarly concern) go. I’ve wanted to write something about X for a long time. But I could also see how this little dream had got in the way of writing something better, punchier, and tighter, about Z.

The paper is now much simpler. The argument moves are clear – We currently have policy Z. The research says A through Y. And A- Y suggests Z is misleading at best. Of course there’s some theoretical explanation, literatures work and research design details in there too, but in essence this paper is only a three big move argument with one big point to make about one big target. I haven’t finished this paper yet, but it’s clear it’s going to work.

So the point of this post is simply to say that if you find yourself, as I did, with a pretty complicated set of argument moves, juggling several bodies of literature and more than one big idea, it might be worth taking the risk and asking yourself:

What if this was more than one paper?

Are there two papers here, or even more?

And if there are two ( or more) papers, what might they be?

Which one do I really want to write?

Who do I really want to read this?