Writing course – common problems in the Results/Discussion section



It’s always as well to know what can go wrong when writing a journal article. And there are multiple areas in any paper to think about. Just because there seem to be fewer conventions for the Results/Discussion section doesn’t mean that there aren’t some common difficulties… Here’s some that often get in the way of a clear argument.

This first duo are the mirror image of each other. They relate to the way in which the balance between description and analysis has been managed:

Too much description and not enough analysis.

Too much description is where the writer spends most of their word budget telling the reader in great detail what the informants said, or what each set of results in the survey were, or how the research cases varied from one another. Minutiae. Repeated variations of the same quotation. Long slabs of narrative. Protracted reporting of field notes. What’s the problem? Well, without any analysis from the writer, the reader is left to make their own interpretation of what this all means, if they can be bothered…

Too little description and too much abstraction.

What’s the problem? The reader is left wondering what the categories and themes refer to. Has the writer just made them up? Plucked them out of the air? It’d be nice to have an example of what these abstractions actually meant. Would it be too much to ask for a bit of evidence to back up these claims?

The next duo refer to the ways in which the description and analysis have been presented. It’s about dividing the text up using headings. Headings and subheadings help the reader to keep track of the argument you are making, and it’s as well to use them judiciously. Too few or too many can be a problem:

Too few headings

The writer may well have got the balance between analysis and description right but it’s hard to tell when all the reader sees is a great undifferentiated slab of prose. It’s difficult to know if this is all one point/theme, or if there actually are separate parts. Reading a featureless prose landscape is rather like driving down a six-lane highway without any road markings. It’s very hard to keep track of where you are. What are the moves in the argument? The reader has to guess.

Too many headings.
If a lack of headings was like travelling along an unmarked road doing the best you can to keep on track, too many headings is like driving over a never-ending set of speed bumps. Too many headings atomise the text. And fragmenting the prose in this way means that the reader is unable to see the way that the pieces fit together. They experience each piece as distinct and disconnected. They can’t work out which bit is the most important now which are the actual moves in the case being made.

The next and final trio relate to genre. The Results/Discussion section is an argument. Therefore its important that the writer realises that:

This is not a report of results. The writer needs to build up the moves that make the argument that fills the gap, addresses the problem, provides a solution to the puzzle that they identified in the Introduction Section. This isn’t likely to be one single thing but a set of points, each of which builds on the one before. The case is established move by move. If the reader is presented with a simple report then they are left with a set of questions – why did this happen? why does it matter? And most importantly, where is this going?

The sequence of the argument moves must be in the right order. The reader needs to be able to follow the logic of the case being presented. If the writer muddles up the order of moves then the reader will not be able to understand what is going on.

They have to connect the discussion to the literatures. The problem/question/puzzle/niche was initially located in the literatures, and so the discussion needs to do this too. Leaving out the connections to the literatures leaves the reader wondering – hasn’t the writer used other peoples work and words? Have they used them and not acknowledge them? Or does the writer think they live in a vacuum? And, most importantly, how can I tell what’s the contribution???

The difficulty with getting the Results/Discussion Section actions just right – not too many, not too few, but just so – is that they call for judgment. How much is too much detail? How many headings are too few? Like a lot of academic writing, the answers to these questions are very frustrating. Well, it depends. You just know…

Getting the balance of description and analysis, and headings and subheadings right is both a matter of opinion and of experience. So it is really important therefore, when writing journal articles, to enlist some other scholarly friends to provide you with some feedback. And it is also helpful –as always – to also read the journal articles in the journal you are targeting to see what’s usually done.