This is a story, a my story, which leads to eight pointers about writing for publication.
I’m currently writing a paper. Well, yes, always writing something. But right now it’s a paper. A paper designed to do some thinking work that will then inform a book. I’m not writing this paper by myself, but I am doing most of the first draft with some crucial and well-timed help from my co-researcher Chris.
The paper began with some nagging data. You know the kind of thing, the bit of data that just sticks with you and won’t go away. The data was in the form of a set of themes from a sub-section of our research – Chris had produced these themes. This themed data just sat there – literally sat on my desktop, but also stuck in my thinking. And the data metaphorically waved to me whenever I started to think about the book. ( I’m here, I’m here, come play with me.) We had to do something with it, I thought, just not now.
And then the obstinate data somehow met an idea. I’m not quite sure how this happened, but it often does. I could have done this connection work systematically I reckon, by brainstorming how the data might be used. But the connection just emerged one day and interrupted what I was doing at the time. I told Chris about it and she agreed it would be good to pursue.
So the idea. I knew from previous research and engagement with relevant literatures that there was a need for further work around a particular topic, let’s call it X. The case for X needing more thinking was in black and white in an important report. X and our data met in my subconscious and then I started to think quite consciously about what we could do. Our data had been produced and analysed precisely in the way that the big report on X suggested was needed. I told myself it ought to be possible to bring our stuff and X together. It was worth spending a bit of time to see if it could be done. Down tools on everything that could be downed.
I went back to the literatures. If I was going to write about X, then I needed to catch up on what had been published about X since I last looked.I also needed to work out which journal was particularly interested in all things X. Where was the conversation going on? As well, I needed to find out whether anyone else had put together data similar to ours with X (not the case, pleasure and relief combined). I also had to find out whether there was anything already in print that spoke to the potential combination of our data plus X. Well yes, there was, although not a huge amount of literature-as-a resource to call on. Some daily slots of reading, summarising, noting, Endnoting etc followed and the resulting writings went into a word doc where the summarised literatures were arranged in like-topic clumps. By this time I also knew the journal we could submit to.
My speculative foray into the literatures certainly didn’t suggest that I stop. I still hadn’t started writing the paper; I was immersed in the creation stage, not yet drafting but writing of a generative kind. Writing to work out what was there and what might be said.
I next went back to the data and did some finer grained analysis. I constructed three new categories from our existing themes and checked them against the literatures. They seemed to generally fit with the X conversation and there seemed to be something like a potential contribution. Worth keeping on then.
Gah. Not all resolved. I still didn’t have an argument. I couldn’t just report data analysis and X. I had to say what X and our data together meant for how we thought differently about X. And so what! The paper had to take the reader somewhere. I had to find an angle that would be of interest to the journal readers, and would actually advance the conversation that had gone on.
I wasn’t at the point where I could write a succinct Tiny Text, so I had a first go at beginning the paper. I set up a problem in the introduction for which the paper would provide an answer, and then wrote the literatures and methods sections. This was about three thousand words and had quite a lot of references. It took me about three writing sessions to get this done – about four or so hours. This is not what I would ideally do, but I didn’t have enough sorted for a Tiny Text and I needed structure for the text – so timed unstructured writing would be counter-productive. I just had to plunge in and have a go.
I sent the three thousand or so words off to Chris to see what she thought. Chris of course knew the data and I had also already sent her a couple of key books to read so she would know what I had been reading. We booked a discussion.
Chris could see what I was trying to do, without me having to explain it. She agreed there was a paper. But she thought I had the angle wrong – the way I had set up the problem didn’t work. The new categories I had generated were however right, and the connection with the literatures was sound. But the thinking wasn’t there yet. I thought so too. It was pretty clear I was writing my way into something, but what that something was wasn’t yet sorted. However, through our conversation, the problem that paper could address was refined. Chris had a different perspective which was very helpful. (Talking things over at this point of paper development is often very helpful.) A possible angle and argument were just about visible. This paper could be something that added to X and that journal readers would be interested in. I could see a way forward.
I then started a new document. Left the old one behind. Back to the beginning. I changed the title and rewrote the introduction which set out the problem we were addressing, suggested the contribution and laid out the argument moves as the reader would encounter them in the paper. I wasn’t entirely sure about a minor bit of possible theory, but put it in to see how it would read and feel. This was an entirely new text – no cut and paste, a clean sheet. Once again I sent this (now about) five hundred words to Chris for comment, this time in the body of an email.
Her feedback came straight back, and is now incorporated into the paper I’m writing. I’ve just written myself a Tiny Text and it’s all go. Of course I expect there still to be bumps and many revisions. But we do have a direction and something new to say about X. And Chris will have more to contribute as the paper gets drafted and polished.
So what are the key points about writing a paper that emerge from this story?
1 Follow your nose. If it feels like there’s something there, there may well be.
2 Connect to a body of literature early and find the space for development so you can see where the paper will fit and what kind of contribution you can make.
3 Dig into the literatures to find what’s helpful to situate and shape the possible paper. What does your paper build on? What does it speak to?
4 Locate the journal where the relevant conversation is happening and the papers that have already been written. See how your new paper might engage. Think about what will be interesting to readers.
5 Don’t be afraid to spend time writing to see what the paper might be about. Sometimes you just have to write it till you get it. Even if you are a planner like me, you can’t plan if you don’t have your head around “the stuff”.
6 Talking through a possible paper is a good way to help sort out whether your idea is viable and to get the angle and argument sorted.
7 Working with a trusted collaborator is fab – they can always see things that you can’t.
8 Don’t be afraid to junk what you’re writing and start afresh. The first writings were necessary to get you to the paper proper so it’s not been wasted effort. Those early words have done their job.
And of course a caveat. My process won’t work for everyone, or for everything you write. But some of these pointers, I hope, may be helpful to you. Write on.