Writing a journal article

Fitting the content to the length

It is important that those bits of content that are really important to you are not overshadowed by other bits of content, which actually are less important to you. If the important parts are overshadowed, this effectively means they get lost among other, less important parts. Overshadowing of important content most commonly happens because the good points receive too little space in the paper relative to other, less important points.

Two main strategies can help with this problem at a general level. First, see my suggestions for prioritizing your content – the gist is to focus on your most exciting ideas, and perhaps just leave some of your other thoughts untold. Second, you can sometimes use supplementary online material to explain things that are not of central interest to all readers.

In practical terms, I suggest you write a dot-point outline of your paper, with all headings and sub-headings included; and dot point summaries of the main content below. Such a skeleton outline can be very helpful because it’s all about the logic and the flow. The wording is completely irrelevant at this stage, because this outline needs to make sense only to you (and perhaps your co-authors).

Once you have an outline, think about which sections are particularly important to you. The relative importance of a section should – to the extent possible – be mirrored by its length. In other words, it is not a good idea to have 2000 words of background material, followed by 200 words of brilliance, before a 500 word conclusion. Much better, in this example, would be to have 700 words of background material, followed by (well-structured) 1000 words of brilliance, followed by a 250 word conclusion.

Go through these steps, and the general steps for planning a paper, several times in an iterative fashion. What you end up with is a dot-point outline summarizing your headings and main argument, including an indicative word count that each section will occupy. You can also add key references to this outline.

Such an outline is an incredibly powerful way to start ‘writing’ properly. The idea is to leave the actual writing until the content is completely clear. This has the advantage that you now know precisely what you want to say – you just have to put it into words. Sections that are too long, rambling, or don’t fit become virtually impossible if you follow this approach.

Note, again, that if you are the kind of person who develops their thoughts as they write, that’s not a problem. But don’t think your initial writing (even if it’s nicely worded prose) should be the same as the paper in the end. Once you have done your first bout of writing, it’s still a good idea to condense things back into an outline, and then write again.

(Of course, with practice, you may not need this elaborate process, but it is a pretty fail-safe approach.)

See also:

  1. Framing your paper
  2. Planning your paper
  3. Prioritising content
  4. Content-to-length-ratio
Possible exercises:
  • Write and re-write an outline for your paper until the logic is smooth
  • As you go, consider different journal options — what does this mean for which content you may have to leave out, and how many words would you devote to different sections if you were to submit to different journals?
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