Writing a journal article

Prioritising content

It is important that you prioritise what goes into your paper, and what you leave out. Especially when you start out in research, it seems appealing to pack in as much information as possible into your first few papers. After all, you did a lot of research, which was hard work – and you gained a lot of insights! Now surely it’s worthwhile communicating these insights as completely as possible.

That logic holds only in part. Especially if you need to write a short paper (e.g. because that’s what the journal requirements are) it is critically important you set yourself some clear priorities about what matters, and what doesn’t.

But even when the word count is not a problem, more is not necessarily better. Imagine a paper with three really good points (each of which makes you go “wow, very clever”), two quite good points (which make you go “that’s a fair point”), and two reasonable points (which make you go “sure, but not particularly exciting”). And now imagine an alternative, shorter paper, which just makes the three really good points. Which paper will leave a stronger impression on you?

This might depend on what sort of a reader you are. But it stands to reason that the short paper, with only really good points, will keep a reader engaged for every single paragraph. The longer version of the same thing, by contrast, might have the reader drift off, flick pages, or skip on to a different paper. So, don’t just think about the marginal contribution of an extra thought or extra text: of course, more text always means more insight. But also think about the average quality of your thoughts: sometimes, additional thoughts that are not particularly interesting just dilute the quality of your work, leaving the reader to feel your paper is “just average” when in fact you had some very good points – but those may have got lost among the less good points.

See also:

  1. Framing your paper
  2. Planning your paper
  3. Fitting the content to the length
  4. Content-to-length-ratio
Possible exercises:
  • Make a list of your arguments or results.
  • Prioritise this list: if you were allowed to make only one point, which would it be? What if you were allowed only two points? And so on.

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