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July 9, 2014 / Matthew Wolf-Meyer

Three Pathways to Publication (Excluding Deals with the Devil)

In this post, I discuss three of my articles and what the experience was of getting them through peer review and their ultimate publication. Some of the details are a little foggy — in some cases, it’s been upwards of seven years since I started work on the articles mentioned here — but most of what I want to convey is that getting a manuscript to publication depends on two things: 1) don’t take criticisms and rejection too seriously, and 2) make sure you’re writing for the right audience. If you’re doing the second, the first should be minimized anyway…

Faust_und_Mephisto,_Stich_von_Tony_Johannot

I should say at the outset that I’m leaving names of journals out, since editorial shifts happen frequently and my experience of any of the journals I’ve interacted with in the past isn’t predictive of your experience with the same journal or editors. I’ve also kept all of my peer reviews, editorial decisions, and other paperwork from all my publication efforts, and I draw on them below.

So, first off is ‘Natural Hegemonies.’ I had written it as a job talk back in 2006, and presented it in a few of different versions as colloquium talks and workshop presentations. It’s sprawling, and covers a lot of the content from my dissertation — and later, book — in summary format. It was usually well received by audiences, and so it seemed like the good basis for an article to send to a flagship journal. After some fine tuning, I sent it to an anthropology journal generally seen as one of the top of the field. It spent a long time in peer review, and when it returned to me it was returned as a revise and resubmit with five reviews. The reviews were generally positive, with a couple very glowing reviews. The editors had a series of revisions they were seeking, and I set to work on them; they also, in retrospect, had deep philosophical disagreements with me, and if I was reading clearly at the time, I would probably have pulled up stakes after the first round of reviews…

After revising it, I sent it back, and this time it was under review for even longer than the first time. When it was returned to me, it was sent back as a rejection, despite having generally positive reviews. Reviewers said things like ‘I found just about every aspect of this text compelling and thoughtful. I urge publication of the manuscript in its current form’ and ‘This is a great paper, which I enjoyed reading immensely. The paper is engaging, flows, and connects together a series of seemingly unrelated themes together in such a way that they appear in retrospect to be inevitable and one wonders why one never thought about it before. This is the hallmark of a very engaging and persuasive argument, one that appears impossible at the outset and inevitable in retrospect. I’d certainly publish it.’ But the editors disagreed. Which, ultimately, was fine. I worked on the manuscript for a couple of hours — addressing only the big things pointed out by reviewers from the last round of review — and sent it to Current Anthropology the same day it was rejected from the other journal. After a round of peer review, it was accepted with minor revisions. I set to work on those revisions, and it ended up coming out in 2011.

What I realized in working on ‘Natural Hegemonies’ was that the kind of article it was — sweeping in its empirical scope and making a pretty theoretical argument — just wasn’t right for the first journal I sent it to. Despite the peer reviewers, the editors saw the mission of the journal as promoting a different form of anthropological scholarship, which my manuscript didn’t quite fit. But Current Anthropology offered a more ecumenical approach to the discipline, and the article fit right in there.

A more straightforward path was that of ‘Therapy, Remedy, Cure.’ I originally wrote it as a colloquium talk around the publication of my book, and presented it a couple of times over the course of a year. Because it was largely ethnographic and developed an argument I saw as of potentially broad appeal — about time, capitalism and medical treatment — I decided to take another stab at publishing in a flagship anthropology journal. Based on what I had seen in the journal recently, I thought the editor would be interested in the piece, and work with me on revising it as needed. But the editorial reigns had just been handed over, and the new editor seemed to have different tastes, including kinds of reviewers to send things to for review.

Of the three reviews that were returned to me, the first was principally concerned that my methods section was a footnote rather than in the body of the article, which would seem easily remedied (and was an artifact of the paper as a presentation). The second reviewer had a number of suggestions, and asked for revisions prior to publication. The third reviewer wrote a three sentence — and extremely positive — review. Despite the reviews, the editor ‘definitively’ rejected the piece. Not to be dissuaded, I sent it out the same day to Medical Anthropology, a journal I had published in before and always had excellent experiences with.

At Medical Anthropology, the piece received favorable reviews, and was accepted pending revisions, most of which were minor. In my experience, sometimes minor revisions are the hardest to make, since they’re usually just to satisfy specific peer reviewer concerns, and they always stick out to me as being just that. But I set down to work on the manuscript, addressed what I needed to, and sent the article back for review within a couple of months, at which point it was accepted for publication. Again, although I thought the argument would be of broad disciplinary interest — maybe it is? — the best home for it was a subfield journal where the kind of evidence and argumentation that was the basis of the manuscript was easily recognized and supported.

Maybe the easiest — yet longest — experience I had was with ‘Where Have All Our Naps Gone?‘ The meat of this paper was in my dissertation (which focuses on various experiments with sleep over the 20th century), but it didn’t really fit into the book version. Being largely historical in its focus, I decided to send it to history journals. Over five years, I sent it to five journals. Maybe it was even more than that. Of those journals, a couple times it was rejected without peer reviews — the editors simply thought it wasn’t interesting and right for their audience. A couple other times it underwent peer reviews, and was ultimately rejected for one reason or another. I was asked to present something at a workshop on sleep in the 20th century, so I dusted the manuscript off and presented it there, where it received a favorable response — which reaffirmed my sense that there was something to the argument, but that maybe it just wasn’t right for historians.

I was asked by Peter Benson and Rebecca Lester to guest edit an issue of Anthropology of Consciousness on sleep, and it dawned on me that maybe this would be the right venue for the piece. Instead of writing a lengthy introduction to the issue, I asked for the article to go through peer review for consideration in the journal. The review process was relatively painless, which may have been because it was a special issue, or because I had been working on the manuscript on and off for so long — or maybe because it finally found the right audience. At Anthropology of Consciousness, the article ended up winning the annual ‘outstanding article’ award — something I didn’t even know existed, but it made it evident to me that the article had finally found its audience. Maybe historians will get turned onto it sooner or later…

Over the years, I’ve learned to not take rejection as an indictment of my abilities, my research or my writing. The biggest help on this front was peer reviewing other people’s work, often that of people I knew and respected. Critically reading through other people’s work with the goal of helping them publish also helped me see some of the mistakes that I was making. Going through peer review and doing peer review significantly changed my thinking about writing and how finished something needed to be before it could be sent out — a three-quarters finished manuscript might risk rejection from an editor, but it also gives reviewers a lot to respond to and help you work through.

My general rule is to write a new article manuscript every year. Part of my reason for doing so is that I don’t like presenting the same material as colloquium talks more than a few times, so I’m always looking towards the next presentation. The other reason for doing so is that it takes the burden off any one manuscript to get published. If something gets hung up in peer review for a year or two, like ‘Natural Hegemonies’ did, I know some other stuff will make it through to publication in the meantime.

But, generally, rejection is no big deal. This isn’t to say that you should ignore why things are getting rejected, but that rather than over think why things are being rejected, you should take the criticisms seriously, address them as succinctly as you can, and move on. Targeting the right audience will reduce your overall rejection rate, but it’s absolutely normal for an article manuscript to be rejected once or more on its way to eventual publication…

July 1, 2014 / Matthew Wolf-Meyer

The N=1 Article Writing Challenge Starts Today!

Welcome to the inaugural N=1 article writing challenge! The goal is to produce a 6,000-8,000 word article in two weeks, by following these steps: identifying the right journal (and stuff to publish), analyzing a model article, and then writing the conclusion, literature review, case studies and introduction. If you’re participating, please post feedback as comments on the individual steps — or, if you prefer anonymity, send me an email. At some future point, I’ll put together an addendum to the steps, and include material from the comments and emails I receive.

ImageAfter years of editing a journal and serving as a peer reviewer, I’ve become very aware of one critical misstep most authors make: audiences are important. One of the things my steps to article writing try and address is how to conceptualize your audience and write for it. Having a clear sense of who you’re writing for and why can speed up the writing process — both in terms of working from scratch and revising the article when it comes back from the journal for revisions (which it will, and that’s perfectly normal).

The biggest challenge I see among junior academics is knowing what to publish. Most people seem to think that they need to make a big splash right off the bat. But that’s both unrealistic and misguided. If it’s in your dissertation, it’s probably worth publishing — especially if no one has written about it before; it just needs to find the right audience. The ‘big splash’ is generally intended for your whole discipline, and that can wait. What you need in your first couple of publications is to endear yourself to your subfield or regional colleagues, and publishing about obscure events or cases from your research is a great first step. So don’t get hung up on what to publish — find the audience you want to write for, and then figure out what they might be interested in. It’s in your dissertation, so use it.

Godspeed in your writing — and let me know how the steps are working for you!

May 26, 2014 / Matthew Wolf-Meyer

N=1 Article Writing Challenge

Are you up for a bit of a challenge? And interested in some professionalization advice testing? Do you want to see how quickly you can churn out a short article manuscript? Then you might be up for my inaugural summer break article writing challenge. Starting July 1st and ending July 14th, I’m asking people to read my series of blog posts on preparing article manuscripts and to provide me with feedback on their experience of following my advice. If you’re interested, send me an email and let me know that you’re on board.

Over the last several weeks, I’ve been posting a series of entries about the production of academic articles, largely intended for first-time article writers, but applicable to us all. Over six* steps, I discuss identifying the right journal, analyzing an appropriate model to base your manuscript on, writing introductions, literature reviews, your evidence, and conclusion, and the final steps to prepare the manuscript for submission to a journal (but not in that order).

These posts grew out of an alternative spring break I’ve begun to offer for anthropology graduate students in the University of California system to spend a week talking about and concentrating on writing an article manuscript — a week-long event that has grown out of my ongoing professionalization workshop series (which you can read summaries of here). By inviting everyone everywhere to participate in this writing event, I’m hoping to gather feedback to add to and revise the Six Steps in future blog posts and professionalization events (which may be coming to a conference near you sometime soon).

As a means of thanking people for helping out in testing my advice, I’m collecting names and will facilitate peer review for those people ready for feedback by July 14th.  That is, if you email me and let me know that you’ll be participating, when your manuscript is complete, I’ll email it to another participant so you can get a round of peer review in the revision process. Before you email me, take a few minutes and read about publishing strategies and Step 1 and send me the name of the journal you’re planning on targeting. As we collectively work through the Six Steps, you can either email me your feedback on each step, or respond to the steps in the comment sections of the relevant post.

I’m looking forward to the challenge, and hope you’ll join me for it.

*It’s actually 7 steps, but the first step — on publishing strategies — was published a long time ago.

May 23, 2014 / Matthew Wolf-Meyer

How to Write a Journal Article (in 6 Steps): Step 6 — Fine Tuning

After writing your conclusion, literature review, empirical evidence and introduction, you have a full article manuscript in hand, and it’s time for some fine tuning before you send it off for peer review to your journal of choice. Fine tuning is really about being deliberate and making sure that the whole manuscript works as a piece of sustained argumentation. More than anything else, you want to make sure that your manuscript is consistent. It doesn’t need to be perfect — peer review is there to get it as close to perfect as it can get — so just make sure it’s 85% complete and that there aren’t any huge gaps.

sand-patterns

The biggest challenge in sending a manuscript out for review is coming to terms with it not being 100% complete. But, fundamentally, a manuscript is never done — and it’s up to the peer review process to help you finish it (at least enough for it to be published). An article isn’t a definitive statement, but rather part of an ongoing conversation (or maybe a conversation starter). As such, the burden is just to carry the conversation forward — not to bring it to a conclusion. Accept that an article is never complete, and get ready to send it out for peer review.

With that in mind, here’s the checklist:

1) Make sure that your argument is well articulated and flows throughout the manuscript. Along with that, make sure that keywords that appear in one part of the text appear throughout (e.g. if you’re talking about biopolitics in the conclusion, make sure that it’s in your introduction, lit review and cases). Read it through once on paper or in some other not-easily modified way and take notes on what to fix (editing at your computer can descend into lots of new writing, and you should avoid that at this point). Maybe take a day or two off and read it again. And then sit down to work through the corrections on the manuscript. I tend to find that having someone else read it during this time to be helpful, as I get a little myopic in my reading of my own work after working on it closely for a while. So a fresh reader can be a great asset, especially when it comes to seeing the inner workings of an argument.

2) Verify that there aren’t any non sequitors or holdovers. Hopefully you haven’t done a lot of copying and pasting into the manuscript, which usually increases the number of these kinds of artifacts. In any case, read through the manuscript and make sure that everything you say will be done is actually attended to, and that you don’t make any presumptions of what happened early in the manuscript at late points (look for those telltale ‘as mentioned above…’ and ‘below’). And make sure that you don’t refer to any evidence that isn’t in the manuscript.

3) Check your citations and bibliography. Make sure that everything that should be cited is cited, and that the citations appear in the bibliography. It’s always a headscratcher as a peer reviewer to check a citation that’s unfamiliar to find that it doesn’t appear in the bibliography…

4) Ensure that the manuscript meets the journal’s formatting guidelines. Every journal should have this information posted on their ‘For Authors’ or similar page, including their bibliographic style preference and other style concerns. Make sure you follow these as closely as you can (although sometimes things slip through the cracks — which isn’t anything to worry about), and know that the more closely you can follow them, the more clearly you demonstrate to the editor that you’re serious about publishing in his or her journal and have done your homework. The most important thing here is to make sure that you meet the word limit requirements, usually a little short of target so you have room to revise when it comes time for that.

5) Write your abstract, pick keywords, and write a cover letter. The length of abstracts can vary quite a bit, so make sure you know what you’re shooting for — they tend to be anywhere between 150-250 words. I usually find it helpful to take a summary paragraph from the conclusion of an article manuscript and whittle it down into an abstract. Such a technique ensures that you’re talking about all the things you need to: the argument, the evidence, and the structure of the article. Remember to pick keywords that aren’t in your title (which would be redundant). And prepare a cover letter that briefly states the source (e.g. your dissertation research), intent and word length of the article manuscript. (This all might be worth an additional post…)

If you can, try and do a peer review swap with a friend before you send your article out for review. Make sure that your prospective peer reader is aware of the journal that you’re sending it to and the subdisciplinary or regional debates you’re entering into — you don’t want them to read an article as a ‘general’ reader, since that’s not exactly who you’re writing for. Instead, make sure they’re reading like a specialist. You want to make sure the comments they’re giving you are relevant to your immediate needs, and although a general perspective can be helpful, when you’re targeting a specific journal, such comments can often be a distraction.

So that’s it. Get to work (or keep working), and know that it can be anywhere from 3-12 months to hear back from a journal’s editor. Don’t sit on your hands and wait though, get to work on the next article manuscript

May 20, 2014 / Matthew Wolf-Meyer

How to Write a Journal Article (in 6 Steps): Step 5 — The Introduction & Argument

It might seem a little perverse to wait until the penultimate step to discuss introductions and arguments, but like I mentioned in step 2, it’s often helpful to work through most of the other material in an article manuscript first, so that when you get to the introduction and argument you have a clear sense of what your argument actually is. So, if you’ve worked through steps 1-4, getting down to the brass tacks of your argument should be a lot easier than if you try and start with the argument — which can be daunting and freeze many writers in their tracks…

intro(In case you want to know what my chalkboard writing looks like, here’s the diagram from my alternative spring break.)

Often, in cultural anthropology at least, articles begin with a little ethnographic vignette — some kind of hook to get the reader’s interest piqued. As I mentioned in step 4, these vignettes are usually linked to the cases that make up the evidence in the rest of the article, and tend to be about a page or so long.

A successful introduction — ethnographic vignette or not — should give your reader a sense of why she or he should keep reading within a page or two, and a good rationale to keep reading is a question or quandary that’s of broad appeal, but which you can provide the answer for. So, it might be an ethnographic vignette, or some other compelling set of data posed in a way that begs questions rather than provides answers, or it might be a question about the existing scholarly literature, or a case from popular media or current events (although I tend to think that current events don’t stay current for long…). Regardless of what your introduction is comprised of, it needs to be returned to later in the article — and where you return to it should make sense based on what the introduction is (i.e. if it’s an ethnographic vignette, continue the vignette in one of your cases, if it’s a problem in the literature, return to it in the literature review, etc.).

After you have your reader hooked, what will actually keep the reader reading is a well articulated argument. One of the most critical things is to not bury the lead — which is to say, make sure your argument appears by the end of page two of your article manuscript (which means it will be on page one of your published article). If your argument comes too late, you risk losing your reader, or, at the least, having your reader begin to wonder why they’re reading what they’re reading. A good argument, posed early on, will do a lot of work for you and ensure that your reader keeps reading — so don’t get carried away with your introductory hook.

What makes a good argumentative thesis? That’s probably the hardest part of this whole project, and it really takes time and experience to develop a solid thesis that you can substantiate with your evidence. I can’t tell you specifically what will make a good thesis for you, but I can give you a few guidelines, some of which are going to seem like no-brainers:

First, a good thesis is motivated by your evidence. This might sound totally crazy, but one of the biggest mistakes I see in articles I peer review is that the thesis makes evidentiary claims that aren’t supported by the evidential cases in the article. My sense is that this is due to people writing articles linearly, starting with the introduction and thesis and then moving onward, and failing to bring the cases in line with the thesis. But if you tend to your literature review and cases before turning to your thesis, you should have a clear sense of what your contribution to the literature in your field is and how your evidence relates to it. One way you might start here is by writing a sentence like ‘Based on [Case 1] and [Case 2], we see that X is actually X1,’ where X is a particular theoretical concept or assumption about a region and X1 is your claim about the same. Once you have that clunky sentence in place, you can work on revising it into something a little more eloquent…

Secondly, a good thesis poses causality. I’m using ‘causality’ here in the broadest sense of the term, mostly because I need some kind of shorthand for all of the kinds of interpretive work that you might do and need to embed in a thesis. In fact, you might be talking about causality (‘X is now X1, because of Y’), but it might also be a little more subtle than that (‘Attending to Y shows that X is actually X1.). Try a sentence like one of those, where Y is what you’re focusing on in your cases. If your two cases are different from one another, then you probably have two sentences here to explain the nuances that each of the cases adds to your claims.

Third, a good thesis engages with questions in the existing literature. Since you’ll be tackling the literature that’s relevant in your literature review — which is coming up very quickly — you don’t need to get into fine details here, and you can often get away with theoretical shorthand, i.e. you can just use keywords, as long as you return to them in your literature review. The right keywords will often motivate a reader long enough to get them through the introduction — as long as you sincerely engage with them as theoretical concepts and make it apparent to your reader how the terms relate to your argument.

It’s often difficult to capture all of these qualities in one sentence (and unwise). It’s best to break them up into sentences in their own right, or at least to start that way and work towards integration. In the end, you should have a paragraph — and it might be a short one — that brings all of these concerns together and gives your reader a sense of the stakes of what you’re focusing on and a clear sense of why she or he should give you the next 30 minutes of her or his time. The weaker or less articulated the thesis, the less likely your reader is going to stay motivated for the whole article…

After your thesis paragraph, you should take the time to detail your methodology in a paragraph. This paragraph can be difficult to write — mostly because it’s difficult to be excited about it — but once you have a good methods paragraph, you can copy and paste it with minor variations for every article you write thereafter. A good methods paragraph lays out the duration of the research, where the research was conducted and what those contexts were like, and what the sample size was (which, for cultural anthropologists, is the number of people interviewed, events attended, etc. — the stuff that makes up your cases). This paragraph might also legitimate methodological choices in reference to key theoretical-methods literature, particularly if the methods are unconventional or experimental for the audience of the journal.

After your methods paragraph, you should turn to your literature review. By now, you should have a pretty clear sense of why you’re discussing the literature that’s in your literature review, so working through it again to revise it is worth the time. Given your argument, tighten up your literature review, both cutting some literature that’s no longer relevant to your argument, and also making sure that you’re highlighting what you should be about the literature that you’re keeping.

The last paragraph in your introduction should be a transitional paragraph that lays out the content of the article in relation to your thesis. So, often what you’re doing is moving from the fairly broad claims in your literature review to the specific content of your cases and surveying them in a sentence for each case. But this is all preceded by a recapitulation of your thesis in a shortened form. ‘As I will demonstrate in the following, X is due to Y resulting in X1. This can be seen in Case 1, where X is A. Further, in Case 2, X is B.’ That feels a little symbolic-logicky, but hopefully you get the idea. You should also explain what will occur in your conclusion, so there are no surprises, i.e. ‘In the conclusion, I discuss the implications of X as X1 for [subfield or regional interest].’ Basically, you’re once again motivating your reader to carry on reading the article, and also ensuring that there are no substantial surprises — your reader needs to be able to anticipate everything that’s coming up (without all of the nitty gritty details). Anticipation is motivation.

All told, your introduction should be about 5 pages long (maybe up to 7, but rarely any longer than that). Five pages might seem really short, but a good introduction shouldn’t be too long (it’s an introduction, after all) — anything longer than 7 pages is really going to tax your reader, and she or he will be wondering when they get to the good stuff (outside of your opening couple of paragraphs, your introduction isn’t so much ‘good’ stuff as ‘necessary’ stuff). Strive for brevity, knowing that it will help your reader stay motivated. And, when the peer reviews come back, know that you’ll have a little wiggle room in your introduction to address the concerns of your reviews.

Once you have it all weaved together, adding your new introduction to your cases and conclusion, that’s your article manuscript. Easy, right? Now it’s time for some fine tuning

May 15, 2014 / Matthew Wolf-Meyer

How to Write a Journal Article (in 6 Steps): Step 4 — The Evidence

So, if you’re like me, you often start working on an article by beginning with the evidence — or, rather, you have a few pieces of evidence that seem like they should be the backbone of an article and you assemble them into some rough order. Evidence in need of an argument, like an army without a general, is often pretty aimless.

No-Dumping

Starting with your evidence can be a bad way to start, largely because it can be hard to gauge what any evidence is evidence of. We’re often drawn to evidence because it’s compelling to us as lone researchers, but it’s compelling primarily because it stands out amid a host of other evidence that we prefer not to think about (because it’s not so compelling). But whether or not the evidence at hand is interesting for others to think with is another story, and depends on establishing why it’s worth a reader’s time — which, hopefully, you’ve begun to flesh out in writing your conclusion and literature review. So, now that you have a sense of the journal you’re targeting and the audience that journal appeals to, as well as the broader debates you’re ready to speak to, it’s time to get into the evidence and make it work for you.

Generally, my rule is that for every 2,000 words in an article, you can use one case study. (I’ve discussed my case study approach to dissertation writing here, which might be worth taking the time to read if you haven’t already.) So, if you’re writing a 6,000 word article manuscript, you have roughly 2,000 words for the introduction, literature review, conclusion and bibliography. Then, another 2,000 words for the first case and another 2,000 words for the second case. For each additional 2,000 words in a word limit, you can add another case. But round down — it’s better to spend more time with a case rather than less (i.e. no 1,000 word cases).

If you’re writing an article based on dissertation content, I suggest writing the cases anew. Don’t copy and paste, but instead just write from memory (and maybe copy and paste transcription or description — the stuff that won’t change). There are a couple of reasons for this: first, there are often significant shifts in tone between dissertation chapters and articles, and it’s very difficult to iron out tone once it’s in the text. Starting fresh ensures that you’re carrying forward the same tone that you’ve established in your conclusion and literature review. Second, it can often be difficult to gauge what you absolutely need to cut from something you’ve already written (and people often have a hard time letting go); it’s easier to ascertain what you need to add. So, if you’re writing for an audience that’s in your same subfield or region, there are a lot of assumptions that you can make of your audience — if it’s a subfield journal, you don’t need to spend time explaining generic institutional kinds (e.g. you don’t need to explain what a hospital is to a medical anthropologist), and, likewise, you don’t need to spend time on well known context for a regional journal (e.g. while the history of Civil Rights is important to understand racial discrimination in the U.S., you don’t need to explain it to most Americanists). So, start fresh and write the cases up again — they should be looser than their dissertation versions, and easier to mold into your argumentative needs.

Because you’ve already worked through your literature review, you should have a pretty clear sense of what your work is contributing to in the field. But, if not, writing up your cases can be a way of clarifying what you have to add. Often, whether we know it or not, we find evidence compelling because it either runs counter to what we’ve been taught to think about a subject (or at least troubles assumptions) or it’s significantly different than the rest of our collected evidence. If it’s the former, it’s pretty easy to see how to build an argument with it: you’re challenging dominant ways of understanding a theoretical concept through a collection of contrary evidence, and you need to present that evidence in such a way that it logically unsettles disciplinary assumptions. If, however, it’s the latterer and it’s mostly compelling because it’s different than most of your other evidence, you have a different battle to fight. First, you need to provide your reader with a baseline (i.e. the boring stuff) and then turn to the exceptional stuff. So, with that structure, case #1 might be the boring stuff, and case #2 the exciting stuff.

Often, cases begin with some kind of hook — some juicy interview segment, or rich description of an event, person or place. From that hook, cases zoom out to explain the hook’s context, often situating it in its contemporary moment, and then providing some deeper context (history of a place, institution, event, individual) to understand why it’s worth thinking through. After that context is provided, further evidence of the same type (or slight variations of the same kind of evidence) are provided to flesh it out, often with the implicit attempt being to naturalize it. That is, what makes a hook a hook is that it’s not what your audience should expect. But by working through your evidence, they should come to see that the hook is actually suitably normative in your research context. Or, if it really is exceptional, then you work to establish how it’s exceptional by showing how all the other evidence you’ve collected is different from it. This might mean including other evidence without as much context as your first hook depends on, but that can often be okay because you’re providing this other evidence as further context to understand the hook and its merits.

For cultural anthropologists (and, really, lots of people in different humanistic and social scientific disciplines), it’s typical to begin an article with an anecdote, and then return to that anecdote in your first case. If this is the approach you’re adopting (and it’s largely determined by the journal you’re writing for), then you might take the first couple of pages of your first case and cleave them off. Then, rewrite the beginning of the case knowing that the first two pages are going to appear at the start of the paper. This may mean providing a brief summary of the hook that appeared in the introduction, or some other flag that reminds your reader what they’ve read; from there, you need to move into further evidence to flesh the hook out.

One of the persistent problems I see in articles that I’m asked to review for journals is that authors assume that their evidence is self-explanatory. Often, sections of articles dedicated to evidence read like infodumps: pages of unanalyzed and undermotivated evidence, which leave me with my eyes glazed over. Why, I ask myself, am I reading all of this evidence? And what in the world is it evidence of? My general rule is that for every line of evidence, there should be two lines of analysis. So, if you have a quote from someone or a text that runs four lines, you should spend at least eight lines discussing its relevance to your argument. This might include some historical or situational context, but it should primarily be based on your interpretive scheme and further your argument. This might seem like a no-brainer, but one of the problems a lot of people have is that they spend so much time with their evidence (in their dissertation, in conversation with others, in conference presentations) that they just assume everyone understands its implications and relevance to your argument. Let me assure you: they do not. Be sure to spell it all out, and make sure that every paragraph begins and ends with some reference to your larger argument, if only a glancing mention of keywords.

Which provides me with a segue to step five, developing your argument and the introduction of the article.

April 29, 2014 / Matthew Wolf-Meyer

How to Write a Journal Article (in 6 Steps): Step 3 — The Literature Review

Okay, so, you’ve identified a journal to target with an article submission, analyzed a model article, and written the provisional conclusion to your article — now it’s time for step 3, writing your literature review. Literature reviews are an easy thing to malign, as they seem simultaneously pedestrian and Herculean. How can you possibly cite all of the relevant literature? And how can you make a literature review anything more than an uninteresting list of ‘necessary’ citations?

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Before I address those questions, it’s important to point out that a solid literature review does a lot of work for you as an anonymous author; a good literature review can allay many reviewer concerns and make a ‘revise and resubmit’ into an ‘accept with revisions.’ If you can position your work in its relevant fields — which are presumably fields relevant to the journal you’ve selected — even if there are problems with your presentation of evidence, the thoroughness of your analysis, or the structure of the manuscript, it should be obvious to the reviewers and the editor that there’s significant merit in your scholarship. Which is all to say that a solid literature review makes evident that you know the field and that your work is worth a reviewer’s time, even if the article isn’t in tip-top shape.

So there are two rules moving forward: write what you know, and keep it short. With those in mind, let’s talk about structure first:

In many respects, what you’re doing is duplicating content from your conclusion — at least in terms of citations. And you’ll be following a similar model, in that you’ll start by addressing literature in the subfield or geographic area of interest, and then shift registers into more theoretical territory. All told, your literature review should probably be between 3-5 paragraphs long, and usually only 3-4 paragraphs (if it gets too long, it either comes across as too anxious or too grad-studenty). I don’t think there’s a real prescription on which order these paragraphs should come in, but they should be organically arranged, and move your reader from your introduction into your cases — so it often makes sense to review topical or geographically-similar literature as the last paragraph (which I’ll explain more shortly).

Paragraph 1 starts with relevant literature in your subfield. Who are the people most immediately related to your topic? You should have already considered who these people are in writing your conclusion, but now’s the time to name them and to put them into direct conversation with your concerns. And, in so doing, what you’ll also be pointing out is how your work is different from theirs. So, for example, if I’m writing about sleep for a medical anthropology journal, this is the paragraph about how other people have approached sleep within anthropology and related fields.

Paragraph 2 then start to scale up and position your article in more theoretical literature, often most closely related to your field. So, following my example, this might be the paragraph about medicalization or some other medical-anthropology related concern. It should show your reader that you know the relevant theoretical literature in your field, as well as an awareness of the debates in the field and how you’re adding to them.

Then, paragraph 3 moves to the even more macro level in thinking about the theoretical aspects of your argument. So, continuing my example, this might be about subjectivity or temporality or whatever — something that’s of more general interest to readers in your discipline. Again, it should make evident to your reader that you have a clear sense of the debates and leading figures in the field, and these people may or may not be reflected elsewhere in your literature review.

Paragraph 4 scales down to regional literature, as a way to segue into your empirical evidence. But, if you’re writing for an area studies journal, you’ll probably flip the subfield and regional paragraphs (so 1 & 4 can be flipped). It’s important for this last paragraph to serve as a transition for your audience because it’s often the last or second-to-last paragraph before your case presentation begins — so keep that in mind as you structure them for your audience. If it’s for a subfield journal, this paragraph often includes things like: ‘when medical anthropologists study [context X] they focus on things like [phenomena A, B & C].’ And then you say something like: ‘Rarely do scholars focus on [your topic], and doing so shows that [reiterate thesis].’ If you’re writing for a regional journal, and this is your first paragraph, it tends to follow the same format, although it often starts with ‘Scholars of [context X] have highlighted the importance of [phenomena A, B & C].’ Which is followed by something like, ‘By focusing on [your topic] we see how concerns about [phenomena A, B or C] is complicated by [your approach].’

Bear in mind that your article manuscript will probably be sent to one or more people that you mention in your literature review. If an editor is looking for peer reviewers for you and they don’t know specialists in your field or who work on your topic or in your geographical area, it’s standard practice to look at someone’s bibliography and pick reviewers through citations. It’s not going to be the biggest names in the field, so it’s likely to be the people who work in your topical area, and probably more junior people (who agree to do things like peer review articles). Given that, it’s important to be even handed in your literature review — don’t pick any fights, unless you’re ready to pursue them.

Let’s get back to my two rules, mentioned above: write what you know and keep it short. A short, 6,000-8,000 word article manuscript, probably has room for 25-30 bibliographic entries. Most of these are going to be listed in your literature review and introduction. That means — doing simple math — that you’re citing about 8 people in each of the paragraphs listed above.

You might be tempted to spend a week of your life identifying recent scholarship relevant to your literature review — but don’t. You won’t get dinged for not knowing something published in the last 24 months (even by the person who wrote it, most likely), but you will get funny looks for avoiding to mention key texts published within the last 5-10 years. You should be familiar with this older stuff, and it might have even been the basis for your qualifying exams. So, write what you know and don’t worry about what you don’t know — if there’s something really critical, your reviewers or the editor will point it out to you. And, plus, you’ll have time to freshen up on your reading while the article is out for review…

And, as I’ve suggested throughout, keep it short. Four paragraphs is plenty long enough, and 25-30 citations is going to cover most of your bases. Try and write your literature review in a day. Maybe there will be a couple missing citations, but you should be able to regurgitate key citations and their respective summaries pretty quickly — it’s only about 700 words, after all. You can always go back and add more later, once you work through the whole manuscript. (I’ve come to believe that there should be no citation surprises: if you’re going to cite someone in your conclusion, cite them in the literature review too.)

There are exceptions to this generic form — like arguments against the literature, where the whole article is a deep rehearsal of the literature and its problems as based on your research — but the exceptions are generally for later in one’s career, when you’re ready to make enemies and defend yourself… And you have a reputation that allows you to make such grand claims.

Back to where I started: hopefully a literature review no longer feels like a Herculean task. It should be short, and it should be based on what you already know. Now, as far as not being dull? That’s a more difficult thing to gauge. It’s okay if it’s a little boring, because it’s relatively short and readers are ready to be bored for a page or two. But if you’re putting the literature together in compelling ways — generally in asking questions of a topic or set of theories that have yet to be asked (which can be as simple as focusing on a topic that hasn’t been attended to closely) — then you should have a highly readable and maybe even exciting literature review. It takes time, so plan on your first few literature reviews being a little more on the ‘necessary’ and a little less on the exciting side of things.

The next step? Your evidence.

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