Writing to spec

There is a contradiction between the way we think about articles and the way we should set about writing them. Ideas for articles — or anything else for that matter, really — emerge from our ongoing scholarly planfullness: there is something that interests us, or we have something to say, or there’s some bit of ethnography that we think deserves to go on record. We start writing. It gets long. We start thinking about journals to publish it in.

Most of the ‘how to write lots of academic articles quickly’ type of books argue that this is the reverse way to do it. A much more sensible way is to write to spec. This involves starting at the end, at the submission process, and working your way backwards to your ideas.

I think we have trouble writing to spec because our first big experience writing are large, unstructured projects like theses and dissertations, where length is negotiable and internal structure is completely underdetermined. But in fact a lot of what ends up as a published piece starts as a 7 page conference paper (too short for an article) or an hour-long talk (too long). For this reason it makes sense to begin the process by trying to get the form right, and then filling in the content.

So first: figure out where you want to publish your piece. This will give you a sense of what sort of angle or specialization you will take — is this an areal journal that wants you to be wonky with the ethnography, or is this a high-table journal where the data are there to let you make your wider point. But even more important, it gives you a word length.

Knowing how long your article is supposed to be takes a vague interest or manuscript and gives it structure. Have 12,000 words? Now you know your introduction and conclusion will be 2,000 words each, and the main body of your paper will be 8,000 words. That 8,000 will probably turn into six thousand of main argument and another 2,000 or lit review or ethnographic background. Or perhaps there is a separate way you like to organize your articles. The point is just that you now know how long each section will be relative to the others.

Getting a sense of length also helps you decide how many ideas or examples you can fit into an article. You may be loath, when writing your piece, to cut one great example or to lose a point that is subsidiary, but still important to your argument. If the format is quite long, suddenly you know you will have plenty of time to cite everything under the sun. If it is quite short, you can safely jettison huge swaths of your ideas and evidence and rest assured that ‘the format made me do it’. The point is just that there are certain lengths beyond which you can neither pad or trim — a change in conceptualization is needed because your current thought just doesn’t fit.

I personally don’t do a very good job of sitting down and saying ‘ok I need to write a 2,000 word introduction’. But I do find that having a length in mind helps me as I draft and redraft material, slowly deciding how many thoughts will fit into a section and then, eventually, fitting the word limit.

I don’t think of myself as a prolific writer so I can’t really say that this method is guaranteed to bring you success in publishing, but I do think it is a useful way to think about things. In particular, I think that approaching writing this way helps one think of writing as a craft, something done on a daily basis and to standards using techniques, rather than some mysterious process guided by the inner light which is you. Do other people use methods like this?

Alex Golub is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. His book Leviathans at The Gold Mine has been published by Duke University Press. You can contact him at rex@savageminds.org

5 thoughts on “Writing to spec

  1. Yes, I think I work in quite a similar way. Broadly speaking, I think the key point is that writing is a form of communication, and that in order to communicate effectively, you need to know your audience.

    That said, I think that there’s a space for free generation of ideas at an earlier stage in preparation, before even thinking about writing journal articles. I’ve used briefly worded sketches, free writing, dialogues, and even Burroughs style cut-ups to help the process of learning and growing my ideas. But these are experiments, not the final thing. They are important FOR ME, but not necessarily useful as communication with anyone else (Unless someone starts a journal of conceptual ethnography, in which case I’ve got mountains of stream of consciousness to bore people with)

  2. I am an advocate of what William Zinsser calls Writing to Learn. Writing every day is part of the process, but I’ve never had much luck with the structured approach that Rex describes. Writing every day is the way I poke at ideas and gather images and reflections. Then, once in a great while, a structure emerges. I know what the article or book will look like and how the story will flow.

    I do, however, keep in mind the demands of the audience. That is a point on which I agree completely with Rex. If you write for an academic journal you have to be aware of its conventions and also of who its reviewers are and who they expect to see cited. If you write for a popular audience you should pay more attention to how to dramatize the point you want to make, how to make its point the solution for a problem that grips the reader’s attention.

  3. I find it often helps to write a lot more than required, and then cut it down. Editing is hard when there isn’t enough material to cut anything out.

    Worst experience though, when you cut down to a short length and then for whatever reason the paper doesn’t go through. It’s very hard to add to something that you think is tight and well-organized.

  4. Moving back to this post for a minute, which I found to be useful:

    John McCreery – as a graduate student, how can I find out what a journal’s or reviewer’s expectations are? Is this all passed via word of mouth, or do people ever try to publically document what a journal will or will not accept, based on the responses they get to submissions?

  5. Anna, by far the most straightforward way to discover a journal’s expectations is to read it. Peruse the last year or two of recent issues, noting the topics of published papers, the style in which they are written and, perhaps most important, who gets cited by the authors.

    Take special note of articles whose topics are close to your own. Are you challenging what these articles say or approving what they say and adding something to it? As much as possible, I try to do the latter. I favor what I call generous reading and writing. I like the feeling of advancing and refining ideas instead of saying, “No, no” all the time. And the cynic in me observes that my grandmother’s maxim applies to submitting articles as it does to other aspects of life: You do catch more flies with honey than vinegar.

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