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?