Monday, February 23rd 2015

What is your problem?

Recently, I got back a manuscript rejection with very constructive reviews, which, looking back, were more generous than I deserved. The manuscript suffered from some common problems: multiple well-meaning authors with their own ideas of the main point, a desire to include these variable perspectives in a single paper, and an anticipation of issues reviewers may raise. What resulted was a muddled argument, vague nods to all the different theoretical perspectives we thought might be relevant, and no resolution of our expert opinion to guide the reader.

It was, to be kind, a piece of crap.

As I started to go through reviewer comments to create a revision action plan (do you do this? I do so hope you do this), I realized that in my effort to include every piece of insight and every theoretical contribution, and yet not offend anybody, I had forgotten the first rule of writing I teach my students. The very first sentences of your paper or grant proposal should tell the reader what your problem is, and why they should care.

Here are the types of questions I ask my students, before their first draft and usually still after the first revision or two. These frame your introduction but also your paper’s argument. Since I can’t always seem to remember these questions, I’d like to think it’s because this is actually difficult to do well, and, in some cases, difficult to keep in sight when revising.

  • What problem do you face?
  • Why is it a problem (e.g., is there a gap in the literature, is it a new or emerging problem, is it that you are finding a problem others haven’t noticed because you are putting different ideas together)? Explain the gap or other issue, don’t just say there is one.
  • Why should anyone care? This should come from the theoretical context of your work – so in biological anthropology we frequently speak of responses to environment, life history theory, genes x environment, evolutionary theory, or sometimes feminist or other humanist/social science theories. Don’t muddle things with too many different theoretical contributions, because the introduction needs to focus and inspire the reader.
  • Now do a better job answering the above question – why should anyone care in a real, grounded way? Why, in relation to your particular problem and set of interests?
  • NOW you get to tell the reader, how are you going to solve it? What is your hypothesis/main argument?
  • What background information will the reader need next to evaluate your problem and the way you plan to resolve it?
  • How will you test your hypothesis? In a manuscript you also briefly tell the reader at the end of the introduction what you found. In a grant proposal the order of some of these last bullets will change.

Then, the discussion needs to reflect these problems and the theoretical framework. Often I find over the course of a revision I completely rewrite what the problem is, why anyone should care, and which background information the reader needs. But you won’t know the final version until you write a first version. So ideally you get to the discussion and need to do a little more work:

  • Restate the problem your paper seeks to address and the way you did it (whatever models you may have introduced into the methods and results, whatever specific hypothesis you have since described). Is there a way you might say it differently now, as the reader now fully knows how you did it and what you found?
  • What do each of your results contribute to the broader literature? This is your chance, if there were some neat side papers you wanted to talk about in the introduction, to talk about here. And this is where many like to employ a sandbox metaphor: if you imagine your discipline is actually a giant sandbox where everybody is playing together, you can imagine your contributions to mirror how kids play. I like this metaphor because it reminds us that many scholars are our friends and colleagues, and that when we are engaging with their work it always helps to be generous.
    • Are you tearing down a friend’s castle by challenging a scholar’s claims?
    • Are you admiring your friend’s castle by allying yourself with existing work and reaffirming their findings?
    • Are you adding a new tower to your friend’s castle by adding something to a scholar’s existing argument?
    • Are you tearing down one tower from your friend’s castle to add another, thus revising a scholar’s argument?
  • What are the limitations to your conclusions? None of us get to carry out our research exactly as we want due to limited resources. What are the things you want to say here to demonstrate you are conscientious and aware of what you can and cannot say?
  • What do your results, perspectives, and/or limitations help us understand about a way forward? What exciting new directions does your work offer the reader? How can you leave the reader thinking they wish they had performed your research? I have found myself worrying less and less about a bang-up conclusion sentence these days, because I think good conclusions emerge from answering these questions.

When you can answer these questions, even poorly (remember how important it is to write crappy first drafts), you have an outline or even a full draft. Then you often have to go through, once you see how it all looks together, and completely change whatever you thought was the main point, the supporting literature, and the way forward. This may depend on collaborators, or the journal you choose, or a new paper that came out while you were writing.

But you’ll never get there if you don’t start. You’ll never start if you don’t plan and schedule your writing. And you’ll never finish if you don’t commit to writing every day (yes, every day, a la Dr. Kerry Ann Rocquemore’s Faculty Success Program). So get off the internet and do it!

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