Twelve Week Article Writing: Week 2 Recap

I’m keeping myself accountable to the twelve week article writing plan, from Wendy Belcher’s book Writing Your Journal Article in Twelve Weeks. I’m blogging about my progress. I finished the second week of article writing chores on Friday. Here’s how it went.

I accomplished three things this week: I reviewed the draft I’d already written, wrote a short abstract, and analyzed the structure of a model article.

Reviewing the Draft

The article that I want to write is based on a single primary source that I analyzed in a chapter of my MA thesis. This week, I found my MA thesis in a neglected computer file. I cut and pasted the chapter into a blank Scrivener document. I took a deep breath and began to read.

I cringed.

I hadn’t looked at my MA thesis since 2009, so I remembered exactly nothing about it. Re-reading my writing from six years ago felt like reading a stranger’s writing. With the benefit of hindsight, I saw that I was struggling to think through some big ideas, but lacked the analytical skills or writing chops to pull it off.

Paragraphs veered wildly from idea to idea without a logical structure. I stuffed my writing with as many nominalizations and big words as I possibly could. I wrote sentences of ridiculous length. I made brazen claims without evidence. I misinterpreted and misrepresented my primary source. I repeated the same ideas over and over in different words, wielding the sheer force of repetitive language like a weapon to bludgeon readers. Worst of all, although I created some fledgling ideas, I discovered that I had not written an actual argument.

After taking several more deep breaths, I made a list of revision tasks.

My revision task list looks like this:

  • Write a real argument.
  • Write analytical topic sentences.
  • Organize paragraphs for logical flow.
  • Shorten sentences and paragraphs.
  • Remove nominalizations and jargon.
  • Eliminate repetition.
  • Provide more evidence.
  • Add additional sources.

Writing an Abstract

I found writing to be the most challenging task for the week. Humanities scholars don’t generally write abstracts; however, Wendy Belcher sagely recommends writing one and limiting it to 150 words I struggle with writing abstracts precisely because they are so short and require great focus. I find it difficult to distill an idea down to its most basic elements. I ended up writing two drafts of my abstract. The first draft of my abstract was a bloated disaster and clocked in at 265 words. My abstract meandered to and fro, straying from one idea to the next. I fought to put into words an argument that I hadn’t quite thought through yet. My unfocused and wordy thinking led to an unfocused and wordy abstract.

I resorted to Karen Kelsky’s tutorial on abstract writing. She provides six elements that the abstract must have. When I followed her abstract writing advice, I ended up with a much more tightly focused abstract of 149 words. Here it is:

Scholars often see nineteenth-century world’s fairs as sites of hegemony, where audiences passively absorbed dominant cultural values and social norms. However, much of the scholarship on world’s focuses on the mindset of the elite creators of these mega-events, rather than the viewpoint of visitors. This article explores the conflicts between the way fair organizers wanted audiences to interpret expositions and the ways audiences viewed them. I examine a narrative written by Dr. Karl Sapper, a German geographer, who visited the Central American Exposition in Guatemala in 1897. I argue that Sapper’s visit reveals how fair organizers imagined the Maya as part of a new, modern nation. Sapper’s narrative also shows us a snapshot of early German cultural anthropology, based on German understandings of Volkschau and Bildung. This article contributes to debates on the meaning of world’s fairs, understandings of racial and cultural differences, and the development of anthropology.

Is it great? Nah. But, I’ll be continuing to revise it as I continue to work through the article writing process.

Analyzing a Model Article for Structure

This week’s tasks also included finding and analyzing a model article to dissect its structure. Belcher argues that we (as junior scholars and graduate students) don’t actually understand what makes for a publishable article. I completely agree. I’ve read plenty of journal articles. Nevertheless, the journal articles I have read have been written by big-name scholars with ideas that shake the world. Before this week, I had never read a journal article written by a non-famous person with a solid, yet not spectacular, idea.

I was able to obtain a model article and read it. I picked an article that had been published in the Journal of Latin American Cultural Studies, as it seemed a journal in which I might publish my future article. I read my model article for structure, rather than content or style. I described the purpose of each paragraph in a few short words. I ended up with a list that looked like this:

  1. Interesting narrative from a primary source
  2. Short description of that primary source
  3. Brief paragraph on why people have found the primary source interesting
  4. How the narrative has functioned historically: what it has done and why
  5. How recent scholarship has begun to change how we might think about the basic theme
  6. Quote from a secondary source, how and why it’s relevant
  7. Instead of thinking about the main topic/theme as XXXX, it is better thought of as YYYY
  8. Identification of theoretical frameworks and how they are applied here **MAIN ARGUMENT AT THE END OF THIS PARAGRAPH**
  9. What the author intends to do (i examine ABC to show XYZ...)
  10. More detailed description of how people have created this particular primary source and thought about it--possibilities for other interpretations and readings
  11. Why it is important to closely examine this particular source
  12. Global and larger significance of this study—main topic as a process/technology that linked different places and people
  13. Bringing us back to Latin America(zooming out and then zooming back in)
  14. Re-examining the narrative, with an excerpt from the primary source so we can read it ourselves
  15. More detailed analysis of the primary source
  16. How people understood this source (and the event it details) in the past
  17. Analysis of the language used in the original
  18. Links the primary source to a another well-known primary source with similar ideas that had big implications
  19. Examines the differences between the two sources
  20. Analysis of people/characters in the primary source
  21. Conclusion and wrap up of entire article
  22. Notes

And that was it! I don’t know why I was so surprised by how neat and compact my model article turned out to be. (As a plus, it also turned out to be interesting.) I picked my model article because the author had focused the article around a close reading of a particular primary source. As a person with a single primary source in mind for my article, I see now how I can use a similar structure (or even perhaps adapt this structure to my particular article).

If anything, I don’t feel like I wrote enough this week, but Week 3 of Writing Your Journal Article in Twelve Weeks promises to be a writing intensive week.