In popular imagination, we assume that people’s passion and singular desire for their goals keep them focused on moving towards their goals. We also like to think that sheer determination and persistence (”grit” in popular parlance) is the reason that some people reach goals and other don’t. In reality, no matter how much you want Thing X and how determined you are to get it, your feelings about it will change. In fact, if you’re anything like me, you won’t actually even like your goal much of the time, no matter how much you want it. Your feelings alone are not enough to keep you on track to reaching your goals. You need structure.
This week, I finished week six of the writing tasks set out in Wendy Belcher’s book, Writing Your Journal Article in Twelve Weeks. Since I’m at the halfway point, I wanted to assess my overall progress on writing my journal article.
Despite working some wacky hours over the last week (including two nights this week when I worked until 3 a.m. on other people’s writing), I worked on my article a little bit every day. Some days, I was too tired to write for more than fifteen or twenty minutes. Other days, I wrote for an hour. I revise something every day, even if it’s just a paragraph. Writing every day has helped me conquer the guilt, anxiety, and stress I feel when I don’t write. I sometimes think of writing like washing dishes: isn’t something that I love doing, but I do it because I must. After six weeks of (almost) daily writing, I’m on my way to building an actual writing practice.
My article has improved notably in six weeks. I’m writing my article with Scrivener, so I used the a snapshot function to make a copy of my article before I began to revise. I took another snapshot this week because I wanted to compare the two versions. And wow! The revised version sounds nothing like the original draft; it now sounds like an actual journal article in progress. Of course, my article still needs more work. It contains huge holes and is covered in notes to myself that say things like, “Figure out where you’re going with this.” However, I am pleased with my progress and impressed by how much the article has improved.
The tasks for week six centered on improving the structure of my article. I struggle with structure and organization more than anything in my writing, so I was grateful for Belcher’s ideas on how improve both of these things. I’m a logical thinker, but not a linear one. I prefer to start in the middle of an idea or piece of writing and cobble it together. My brain jumps from point A to point Q and back to point D. I fully expect the reader to follow my disorganized thought pattern; I am always irked when people who read my early drafts of my writing suggest that I improve the structure and organization.
However, structure either makes or breaks a piece of writing. Structure sounds boring, but without it, we lose the reader’s attention. When writers create a logical and organized structure in a piece of writing, we help readers to follow us from beginning to end and understand what we’re saying.
Wendy Belcher provides useful advice about of how to structure an article in the STEM fields, social sciences, and the humanities. I also found her sage advice about what structures to avoid helpful. For example, she advises to avoid structuring an academic article like a mystery novel. Beginning writers (myself included) often opt for a mystery novel-type structure, instead of organizing an article in the style of a legal brief. We don’t trust our own abilities or our readers’ attention spans; we believe that if we tip our hand and spill our argument too soon, we’ll bore the reader. We make the reader guess at our argument, only revealing it at the end. We imagine ourselves leaving tantalizing little clues to pique the reader’s interest and then finishing with a dramatic Scooby-doo-style denouement, unmasking the argument with great flourish.
Unfortunately, readers rarely appreciate this structure. They resent writers that make them jump through flaming hoops to discover the argument at the end. If readers wanted to read mystery novels, they’d read mystery novels, not academic articles. I thought about the kind of article structure that I appreciate. As a reader, I want to know the punchline up front. When I know the argument at the beginning, I can better evaluate whether the evidence the writer persuades me of the veracity of the argument. I’m willing to follow if the writer tells me the destination from the beginning and then leads me there in a logical way.
I had thought about structure when I’d read my model article in week two. I’d skimmed the article I’d chosen as my model and then diagrammed and identified the purpose of all of the paragraphs. What I liked about my model article was its economy: it made one major point in twenty-two tidy paragraphs. The author did not drone, bore, or fabricate a fake mystery to hold my interest. By the eighth paragraph, I knew author’s main argument and how he intended to support it with certain pieces of evidence. The structure of the model article looked like this:
- Interesting narrative from a primary source that introduces a problem/contradiction
- Short description of that primary source
- Brief paragraph on why people have found the primary source interesting
- How the narrative has functioned historically: what it has done and why
- How recent scholarship has begun to change how we might think about the basic theme
- Quote from a secondary source, how and why it’s relevant
- Instead of thinking about the main topic/theme as XXXX, it is better thought of as YYYY
- Identification of theoretical frameworks and how they are applied here **MAIN ARGUMENT AT THE END OF THIS PARAGRAPH**
- What the author intends to do (I examine ABC to show XYZ...)
- More detailed description of how people have read this particular primary source and thought about it--possibilities for other interpretations and readings
- Why it is important to closely examine this particular source
- Global and larger significance of this study—main topic as a process/technology that linked different places and people
- Bringing us back to Latin America(zooming out and then zooming back in)
- Re-examining the narrative, with an excerpt from the primary source so we can read it ourselves
- More detailed analysis of the primary source
- How people understood this source (and the event it details) in the past
- Analysis of the language used in the original primary source
- Links the primary source to a another well-known primary source with similar ideas that had big global implications
- Compare and contrast the two primary sources
- Analysis of people/characters in the primary source
- Conclusion and wrap up of entire article
Wendy Belcher suggests that article writers diagram their own articles to examine their articles’ structures. She cautions writers not to skip this step, as many writers find outlining their articles the most useful part of the entire twelve weeks of writing exercises. I’m not done with my article yet, but I outlined it and tried to identify its major parts and the purpose of the paragraphs. It was, indeed, one of the most useful writing exercises I’ve ever done. Using my diagram of my model article, I outlined my own article. (In case you don't follow my blog regularly, I'm writing about a German geographer who visited a world's fair in Guatemala in 1897.) The outline of my article looked like this (my comments for revision in brackets):
- Section 1: Introduction
- 1.1: Narrative based on primary source/introduction of historical problem
- 1.2: Main argument
- 1.3: Sources and Evidence for Argument
- Section 2: Theory and Historiography
- 2.1: Major theories in the field
- 2.2: Major debates in the field [possibly switch these two, debates then theory]
- 2.3: Approaches
- 2.4: Gap in the literature/how my article contributes
- Section 3: Body of article [add: repeat argument in section 3A]
- A. Guatemalan Viewpoints
- 3.1 Importance of World’s Fairs to Latin America
- 3.2 Fair planners
- 3.3 Spatial hierarchies/arrangement
- 3.4 19th c ideas of progress and race
- 3.5 Guatemalan views of Maya
- 3.6 The meaning of ancient history to national progress
- 3.7 A nearly repeating paragraph [combine with 3.6]
- 3.8 How fair organizers wanted to display Maya history
- 3.9 Images of native people in the 19th c, general Latin America [delete this paragraph]
- 3.10 Guatemala at previous world’s fairs [delete this paragraph]
- 3.11 Wrap up/Conclusions from Section 3
- B. Karl Sapper’s Viewpoint
- 3.12 Introduction to analysis of KS narrative [add argument]
- 3.13 Sapper biography [combine with 3.14]
- 3.14 Sapper biography
- 3.15 Development of German social sciences
- 3.16 Volkerschauen/world’s fairs as popular science
- 3.17 Karl Sapper looks at coffee [tangent—delete]
- 3.18 KS looks at the antiquities exhibit
- 3.19 Analysis of how KS views antiquities
- 3.20 KS looks at ethnology exhibit
- 3.21 Analysis of how KS views ethnology exhibit
- 3.22 Analysis of representations of the Maya as modern citizens/laborers
- 3.23 History of anthropological traditions [delete—left over from earlier draft]
- 3.24 History of German anthropology [delete—leftover from earlier draft]
- 3.25 Opposition, limitations of study
- Section 4: Conclusion
- 4.1 How Guatemalans wanted to show audiences the Maya
- 4.2 However, [refuting earlier scholarship]
- 4.3 We should instead think about fairs as X [Restate argument]
- 4.4 Race/progress [move this to under 4.1]
- Section 5: Notes
Et voilà! My outline of my unfinished article revealed several interesting things about its structure:
In the introduction, I should probably talk about major debates before I talk about major theories, as the theories support the debates. Other than that, I like the structure of the introduction.
Within the body of the article, I need to work my argument throughout each section. I don’t want to fall into the trap of having an article with no major argument or an argument that shows up once and is never seen again. Outlining my article showed me where I’d placed the main argument in relation to the rest of the paragraphs and where it disappeared. I like that I have placed the main argument early in the introduction so that the reader doesn’t miss it.
Using my outline, I saw where there were some places where things weren’t flowing logically or where I started to fly off on a tangent. For example, paragraph 3.17 is about Karl Sapper taking notes on the coffee exhibit at the Central American Exposition. What I want to do is write about him thinking about ethnology, archaeology, and race. I realized that paragraph 3.17 was a tangent and that I needed to chuck it. I also chucked 3.23 and 3.24 because I decided that they were irrelevant. I combined a few paragraphs, too, like 3.13 and 3.14, as we really only need one paragraph of a biographical sketch of Karl Sapper.
One of the things I also noticed was that I need to work on better relating the particular to the general. What big thing are we going to learn by looking at the little thing that I talk about in this article? This is what my model article did quite well in Paragraph 18. The writer connected a small source to a much bigger and well-known work that had some big implications for how people viewed Latin America as a whole. Seeing the article’s entire structure from a bird-eye view gave me some ideas about where I’ll put a paragraph about how the particular relates to the general.
Overall, outlining my article-in-progress was massively useful. I can see how this technique could be useful for longer pieces of writing, too, like chapters. I’ve never had any success with making an outline before I write, but I’m now a believer of outlining the draft.
On to week seven: presenting evidence!