Paper writing V: answering the ‘so what?’ question

Writing papers for publication means making and supporting strong arguments. This is hard work: making a firm, well-crafted and persuasive argument takes time. But this time is worth taking because this is the most important aspect of your paper. Without a strong argument, you do not have a contribution to knowledge. And if you don’t have that, you don’t have a publishable paper.

Making arguments is not necessarily as simple as just saying ‘This paper will argue that’, and then making that argument. You also need to locate the argument within the field it is making a contribution to. You need to show your readers why your argument is relevant, or important, and worth their time and attention. This is what is often termed the ‘so what?’ question.

If you have ever tutored, lectured or coached other writers, where you have had to read and give feedback on drafts of their writing, you may have some experience of working with this tricky question, and its answers. You are reading a draft of a paper and you get to the end, and it has been full of interesting information, but you wonder ‘So what? Why have I read all of this? What’s the point?’

The first part of the answer to the ‘so what?’ question of this is the actual argument: ‘This paper is claiming that X is the case…’. It takes time to whittle down all the things you could write about to one tight, well-formed argument you can express in one or two clear sentences. But simply making your argument on its own is not enough. If all you do is make your argument, without considering why you are making it, you run the risk of locking your research into a potentially narrow context, and thus limiting your readership. You need to think about your readers, your audience: who are they? What do you need to consider in terms of making your (focused) argument relevant to them? What would they be able to learn, or gain in terms of their own potential research (or practice)?

In asking, and findings answers to, these questions about relevance you can find your way to answering the second part of the ‘so what?’ question: ‘Why am I making this argument? What is my contribution to my field?’ This is really important, and usually included firmly in the conclusion to your paper. It is important to make this clear, and argue for the relevance of your paper to the field, because this clarifies for the reader how you believe you are making a contribution to knowledge, and why you believe this contribution is relevant or necessary. You make this claim on the basis of your reading of the field, your identification of a gap that needs to be filled, and the research you have done to fill this gap.

Thus, there are two parts to the ‘so what?’ question and both need to be clearly answered in your paper. You need to state, and make your argument, and then you need to tell your readers why that argument needs to be made, and what your research is contributing to your field: a critique, an innovation in theory or methodology, an additional empirical case that explains a current problem in a new way, and so on. To answer both parts of this question in your own papers, then, make sure you ask yourself what am I arguing for (or against) in this paper, and why is this important to my field at this point? Answering both, clearly, will help you ensure that your contribution to your field is well made.

Paper writing IV: analysing data

One of the trickiest areas for researchers working with data – either primary or secondary (data you have generated in ‘the field’, or that gleaned from texts etc) – is the analysis of that data. It can be a significant challenge to move from redescribing findings, observations or results, to showing the reader what these mean in the context of the argument that is being made, and the field into which the research fits. There are a few moves that need to be made in constructing an analysis, and these will be unpacked in this post.

Often, in empirical research, we make our contribution to knowledge in our field through the data we generate, and analyse. Especially in the social sciences, we take well-known theories and established methodologies and use these to look at new cases – adding incrementally to the body of knowledge in our field. Thus, analysis is a really important thing to get right: if all we do is describe our data, without indicating how it adds to knowledge in useful ways, what kind of contribution will we be making? How will our research really benefit peers and fellow researchers? After all, we don’t write papers just to get published. We conduct research and publish it so that our work can influence and shape the work of others, even in small ways. We write and publish to join a productive conversation about the research we are doing, and to connect our research with other research, and knowledge.

data 1

How to make a contribution to knowledge that really counts, though?

First things first, you can’t use all your data in one paper (or even in one thesis). You will need to choose the most relevant data and use it to further illustrate and consolidate your argument. But how do you make this choice – what data should you use, and why? The key tool used to make all the choices in a paper (or thesis) – from relevant literature, to methodology and methods, to data for analysis – is the argument you are making. You need to have, in one or two sentences, a very clear argument (sometimes referred to as a problem statement, or a main claim). In essence, whatever you call it, this is the central point of your paper. To make this point, succinctly and persuasively, you need to craft, section by section, support for this argument, so that you reader believes it to be valid and worth engaging with.

So, you have worked out your argument in succinct form, and have chosen relevant section of data that you feel best make or illustrate that argument. Now what? In the analysis section, you are making your data mean something quite specific: you are not just telling us what the data says (we can probably work that out from reading the quotes or excerpts you are including in the paper). To make meaning through analysis, you need to connect the specific with the general. By this I mean that your data is specific – to your research problem and your consequent choice of case study, or experiment, or archival search and so on. It tells us something about a small slice of the world. But, if all we did in our papers was describe small slices of the world, we would all be doing rather isolated or disconnected research. This would defeat the aim of research to build knowledge, and forge connections between fields, countries, studies and so on. Thus, we have to use our specific data to speak back to a more general or broader phenomenon or conversation.

data 2

The best, and most accepted way, of making meaning of your data is through theorising. To begin theorising your data, you need to start by asking yourself: What does this data mean? Are these meanings valid, and why? There are different kinds of theory, of course, and too many to go into here, but the main thing to consider in ‘theorising’ your data is that you need a point of reference against which to critically think about and discuss your data: you need to be able to connect the specifics of your data with a relevant general phenomenon, explanation, frame of reference, etc. You don’t necessarily need a big theory, like constructivism or social realism; you could simply have a few connected concepts, like ‘reflection’, ‘learning’ and ‘practice’ for example; but you do need a way of lifting your discussion out of the common sense, descriptive realm into the critical, analytical realm that shows that reader why and how the data support your argument, and add knowledge to your field.

Analysis and theorising data is an iterative process, whether you are working qualitatively or quantitatively. It can be difficult, confusing, and take time. This is par for the course: a strong, well-supported analysis should take time. Don’t worry if you can’t make the chosen data make sense in the first go: you may well need to read, and re-read your data, and write several drafts of this section of the paper (preferably with critical feedback) before you can be confident of your analysis. But don’t settle for the quick-fix, thin analysis that draft one might produce. Keep at it, and strive for a stronger, more influential contribution to your field. In the long run, it’ll be worth more to you,to your peers, and to your field.

Paper writing: opening with a strong abstract, title and keywords

The first thing fellow researchers read when they find your paper are the title and the abstract. They find your paper, often, by typing keywords into a database or search engine that match words in your title, abstract or keyword list. It is thus really important to spend time crafting these aspects of your paper carefully, as time spent getting them right pays dividends in the visibility of your work in keyword searches within your field.

Titles and keywords

To begin with, your paper needs a clear, descriptive and relevant title. Usually you have about 15-20 words for a title (check with the author guidelines of the journal you have targeted), and about 4-6 key words.

A first, useful, rule of thumb is to use all of these words strategically: don’t repeat words you use in the title in the list of keywords, and avoid acronyms, even well-known ones. Use the keywords to highlight elements of your argument or paper not referenced in the title. So, you really have a maximum of about 25-30 words to play with.

To begin with the title, a good starting place is to look at the title of papers you are referencing, and have enjoyed reading. What about the title caught your attention? The better paper titles indicate both what the paper is about, and something of the contribution the paper is making to the field. They are, therefore, relatively descriptive. They should be, really, because titles that are obscure, or only obliquely connected to the content of the paper will put readers off. Further, titles that try to be too catchy or clever may not contain the kinds of words researchers will type into search engines, resulting in your work being too far down the list (be honest, how often do you search past page 4 of Google Scholar?). Your work will be missed, and that would be a great shame considering all the work that went into publishing it.

A useful tool for crafting a title that balances a bit of catchiness with relevance and contribution is the subtitle. For example: ‘When arts meets enterprise: Transdisciplinarity, student identities, and EAP’ or ‘Chloroform fumigation and the release of soil nitrogen: A rapid direct extraction method to measure microbial biomass nitrogen in soil’. The first title marries a bit of fun with a focus on what the paper is about; the second uses the subtitle to indicate a method that the researchers are using to explore the phenomenon mentioned before the colon. Subtitles can also be used to sharpen the focus of your title, to create a limit or boundary to your research, to add additional context, or to expand on the scope of your research (See this article, and this one, for useful advice on title creation).

Use your list of keywords to add to the title: mention, for example, a key methodological tool (e.g. action research, or regression analysis) that researchers might be interested on, or the theory you have used (e.g. constructivism, or social realism), or key thinkers you draw on (e.g. Karl Marx, or John Rawls), and finally on the parts of your field the paper references that the title doesn’t mention (e.g. disability studies, or political theory). This should ensure good visibility for your published paper.

The abstract

The abstract, after the title, is the first thing researchers read of your paper. Often, given the current system of paywalls and needing access to databases or your library’s holding to find the full paper, it is the only thing people can read to decide whether they want to pay for it, or search harder for the free version. So, it is really important to craft a clear, persuasive abstract that makes them want to read more.

Barbara Kamler and Pat Thomson helpfully refer to the abstract as ‘the Tiny Text’: all of the relevant parts of your paper have to be in your abstract, in much abbreviated form, i.e. the focus of your paper, the argument it makes, the methodology, the main findings and the significance of those findings for your field. This is a tough ask when you often have only around 150-200 words for the average abstract.

A useful tool I learnt at a workshop from Lucia Thesen, and now use with postgraduate writers in my courses, is ‘the fairytale’. It goes like this, with you taking two sentences or so to complete each line.

  • Once upon a time people thought that…
  • But then I/we thought that…
  • So what I/we did was…
  • And what I/we found was…
  • This may change the way people think about…

This helps you create a gentle, narrative story about your paper, covering the main aspects of the abstract – the area of research you are locating your study within, the gap you have located, the way in which your research was conducted, your major findings, and what contribution your research could make to your field (related to the problem you are responding to).

Then you can recraft this into a more formal abstract, using Pat Thomson’s basic structure as a guide:

• ….. is now a significant issue (in/for).. because…. . ( Expand by up to one sentence if necessary)
• In this paper I focus on …..
• The paper draws on ( I draw on) findings from a study of… which used…… in order to show that….. (expand through additional sentences)
• The paper argues that….
• It concludes (I conclude) by suggesting that…

A useful thing to do is to read carefully the abstracts of the papers you are citing, and critique them against this basic guide: do you understand why this research has been done, and what it aims to achieve? Do you understand how it has been done and what the main findings are? Do you have a sense of what the research contributes to the field? It is interesting, and well-written? If any of these elements are missing, consider how the abstract could have been better written for you, as the reader/researcher. Then apply this reflection to your own abstract. Think about your readers carefully, and what they need to know to understand what your paper is arguing, where this argument fits into the field of research it is concerned with, how the research was conducted and what it found, and why the research matters. (See this article for useful advice on abstracts).

You should start your paper writing process with drafts of your title and abstract, to give you focus and a direction for the paper as a whole. But these drafts should be carefully revised again at the end, when your paper is finalised, to ensure that they are connected, and that the title, abstract and added keywords best reflect your research, and get it noticed, read, and hopefully cited.

Paper writing: effective conclusions

This is the second post in the Paper Writing series: the first on Introductions is here. This post deals with the opposite end of the paper: conclusions. 

Conclusions, for me, are the hardest part of paper writing. I really struggle to pull all the strands of the paper together in a coherent, punchy closing paragraph or two. Part of this struggle, I think, stems from how I was taught to write conclusions in my undergraduate study. I was taught that you need to start with the phrase ‘To conclude/in conclusion/to sum up’ or similar, and then proceed to summarise the ‘body’ of the essay by restating the main claim and then the main ideas of each paragraph. Although most essays asked us to make an argument, we were not taught to consider the relevance or significance of that argument for our audience. In fact, I was never explicitly told to consider an audience for my work (beyond my tutor or lecturer) until I was a Masters student.

This ‘summarise and restate’ version of conclusion stays with many students as they move into postgraduate study, largely because of the dearth of focused writing education and support at postgraduate level; once students are registered for an MA, or PhD especially, we assume they can write effectively in these forms and at these levels. This obviously needs to change if we are going to graduate more successful postgraduate students, and at PhD level graduate more able researchers, writers and future supervisors.

The papers and dissertations we write at postgraduate level – PhD and postdoctoral in particular – have to make a contribution to knowledge in our fields; they have to say something relatively new, interesting and relevant to our audience. But, we can’t just leave it to that audience to work out what that contribution is or why they should care about it. Our papers have to answer the ‘So What?’ question clearly, and effectively. (Actually, all papers have to do this from first year onwards, but this has different implications for a first year student writing for a tutor, and a researcher writing for a wider audience of their professional peers in the field). If you don’t have an answer, you don’t have an argument. The Introduction to the paper is where we posit the argument, and where it fits into this field of ours, but the Conclusion is where we really get into what the argument of the paper is and what contribution it makes to the field – in other words, why it matters and should be engaged with  by readers.

Rather than summarising the restating the thesis and summarising the main ideas of the paper, the conclusion needs to be focused on discussing the point of the argument the paper has been made, and its implications for the area of the field you have located your research within. It needs to pull all the strands of your paper together, which are connected like links in chain, and close the paper off with clarity. If you are, for example, writing about a new form of evaluation of teaching practice, or a new way of creating energy from biomass, your conclusion should explore what meaning or relevance this form of evaluation or method of energy creation potentially has for the field – your audience – and could perhaps make recommendations, or posit areas for further research and development, building on your work.

Useful questions to guide this writing could include:

  • what is the argument my paper has made? Write it down in as couple of clear sentences.
  • on what basis have I made this argument? Briefly pull together the main forms of evidence – from the literature and data – that you have discussed and used to support this argument.
  • why have I made this argument? Briefly summarise the reasons behind your research – the gap in the field you located and are seeking to fill.
  • who would benefit from engaging with this argument, why should they engage with it, how? Talk to your readers here – tell them what the significance of your argument is to the research and/or practice you imagine they are engaged in, and why this research you have done matters to your shared endeavours.
  • do I have any recommendations for further research that builds on this research and what are they? Briefly, indicate how this argument could be furthered through new, or cumulative research.

The main point here is that you are avoiding the ‘restate and summarise’ version of the conclusion, and you are aiming for a clear, concise, pointed answer to the ‘So what?’ question. You need to show your readers why your argument matters, and remind them, without doing a point by point summary, of how and why you made your argument and are engaged in this research. They should be longer than one short, limp paragraph – a decent conclusion is at least 10 of the total word budget for your paper. Read the conclusions of papers in the field in which you work, preferably those by authors who are regarded as successful and knowledgeable. See if you can find the moves they make in their writing to convince you of the relevance of their argument, and replicate these in your own writing, Share your writing with peers and ask them if they can see the same moves in your drafts.

Conclusions are hard work, but strong, clear conclusion will stay with your reader and make your paper both useful and memorable.

Paper writing: crafting an introduction

I am in the fortunate position, this year, of teaching a short course to early career researchers and postgraduate students on writing an article for publication. I will write more about this another time, but it seems to me, from research I am doing and practical work I have done with these writer-researchers, that much is expected where too little support is given. By support I specifically mean constructive, formative spaces where they can write, obtain feedback, get formal input and guidance from experienced researchers, and work on finding their own voices.

Over the course of a few posts, I will be writing about different parts of paper writing to create part of this space here, focusing on writing in the social sciences for the most part. This post tackles part one of any paper (after the title and abstract): the introduction.

Introductions are, to my mind, a tricky section to get right. Too short and you may leave your readers wondering what they are reading and why; too long and you’ve got more detail than you need. A good introduction needs to do three main things: scope the field you are writing into and outline the debate/conversation/area of study you are contributing to; indicate what your contribution is going to be; and give your readers a sense of where the paper will be taking them as you make this contribution clear (an outline). This sounds really simple, but a good introduction that grabs your readers’ attention, and draws them in so that they want to keep reading, can take a while to craft.

Funnel for introductionsA useful image to have in mind when planning your introduction is that of a funnel (left). You need to start off answering for your reader these questions: at a broader level, what area of research is this paper connected to? What debate/conversation/issue are you connecting with? Why is this research important? How has it been done? For example, if you are writing a paper about student engagement in a specific course through a new method of assessment, you would need to start by introducing your reader to pertinent issues in the area of student engagement in learning in higher education – what helps or hinders it, what the point of student engagement and learning research is, and so on.

But then you need to bring this in a bit – narrow in a little more on which aspect of this larger area of study you are interested in – student engagement in learning through assessment. You would focus on this, briefly setting out (with relevant references) how student engagement and assessment have been connected in research, but also pointing out gaps or areas that have been under-considered thus far.

Then you can really narrow in on your paper: what is the argument this paper will make, contributing to this area of research, and this particular gap or under-considered part of it? Here you can also set out, for your reader, what shape or form the paper will take, so that they know where they are going. You may be arguing that involving students in creating and assessing tasks, rather than simply completing set tasks and being assessed, is more conducive to their engagement in learning. Thus, you conducted a study in which you set up this kind of activity, and tracked students’ engagement and experience in some way. This paper will be reporting on that, and arguing that students should be more engaged in creating learning activities, rather than only doing them. This structure should assist you in creating a clear, coherent and focused starting point for your paper.

It’s hard to say how long introductions should be – the shape an introduction takes sometimes depends on the field in which one is writing, and sometimes on the length and purpose of the paper. Generally, though, for a 6000-7000 word paper, the introduction should be about 10% of this (600-700 words). But, one could (as I have seen done) include the literature review in the introduction as an extended contextual framing of the conversation/debate/field of research one is contributing to, and in this case it will be longer (albeit with sub-headings to make it less dense and more readerly). Look carefully at papers in your field, and in the journals you want to publish in, and see what they are doing. Try to follow the dominant examples, as this is more likely to be well received by editors and reader.

building blocks

My advice, if you struggle with introductions, is to write a first draft quite methodically, part by part. Use the funnel and focus on the three areas you need to cover. Give yourself roughly 10% of the total length of your paper, or 10% of your page length. So, for a 6000 word/12 page paper, you would have a 600 or so word/one to one and a half page introduction. You don’t need to be too stressed if you are over or under this – the main point is that you have adequately set out the metaphorical space in which the paper is being written, as outlined above. If you find yourself going way over this guiding limit, you may need to consider that you are trying to do too much in this one section. Stop and ask for feedback if you get stuck, and ask for input around the three focus areas.

In a doctoral thesis, I would say that you write the introduction last, when you know what you want to introduce. But a thesis and a paper are quite different in this respect. I think it’s useful and necessary to craft a strong draft of the introduction first in paper writing, because you need to create a clear boundary to stay within. One paper = one good, well-made argument. You need to set out, for yourself as the writer, what you want to say, why you want to say it, and how you will go about saying it so that you don’t go too far off track, and end up with too many arguments, and too much extraneous writing and detail. Although you can and probably will revise it later on, a strong introduction will provide a solid foundation for the rest of the paper.