How To Write Academic Articles: A Writer’s Guide For Students and Activists

How To Write Academic Articles: A Writer's Guide For Students and Activists

How do we know what types of papers are publish-“worthy” (especially when targeting academic journals)? Do all pieces need to be empirically grounded? What does it even mean to be “empirically grounded?” These are some questions that many might ask when first wanting to transform ideas into written word.

Though empirical works tend to take up more of our time, and though we might be, at first, intimidated by conducting original research and writing up our own findings, empiricism is nonetheless vital to scholarship. However, it is also paramount that citizens for social change–particularly, students and activists – use their voices to shape theory. For, creating and publishing theory shapes policy, which moreover drives ways in which policies are practiced.

There are two kinds of papers that we will consider for the moment: empirical and theoretical pieces.

Empirical works involve hands-on research, where the author is the primary researcher or has hired a primary researcher for the specific project at hand. This type of work may or may not, in turn, lead to theory, and is usually considered stronger if the author conducts the research her/himself. If you choose to write an empirical paper, do not commit the rookie mistake of describing how your research “proves” anything. Research, rather, “demonstrates” an idea, “lends support to” a certain conclusion, or “fails to uphold” the assertions of previous research.

Theoretical papers draw from the work of another author or (more than likely) multiple authors. A good theoretical piece also provides sufficient evidence or support for idea(s) by way of original examples, analogies, and criticisms–whether positive or negative–of current literature on the chosen topic. Again, you may wish to note that contrary to popular belief, evidence is not the same thing as proof. To provide evidence or support for a theoretical piece, one discusses works of other authors but must additionally generate examples and conclusions that are reasonable to extract from our surroundings. Typically, this is philosophical in nature, meaning that the author will write something like this: “…. To illustrate this point, let us suppose that [blah, blah, blah]….”

Here, you would describe a scenario whereby your theory (partially derived from others’ works) plays out. Be careful; watch out for possible holes in your argument. Any contradiction in your theory will devastate it. One of two things could happen in this instance. 1) The contradiction is not caught, your piece is published, and then you are publicly railed by someone else, who caught the contradiction; or 2) your paper or article will not be published, and you might have to start from scratch. In this case, you would definitely prefer the latter over the former.

Sometimes, when a paper is rejected, constructive criticism from reviewers accompanies the rejection letter or email. Rejoice when this happens; this means there is hope for you, your thoughts, and your article. However, to get to this stage, you will need to have written something worthy of being reviewed in the first place.

One way around a weak spot (or “hole”) in your paper–if it’s not a contradiction–is by explicitly stating your awareness of the paper’s limitations. Appropriate places for this acknowledgement include a section regarding methods (if you have one) or your conclusion.

Here’s an example of how one could admit a research limitation, while nevertheless defending the overall integrity of the paper: “While X [here you want to name what you are calling your theory, like ‘sexuality-as-performance’] theory may create certain problems within the lesbian community, it is nevertheless important because it brings [whatever other factors] to light…” Then, you would explain this point further by expanding on those factors.

Of course, proper word choice, sentence structure, and many other variables lend to good writing. However, academic articles require understanding additional components. Formatting you paper in the above-mentioned respect is one of several essential features in distinguishing a classic undergraduate essay from a publishable piece in an academic journal.

Getting started in academic writing can be a daunting and frustrating task, but with time, patience, a lot of work, and the right tools, one can successfully be on their way to getting published.