How to Write a Journal Article
Writing and publishing journal articles is essential if you wish to pursue an academic career. Today, academic careers are publication-dependent; developing a high-quality publication record is a vital part of developing your academic credentials, your visibility among your discipline peers and your viability as a researcher.
This article will pinpoint the features of a journal article that are normally found in the humanities and social sciences. It will also examine some planning and writing strategies that will enable you to produce an article that is publication-ready.
For those of you who prefer to learn by watching videos, we've prepared one on how to write your first journal article and you can watch it on Capstone Editing's YouTube channel.
The title should indicate the article’s topic or theme to readers, and a subtitle can extend or clarify the title. Many titles follow the format ‘Suggestive, Creative Title: Descriptive Subtitle’ (Hayot 2014, ch. 18); for example:
Chadwick, AM 2012, ‘Routine Magic, Mundane Ritual: Towards a Unified Notion of Depositional Practice’, Oxford Journal of Archaeology, vol. 31, no. 3, pp. 283–315.
In this type of title, the more suggestive first part of the title can indicate the author’s theoretical approach and something about how traditional (or not) this approach is. It is important that the subtitle gives readers some indication of the article’s objective or major theme.
Other titles may use a format that includes an abstract and a concrete noun:
Hansen, HL 2011, ‘Multiperspectivism in the Novels of the Spanish Civil War’, Orbis Litterarum, vol. 66, no. 2, pp. 148–166.
This more straightforward approach contains enough information through the words chosen (‘multiperspectivism’, ‘novels’, ‘Spanish Civil War’) so that readers can immediately identify if the article is pertinent to them, in both content and theoretical approach.
Along with a title that grabs readers’ attention and indicates the article’s theme or objective, a well-written abstract is essential. The abstract is what readers and other researchers will look at first to determine if your article is worth reading. It is worth spending time on a succinct, ‘punchy’ and relevant abstract that will clarify exactly what you are arguing or proposing. Abstract writing is a particular skill that requires practice and complete familiarity with your argument and article content. You will most likely need to review and rewrite your abstract after you have finished writing the article.
Most journals will ask you to select five to seven keywords that can be used in search engines. These are the words that students, researchers and other readers will use to search for information over the internet through Google or similar resources, library websites or the journal’s own website.
You should provide a brief acknowledgement of any financial, academic or other support you have received in relation to producing your article. You can also thank the peer reviewers here (once your article has been accepted for publication).
Writing a journal article is not unlike writing an essay or thesis chapter. The same basic rules of academic writing apply. By planning what and how you will write, and how you will incorporate data/evidence, your article is more likely to be cohesive, well organised and well written.
Even if you are developing an article from an existing essay or thesis chapter, spending some time on planning is essential. Some authors like to begin with a ‘mind map’. A mind map contains a central theme, argument or premise. The writer will then create ‘branches’ extending from the central theme. These may be topics or subthemes that are included in the final article. If they are substantial, they may constitute a new article. Mind maps operate like brainstorming sessions, in which you allow a free flow of ideas from your mind, through your pen or keyboard to paper or screen. These ideas can then be organised into logical patterns of related subthemes and you can then begin assembling evidence (research, references and quotations) to support the arguments under each theme.
Figure 1: A simple mind map for essay writing
A plan can be as simple as a list of subheadings with notes and supporting information, from which you will construct and write the paragraphs of your article. Using the minor themes from your thesis can also enable you to develop several articles on topics you were unable to develop more fully in the thesis.
Once you have developed a detailed plan for your article, the writing can begin. A journal article is normally written for an already informed audience. While the rules of clear writing and exposition still apply, you can safely assume that people who read your article in a journal are familiar with the terminology, methodologies and theoretical positions of your discipline. This means that you can ‘jump right in’ to a topic, stating your position or argument immediately and strongly.
This guide assumes you have already completed your research and thus amassed a large number of notes, thoughts and more or less developed ideas, along with detailed and appropriate citations to support your contentions, relevant and appropriate quotations, data or other forms of evidence that you have collected, images you may wish to include, and any other material relevant to your article. This is the raw material you will, using your plan, write up into a publishable journal article. Now we will look at a few important aspects of writing that you should consider.
For a guideline to standard and acceptable grammar, you may like to consult resources such as the Style Manual for Authors, Editors and Printers, an Australian government publication that covers aspects of writing, editing and publishing in Australia. It is very important that you review whether the journal you are submitting to uses American or British spelling and punctuation conventions, as these can differ significantly. Reviewing and editing your own work to ensure grammatical consistency prior to submission is essential: this should be considered part of your writing practice and approached accordingly. Be on the lookout for instances of mixed tenses (especially the present and past tenses), clumsy sentences with too many clauses, the incorrect use of common punctuation marks such as apostrophes and commas, or the overuse of capitalisation (avoid capitalising the names of theories and job titles in particular). Ensure your spelling is consistent by using the ‘Find’ tab to search for easily misspelt words, especially regarding British/American conventions. Vary your sentence lengths and structure to maintain your readers’ interest. Some academic work falls into the trap of using sentences that are too long or complicated, or using a less-familiar or longer word when a simple one will do.
Tone and register refer to the style and ‘voice’ of your writing. In most academic contexts, your writing style should err on the formal side (unless you are submitting to a journal that promotes innovative or creative approaches to writing). Avoid contractions, colloquial, gender-specific (unless relevant), racist or offensive language. However, within the constraints of formal academic language, it is important that you develop your own style and ‘voice’. Read the authors that you admire the most, both for their research and for their writing. Note what you like about their writing style. While academic writing needs to communicate clearly, it can also be vibrant and elegant. In addition, it should be compelling, understandable and effective. Remember that articles are reader-centred (Soule, Whiteley and McIntosh 2007, p. 15), so your objective should always be to engage the reader with your language. As stated above, most readers of your article will be familiar with your discipline; nevertheless, it is better to avoid overloading readers with discipline-specific jargon.
The introduction’s importance may seem obvious, but all writers can benefit from a reminder of the importance and centrality of good introductions to an academic journal article. The introduction does just that: introduces your topic, theme or research question, outlines your general theoretical or methodological approach and places your article within the context of a larger academic debate or field. Here you can expand on your title and subtitle, making your contentions explicit and clarifying the data or evidence you have used. Some humanities or social science articles will include a brief literature review in the introduction; a social science writer may also include an explicit research aim or objective (this is less common in the humanities). As with the abstract, it is sometimes more beneficial to write the introduction after you have written the main body.
The main body is where you present, in appropriate detail, your main arguments, themes and contentions, all thoroughly grounded in evidence, close analysis and clear, compelling writing.
With both the humanities and social sciences, the paragraph is an article’s main organising principle. Each paragraph should contain one main theme and be of at least four or five sentences, and a logical flow should exist between and among your paragraphs. Humanities articles will often not use the more obvious subheadings common to the social sciences, such as ‘Data Collection’, ‘Analysis’ or ‘Results’. While humanities articles are less subject to these subheading conventions, the effective use of subheadings can clarify and identify your ideas and enable readers to navigate easily through the text (Soule, Whiteley and McIntosh 2007, p. 19). While an article should not contain the explicit signposting expected in undergraduate essays or even graduate research theses, it is still useful to use transitions and opening sentences to indicate what each paragraph’s main theme is, and how it fits into the overarching theme of your article.
By focusing on one main original idea or contention in your article and making explicit statements about your article’s contribution to the existing scholarship, you will grab the attention of journal publishers, and hopefully peer reviewers and subsequent readers. If you have information that is not directly related to your main argument but is still important, use footnotes or endnotes (depending on the journal’s own style). Use direct quotations strategically and judiciously and translate foreign-language quotations if your article is written for an English-language journal.
The conclusion is not just a summary of what has preceded it. A (good) conclusion will complete or make whole your article’s arguments and analysis by referring to what you have written. It will include a summing up of your main contention, but it will also offer and clarify to your reader a new way of looking at the theme or problem you have been discussing. As Eric Hayot notes, ‘a good ending is also a beginning’ (Hayot 2014, p. 107): good endings open new pathways for both readers and writers of academic work. The conclusion can be the most difficult section of an article to write; as such, it is likely to consume relatively more of your time than even the introduction. It is important to finish strongly; however, you should resist the temptation to make unfounded, sweeping or radical claims in your conclusion.
It goes without saying that referencing and citations should be done thoroughly and correctly. If you are undertaking or have completed your thesis, you will be familiar with when to use citations and how to construct your reference list/bibliography. In general, it is best to be citation-rich for journal articles. Each journal will use a specific referencing style—either one of the main styles in common use (APA, Chicago, MLA) or a modified version of their own. Refer to the journal author guidelines for more information on this issue.
It is vital that you follow the style and referencing requirements for your chosen journal to the letter.
Remember that many journals will require you to obtain permissions for any images you may wish to use, including payment of fees to whichever institution holds the copyright.
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