A Guide: Six Steps for Writing a Scholarly Article or Paper in Grad School

Although I enjoy writing, I still find it a challenge and I’m often curious about how other writers work as they’re producing scholarship. My own technique is something that I developed in graduate school and continue tweaking even now as I’m a professor. The Six Steps I’ve listed below are the steps I go through in order to produce a draft of an article or paper—I realize that others do things differently and the key principle is to figure out and go with what works for you. You’re not doing it wrong if you’re doing it.

It feels a bit vulnerable to reveal the unfinished product, but because graduate school can be so grueling, I thought it’d be worth it to put my process out there. All the disclaimers apply: I'm an anthropologist and this is me writing ethnography, disciplinary conventions from humanities, STEM, and even other social sciences are very different. There are other sites (here and here and here and here and here) that also give great advice on the doing of graduate school and the work we're to produce.

You’ll notice two things from the start: 
1) I do a lot of pre-writing.
(I call this “writing.”) 
2) I do a lot of it by hand.
(Writing by hand does something different for my brain as I’m trying to work through ideas or pushing through a moment of “writer’s block.” Also, typing on the computer makes it oh-so-tempting to start reading my email or fret about the WHO news on the coronavirus.)

The goal here is to produce a draft (not a perfect final version) and this takes time. Interspersed with all these steps are coffee, eating, sleeping, grading, lecturing, commuting, bathing, jogging, interacting with human beings who are not my students. These steps won’t work very well the night before something is due.

STEP ONE: Initial Brainstorming [by hand!]
Main Question: What’s interesting?

To come up with an idea for a paper (or article), start with the question “What’s interesting?” What’s the data puzzle that caught you eye? What’s the question or confusion that you find intriguing?

2 examples from my own writing:

  • Why didn’t yerba mate catch on during European colonialism in the same way that coffee and tea did, since they’re all non-European products and all have a bitter taste? (This led to an article I placed with Comparative Studies in Society and History here.)
  • Something I noticed in my ethnographic field work was that there are different versions of the “origin stories” for the massive Itaipú dam construction debt (and whether it was being repaid) and these versions seem to coincide with the political and social position of the individual. Note: images I’ve included in this post are the real notes for this paper.

I actually write down questions like this in a notebook or on a pad of paper. And then I try to figure out the “why” and the “so what.”

STEP TWO: The Basics [by hand!]
Main Question: What’s going on? Why does it matter?

On a piece of paper (usually legal paper turned sideways), I’ll label four sections entitled:

  • The Issue
  • The Data
  • Theory
  • So What?

And then I’ll jot down bullet points (sometimes entire sentences) underneath each and answer the following questions:

  • The Issue: What is the issue, the main idea of this paper?
  • The Data: What data, what evidence do I have that connects to the issue? (specific documents, interviews, participant-observation)
  • Theory: What theories help explain what I’m seeing in my data?
  • So What?: Why does this matter? What can we learn from this?

In this and the next step, I’ll read new articles and books that connect with the issue and the data. I annotate as I read (and even jot down imaginary conversations with the authors): How does W account for what she has uncovered? How is X challenging the accepted way of thinking about this? What would Y ask about my findings? What would Z point out is missing from my assertions?

STEP THREE: The Set Pieces [by hand!]
Main Question: What are the major set pieces, the major components of this article?

I began in pencil, with the boxes around what I thought might be the "major set pieces" of the article, then I drew connecting arrows and annotations to my various bullet points. On another day, I used the blue pen and then, at the end, went back to pencil to try to figure out the logical flow of various sections.

On another piece of paper (see the accompanying images), write out five sections that will help you figure out what the main set pieces of the article will be. You can see that I mark up this document repeatedly… I don’t start out with Roman numerals or any kind of order. You’ll see marginalia, arrows, and different colored ink. This is me iterating through ideas and connections. I’m very opposed to starting out with a pre-determined order or hierarchy of information. In fact, that’s one of the very questions that this step is supposed to help me work out. I certainly don’t know it from the start.

Under each of the section headings I’ll write out bullet points and even entire sentences and sometimes I’ll realize that one section actually has three main components. I usually draw boxes around the section headings (you can see it on the yellow paper):

  • All articles need them.

  • What background does the reader need to know to be able to understand what’s interesting about the data?

The Data:  
  • In this case, since these are notes about Itaipú dam and the construction debt, my data seemed to fall into two areas: a) How the debt grew in the first place; b) How different groups interpret that story.

  • Writers and key bodies of literature and approaches that connect to the data. 
  • For the paper I was sketching out, the two main debates were: a) literature on hydroelectric dams; b) literature on credit/debt. I ended up focusing on the latter.

  • What has happened as a result of the data?
  • What are my major conclusions, major interpretations of the data and the theory? 
  • What is my argument for why we’re seeing the data we’re seeing? 
  • Why does this matter?

You can see that this step is several pages long and not everything that I write here ends up in the final article. Some of it ends up as fodder for other papers, because one of the main goals of this step is to really focus on the heart of this article. The question is “What is this article about? What is the story that I’m telling? What are the main components necessary to tell that story?”

Stare and stare at these set pieces and create a logical flow through them (notice the labeling of I, Ib, II, III, IIIb, IV, V).  I do this only after writing down and detailing all the components. For me, the order arises from my ideas and the data. It’s not some formula that I begin with and then fill out.

STEP FOUR: Outline [typed!]

Type up the work you’ve done, using the logical flow order and using bullet points (and complete sentences… anecdotes, formulations of the argument) for the various subsections of each. I aim for complete sentences (just because it helps me start linking ideas), but this isn’t absolutely necessary.

STEP FIVE: Iterating the Outline [by hand and typed!]

This is the back of one of these pages, where I wanted more space and was trying to think through the way different constituencies were gathering data and making their claims about the debt from Itaipú dam.
Format the narrative outline with wide margins for notes and, by hand, comment and annotate on what you’ve written. Ask:

“So what?”
“What else needs to go here?”
“What are the steps?”
“How does theory connect?”
“What’s significant?”
“What’s missing here? What are the gaps?”

You might retype the outline with the added commentary, print it out, and do this process again. The aim is to get to a place where you’ve commented as much as you possibly can and gotten to the point where there’s little more brainstorming that you can do to help focus the article and interpret the data.

This isn’t the moment for exciting rabbit trails into other areas of research or articles.

STEP SIX: Drafting [typed!]

After a few days of iterating through the outline, it’s time to write. I’d suggest starting at the beginning of your outline and just write the information into paragraphs. My writing goal is a minimum of 300 words a day, but when I’ve commented and iterated through the outline, I can do triple that in a few hours.

When you feel stuck or tired with writing, print it out and write additional paragraphs by hand on the back sides of the pages. Part of the reason for printing it out is sheer paranoia—in case the computer dies, I have a hard copy.

Do only minimal editing on what’s already been written because the goal is to finish an entire draft, not to perfectly polish the first three paragraphs over and over.

Once the full draft is done, you can go and ask, again “What’s missing?” “What’s out of order?” “What’s too thin?”

That's my process. Your suggestions? How to write tips Ph.D. advice academic journal article publishing publication journal peer-reviewed academic writing anthropology ethnography academia author tenure "publish or perish" peer-review doctoral program edit revise faculty
  "writing culture" "How I write"

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16 Responses to A Guide: Six Steps for Writing a Scholarly Article or Paper in Grad School

Jane Rubio said...

Great job. This is helpful to teachers. Are you going to give this article to your students?

Manraq said...

I read your blog on graduate students of color and later found this guide for writing. Thanks a bunch! I am a master graduate student of color trying to finish my thesis by the end of July. This guide has been truly helpful. ~ Karla

Karen Young said...

This article can certainly help a lot of people who are finding it hard to write academic paper, especially thesis and dissertation paper. And I agree that it would be good to write a lot even though it is not related to the thesis ideas. That way, you can get used to writing, which would be good so that you won’t be bored when writing tedious task.

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editing and proofreading said...

Great article and techniques!

But first I have to trade my TV time for writing time ...

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