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1. Abstract
2. Introduction
3. Methods
4. Results
5. Discussion
6. Conclusion
7. Acknowledgements
8. References


Writing a journal article

Framing your paper

For a given quality of science, how the paper is framed probably makes the biggest
difference for where it is published, and how well read and cited it will be. Framing,
essentially, is how you fit your paper into the ‘bigger picture’, or if you prefer a less
neutral term, it is how you sell your paper. My general advice is that you choose the
largest plausible frame for your paper that is reasonable. In other words, to make sure
you’re widely read it makes sense to find a big hook off which to hang your paper – but
you have to be careful not to oversell your work. This is subjective.

Typical choices for framing papers are current global issues, big theories and new
theories, particularly those that are controversial. The trick then is to make the link from
the ‘big issue’ to your study as swiftly and directly as possible at the beginning; and back
to the same big issue (plus sometimes additional ones) near the end of the study. A good
frame is one that appears reasonable and can be directly linked to your work, and one that
your work directly speaks to. A bad frame is one that takes a lot of imagination to see
how your study fits in with it, and that your results don’t have a lot to do with.

Often but not always your framing is partly determined by how you planned your study
(as opposed to your paper) in the first instance.

See also:

1. Planning your paper

2. Prioritising content
3. Fitting the content to the length
4. Content-to-length-ratio
5. Introduction

6. Cover letter

Possible exercises:

 Brainstorm a list of possible frames. Initially, don’t be too selective — just write
down lots of possible frames that might be connected with your paper.
 Read your discipline: where are things at? What’s currently a hot topic? What
kinds of topics have recently been published in the most prestigious journals?
Does your work fit in with any of those topics?
 Generally: can you use a certain bandwagon for your benefit, and jump on it for a
bit? Don’t actually change your focus too much — but can your focus be twisted
ever so slightly so that it becomes interesting to a broader audience?

riting a journal article

Structure: section and paragraph

A section consists of several paragraphs. The ‘rules’ that apply to structuring sections and
paragraphs are pretty similar.

The first sentence and last sentence are disproportionately important. The first sentence
needs to be as clear as possible about what the paragraph is about. Avoid first sentences
that are just background, or pick up the idea from the previous paragraph. If, for example,
your paragraph is about limitations of a particular conceptual model, a good first sentence
might be:
“The xxx conceptual model has several inherent limitations.” Or, if your heading already
says as much, your first sentence can potentially go one step further, such as: “Inherent
limitations of the xxx conceptual model arise from factor X, factor Y, and factor Z.” In
both cases, the first sentence makes it very clear what must come next, namely details
about the limitations. This helps the reader in several ways. First, she will know what the
section will be all about; and second, this helps her decide whether to read the paragraph
or skip straight to the next one. The importance of allowing readers to skim-read cannot
be overstated. A good document is one that enables us to quickly grasp the content. First
sentences of paragraphs help immensely, if they are well written.

The last sentence of a paragraph or section has to fully wrap up the content. Make sure
that your thought is not left hanging, only 90 % complete. You need to fully finish your
thought so the reader has no doubt about your intended ‘so what’. So, when you think
your paragraph is finished, ask yourself: ‘So what?’ If you just need to read out the last
sentence again, you included the so-what. If, however, you need to come up with a new,
additional sentence, it shows you hadn’t quite finished your thought. This little exercise
won’t always work, but it may help you to test yourself whether your take-home message
would actually get through to the reader.

Apart from the first and last sentences, many paragraphs list things, explain things,
discuss causal relationships, or contrast things. In all cases, simple phrases can help to
make the argument clearer. Don’t be afraid of listing things as “First, …” and so on, or
starting sentences with “Although …”. Simple words like these at the beginning of
sentences can make it much easier for your reader to find the thread of your argument.

See also:

1. Structure: the sentence

2. Phrases to use and phrases to avoid

Possible exercises:

 Both in existing papers, and in your own draft, check the first and last sentences
of several paragraphs and sections. Do they introduce the content, and wrap up
the content? Or are thoughts left hanging?
 Can you structure your argument within a paragraph more clearly? For example,
by using numbered lists, or simple words that link your sentences causally?

1. Abstract

Writing a journal article


The abstract is the first thing your reader will see. It’s also the first impression that
editors will get of your paper. A good abstract will leave people satisfied that they know
what you did, why you did it, and what you found out. A good abstract most likely means
people will want to read the rest of the paper, and it greatly increases the chances of
people remembering your paper later on. This, in turn, means a good abstract is important
for people to cite your paper. If your main message is clear from the abstract, others are
much more likely to recall what your paper was all about when they pick it up a year after
first reading it – for example when they are in the process of writing a paper of their own
and are looking for appropriate citations.

Abstracts differ greatly between journals, in both style and length. It is critically
important that you follow the instructions for authors for your particular journal. Here is
an overview of some of the differences that you might encounter.

Descriptive abstracts give some background information, and summarise some of the
argument. Their analogue in the movie world is a trailer. They tell you enough about
what the paper is all about so that you want to keep reading it – but they don’t give it all
away. They often don’t give you the final take-home messages, but rather, they end in

statements such as: “The implications of these findings for policy development are
discussed.” Some disciplines use these kinds of abstracts a lot, but personally, I find them
frustrating. Take my previous example just above. If there are important policy
implications, wouldn’t it be much nicer to know what they actually are, rather than just
knowing that there are implications? My sense is that descriptive abstracts should be
avoided, unless you are dealing with a journal and discipline where it is expected of you
to write such an abstract. Otherwise, readers get a lot more out of ‘real summaries’.

Real summaries is my slightly clumsy term for the more common type of abstract, which
tells you about what you did, why you did it, what you found, and what the implications
are. It’s really the latter that sets them apart from descriptive abstracts. Real summaries
fully reflect the scope of the paper from motivation to take-home-messages. So, for
example, a last sentence of a real summary might be: “Our findings suggest that a more
participatory approach is needed to improve citizen acceptance of the suggested reforms
to water policy.” This doesn’t just tell you that there are policy implications, but it tells
you something (of course only very briefly) about what those implications actually are: in
this case, the need for more citizen participation.

Structured abstracts are a type of abstract that some journals use. They tend to use a
series of sub-headings or numbers; and authors are supposed to follow this structure
when they write their summaries. The Journal of Applied Ecology is a good example of
such a format. Typically, the different parts of the abstract refer to different sections of
the paper. For example, there might be one part of the abstract that summarises the
background and motivates the paper, one point that summarises the aims and study
location, one for the methods, and so on. In the case of the Journal of Applied Ecology,
the last sentence needs to be a clear summary of the take-home messages.

Although structured abstracts are relatively uncommon, almost all abstracts work well if
they are first written as if they were structured abstracts. Typically, abstracts will mirror
the structure of the overall paper. It is particularly important to have a clear first sentence
that motivates the need for the paper and gives background information; and it is
particularly important to have clear take-home messages. Perhaps the least important part
of an abstract (in terms of length) is the methods. A summary of methods should be
included, but often this can be quite short. Given that not everything can be included in
an abstract, the methods can be dealt with relatively briefly, whereas it is critical that the
motivation and take-home-messages are long enough that they are clear.

Abstracts vary widely in length. Some journals allow as little as 120 words, whereas
others go up to 400 or so. Longer is not necessarily better, or easier to write. In all cases,
it’s important to try to appropriate fit the content within the prescribed length.

Finally, it works best if you write your abstract last – to summarise your document, you
first need to have your document finished.

See also:



Possible exercices:

 Collect several abstracts from existing papers, both within your own expertise and
outside your own expertise.
 Analyse these abstracts: Do they follow a clear structure? Which abstracts tell you
a lot, and which tell you very little? Which do you like, and why? Which are easy
to follow, and why? Is the ‘so-what’ clear?
 Write a short list of attributes that you found frustrating in other people’s
abstracts, and a list of things you found really useful.
 When you write your own abstract, use this list as a reference point.


 XY is an important issue
 For example, it has these effects, and these other effects
 These have been investigated in a number of ways
 Author A came up with this explanation
 Author B proposed an alternative explanation
 To date, it is unknown what the role of the phenomenon Z is.
 Phenomenon Z could be important because of this, that, and something else.
 Here, we investigate the role of phenomenon Z in the context of …
 Specifically, we addressed three aims:
o First, we tested whether …
o Second, we compared our findings …
o Third, we applied our insights to …
 Optional last sentence to summarise the key finding: “We show that …”


 Find recent papers that are relevant to your own work. Do they even have
 If there was just one thing that you want your reader to remember from your
work, what is it? What if there were two, or three things? List these things: they
probably should be in your conclusion.

Writing a journal article


Standard (non-essay) papers have discussion section after the results. This section is
about interpreting the findings, placing them in a bigger context, relating them to other
work, and presenting take-home messages.

Unlike for methods and results, you have a lot of freedom how you write your Discussion
section – probably even more so than for the Introduction. Broadly speaking, there are
two types of discussion.

The ‘boring’ type of discussion goes through your main results, one after the other,
interprets the result, and relates it to other literature. The method goes something like

 (Short re-statement of main result, e.g.:) “Many large companies integrated

sustainability considerations in their daily operations.”
 (Interpretation, e.g.:) “This may be because of X, or because of Y.”
 (Relate to other people’s work, e.g.:) “These findings underline the importance of
ZZZ (reference), as also shown in Japan (reference) and the USA (reference).”
 (then the next main result, and so on)

Most discussions have at least some sections that follow this boring format. There’s
nothing wrong with this, other than that it is, well, boring…

Towards the end of your discussion, and if you’re bold all the way through, you need a
more creative way of putting things together. Even if you’re using the ‘boring’ format,
you still need to get to the bigger picture, the big so-what messages. That is very hard to
do unless at some point, you go for a more creative format.

It is harder, but more interesting, to start with a more creative format from the outset. A
freely structured discussion needs to make a clear argument, and it can be very useful to
use sub-headings to structure this argument. Even though the structure might be free and
creative, you still need to draw on your own results under each sub-heading, not just on
other literature – a discussion is NOT a literature review, but your work must be at the
centre of the argument.

A discussion often picks up similar themes as discussed in the Introduction, and thus is a
bit of a reverse funnel. Whereas an Introduction starts broad and becomes focused, a
Discussion focuses on your results initially, but then ultimately must leave a clear
impression with the reader how the results contributed to the resolving the broad issues
that you outlined at the beginning of the Introduction.

See also:



Possible exercises:

 In papers that are relevant to you, which discussions do you remember, and which
did you forget? Which were easy to follow and which were difficult? Were there
sub-headings or not?

 Use your insights to inform how you might structure your discussion.