Back-to-front writing

Hello All,

Today i’d like to discuss a mistake that i’ve recently made, one that I would like to share with you in the hope that somebody, somewhere, at some point, will find it useful. You will probably scoff at me, and ask why I would be so stupid, since my mistake is obviously counter-intuitive. But bear with me, for I know for a fact that I am not the only person ever to have made this particular mistake.

First, some context. I started off writing a series of notes for part of a thesis chapter, and all was well. I was reading books, compiling references, doing my own primary source readings, and loving every minute of it. The mistake I made, somewhat insidious, was to attempt to turn this material into an article.

Let me be clear, there is nothing wrong with this material. I actually quite like it. But there is no argument in it, since it was created at a stage when I was essentially free writing, and attempting to come to grips with a particular topic. I then, in my wisdom, thought “oh this stuff is interesting, i’ll turn it into an article”. WRONG. As the fool says in Shakespeare’s King Lear, “nothing comes from nothing”. One cannot build an argument out of a series of ideas. An argument cannot be a peripheral to a piece of work, not can it be added later on. This exercise has taught me that, try as I might, I cannot insert an argument into an extant work. The argument must be implicit structurally in the work, built in from the ground up. If you attempt to shape your article to fit the material then it will be, pardon my french, a crappy argument. I laboured on this particular piece of work for some time, and then realised that the amount of work required to beat it into shape is always more easily spent simply starting from scratch, and building your material in as you go.

Ordinarily I would be embarrassed to share this revelation with you, and perhaps I should know better. Yet how often does this occur, if not in the creation of an academic article by a young postgraduate such as I, who is woefully ignorant of what an article actually is? When one writes essays as an undergraduate, one also learns quite fast that the argument must be central, and learns a lesson. Essays with a conglomeration of information and a hastily appended argument tend to languish in the realm of the 60% bracket, no matter how well written. Every thesis writing guide I have read tells you to ‘Have a thesis in your thesis’. Argument has always been central. I am currently reading Graduate Study for the Twenty-First Century: How to Build an Academic Career in the Humanities by Greg Colon Semenza (highly recommended), in which the author talks about the difference between a discursive or argumentative PhD dissertation, and a taxonomic one. Argue, the author advises, don’t catalogue.

There is a truism floating around that one can know something, but not understand it. The act of accidentally writing an article back-to-front has brought the importance of a central, implicit, and core argument to me with clarity. When one reads the really good books or articles, I think that part of their power comes from the fact that argument and material are indivisible, flawlessly woven together into a seamless whole.

Now my little admonition to you all. If you are a young postgraduate (or mature aged postgraduate, as is common these days, but ‘young’ in experience nevertheless) looking to write your first academic article, find a cracking good argument first. It can be from your Honours/MA or from your PhD research, but find a really nifty argument, something with some punch. Then write your article around it. An article is short, so it effectively has to be a single new idea explained at length. I am a reviewer for the editorial collective of a postgraduate journal, and I have seen articles from all over the world make this same mistake. Your PhD notes are not automatically an argument. Your off-cuts are not an argument. They may have the seed of an argument within them, but you cannot copy and paste your notes and expect it to be an article. Take some time, come up with a nice idea, and then run with it. If you have relevant notes, work them in as you go. Get the horse first, and the cart to follow.

So although I feel that I have wasted my time somewhat, I now feel that I have achieved the goal of this exercise. I learned what an article is by writing something that failed to be an article. Time well spent, methinks. Who knows? Perhaps this material can go back in my thesis.

Best Wishes,

James

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One thought on “Back-to-front writing

  1. I totally agree that I don’t think you’ve wasted your time. We all go through these periods in writing and research, and even something that appears like a waste of time at a particular given moment can become useful experience later on.

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