My supervisor gave me a great piece of advice to help my writing. She told me to decide on the point I was trying to make in my paper, then make sure everything I write actively contributes to driving this point home.
I tend to get side-tracked and waffle in my writing. I think the reader needs to know about a, b and c before they can REALLY understand z. So I explain a lot of things and provide a substantial amount of background. I try to cover an entire field in my introduction/background. One of the consequences of this is that I’ve always had a problem with flow. My introductions don’t flow as elegantly as they could.
My supervisor’s advice helped tremendously with this. I was astounded at the difference it made to my writing. Plus it made the act of writing easier as well!
Decide on the point you’re making.
You only have space to make ONE point in a journal article. Don’t let a 6000 odd word limit fool you. One point. So make it a good one! You need to be very clear in your mind what the one point will be so it pays to spend some time on refining it. Once you’ve decided on the key point, write it down. Sit it right beside your computer so you can constantly refer back to it. Or as Tara Gray suggests in “Publish & Flourish” (a great little book!), stick it up on the wall in front of you.
Write to your key point.
Prepare an outline of the arguments you’re going to make to back up your key point. Make sure every argument directly contributes to the point you’re making. Then start writing! Constantly refer back to your key point and outline to make sure that every single sentence you write stays on track. Make sure examples you cite are carefully selected to specifically target the point you’re making. Don’t go off on tangents. Don’t stray from your key point. Writing to your key point provides focus. Remember, you are making one point in your paper – make sure every sentence you write directly contributes to your key point, whether through emphasising the point, explaining the point, arguing the point, defending the point or highlighting where the point can lead us.
When I prepared the literature review in my proposal, my key point was that we need to investigate whether limited access to resources is having a negative influence on populations within fragmented landscapes. I then decided the main arguments I was going to make were:
- Habitat loss and fragmentation contribute to population declines.
- Correlating landscape characteristics to population declines tells us nothing about the actual mechanisms/processes driving those declines.
- Reduced access to resources in fragmented landscapes may be one of the mechanistic processes contributing to population declines.
- Between-patch movements may be restricted in fragmented landscapes and, thus, limit resource access.
- Stress measures may provide an early indicator of population health before declines are evident.
- Australian woodland birds are declining and we don’t know why. Restricted access to resources is a likely candidate cause.
When my supervisor explained the need for one key point, I looked over several published review articles. I had previously thought these articles covered many ideas. However, I can now see that each paper indeed tries to sell one key point to the reader. Have a look over a few review articles in your field – can you identify the author’s key point?
What point are you trying to convey to your readers?