Tips for article-writing

September 21, 2008 at 5:58 pm 5 comments

I have to recommend this little tip sheet for those who wish to publish acacemic papers in the social sciences. I am one of them and often times I found myself facing a dilemma about how to position or frame an idea. If you agree that a paper usually tells a story – then it is an important decision to frame the story, as an idea could be told in a zillion different ways. Usually I have to choose between the “phenomena” and the “theory”. No matter what decision I make it risks losing one part of the audience as a result of the frame. Ezra Zuckerman calls the “row” (phenomena) and “column” (discipline or theory) problem and usually one cannot aim for both.

I tend to go with the “phenomena” approach when I write, because it is the social phenomena that interest me fundementally. I care less about theory – which is supposed to be the truth about how the world works. But usually we see researchers change their theories (often too quickly) to suit the phenomena and empirical evidences they study. I don’t think highly of that approach either. If theories are just means to “interpret” the empirical evidences, then they lose their most important function – to predict the unknown. In that case, we are not doing research any more – we are no more than investigative journlaists who cannot write as well but may have some fancy statistical skills.

So the “row and column” way of looking at article-writing is the central point he made in the tip sheet. As a consequence of the researcher’s decision to go with the “phenomena” or “theory”, other decisions follow. The whole list can be found here.


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5 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Jay Chok  |  November 17, 2008 at 9:50 pm

    I seen the Zuckerman tip before. I think it will have to depend on the situations.

    The “phenomena” approach is a bottom-up approach. You start with something that people may be familiar or unfamiliar with. How plausible is what you are arguing? Sometimes, you get stuck with people who don’t buy your stories. This is particularly the case when your audience is not equally informed about the phenomena. Also, why the particular phenomena you study matter also becomes something that you need to demonstrate. In other words, you could run the danger of letting the audience set the reference benchmarks to judge the work. And they could set it anywhere.

    In that regard, the theory approach is safer. Someone wrote a model that assume alpha. You develop a paper that empirically weaken this assumption slightly. Why does it matter? It matters because the theory matters and the changes you add provide insight into how the theory can be further developed or show the extent that the theory work. If people had build their work on the theorey’s premise and you came along to rework the foundation, now, that’s important.

    And this gets to the situation. If you have a phenomenon that is commonly understood by your audience, there’s no problem with the benchmark. And if what you study is genuinely important, your audience (with commonly shared beliefs) gets it. In this case, go with the phenomenon approach.

    But if you have something that isn’t necessarily important in real life and/or your audience’s benchmarks run wild (everyone has different beliefs and maybe ignorant in their own ways), the theory approach can be useful as you select a certain circle to debate the conversation.

    What do you think?

  • 2. cuihuash  |  November 20, 2008 at 12:39 pm

    Good point, Jay.

    I think what Zuckerman is trying to get lies in the utility of the theory. How many theories out there are actually useful for explaining real world situations? I have read a lot of articles and I have to say quite a large number of them are kinda out of touch with the real world. They might be elegant or insightful for the theory per se, but do not add too much value to solving real problems. Scholars are sometimes developing theories that are essentially white elephants. And more and more people would try to refine or extend those white elephants in the ivory tower. These efforts are meaningful only to the theorists and researchers but rarely make an impact to the real world.

    But for newbies like us, I agree that starting from the theory is easier to get us into the “circle”. When we are as famous as Zuckerman, then we should be thinking mroe about utility and impact 🙂

  • 3. Mike  |  February 28, 2009 at 10:48 pm

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  • 4. Hell aye, i smallness of general conceptio write a letter something like this conj didnt be delivered time, may i repost this Tips by reason on account of article-writing « Cuihua Shen  |  July 1, 2011 at 2:09 pm

  • 5. MenaWang  |  July 10, 2013 at 10:22 pm

    Run into this site while working on mine. This is really helpful! Thank you so much for sharing!


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