Just starting to write an essay or a thesis on a topic in political economy? Or thinking about putting together an article for an academic journal? Maybe something shorter for a broader audience? Of course, whatever you are planning, you need to have something significant to say, but you also need to think a lot about HOW you are going to say it. The following tips should help.
- Write early, even if it is just a preliminary stab at how you are approaching the topic. What you say and how you say it are interdependent. Writing is thinking.
- Structure is important, although it nearly always evolves and changes as you proceed. At the outset, just jot down some notes on the main issues you want to explore and some key points you want to make, then decide (provisionally) on the order of doing so.
- Then start to create a first draft. You may begin with an opening paragraph that describes: [a] what issue is the central concern, [b] why it matters, and [c] how, in your judgment, it needs to be addressed.
- Then work on fleshing out the rest, paragraph by paragraph. The order in which you do this does not much matter at this stage. Doing the more straightforward parts first is sensible because that enhances self-confidence and generates momentum. Like an artist, your aim should be to thinly but broadly ‘cover the canvas’, leaving the details to be added at a later stage. Your rough first draft may be less than half the eventual total word length.
- Having made this first stab at a rough draft, you can pause and reconsider its character and quality. Now is the time to read some more on the topic in previously published articles or books. Take notes on that reading, particularly about things that you want to weave into your own work, such as any evidence or arguments that may support your arguments or, conversely, need to be challenged in what you are writing. Doing this will invariably make your draft more substantial.
- This middle stage of the process also almost invariably leads to changes in your overall structure. You will probably do lots of ‘cut and paste’ to re-position sentences and paragraphs. It is what the great Australian novelist Patrick White called the ‘oxy-welding’ stage in his writing.
- Work on developing a clear ‘voice’. While your writing may draw on other people’s ideas and evidence – indeed, it normally should – it is ultimately your interpretation and argument. This does not mean writing in the first person: it is advisable to avoid using ‘I’ and certainly avoid ‘I think that…’. Rather, the point is that your personal ‘voice’ needs to come through clearly by: [a] avoiding unnecessary jargon, and [b] explaining everything clearly, as you understand it, in your own words. For this purpose, it is best to keep your sentences generally quite short. You may use long sentences from time to time but try to intersperse them with short ones.
- You may selectively quote from other authors where that is useful, but quotations should generally be short and only sparingly used. Also remember that quotations must be ‘introduced’, e.g. ‘As Harvey argues, ‘……’ (Harvey 2012:46).
- The bibliography (headed References) comes at the end, listing all cited books and articles in alphabetical order by author. This should include all – and only – the works that you have explicitly cited. Consistent presentation of these references is important. The Harvard system of referencing is the simplest, keeping footnotes to a minimum.
- Having made a rough draft of the whole thing, you should go back over it many times, improving the arguments, adding additional evidence and/or references where appropriate – and deleting points that are unnecessary, repeated, unclear or irrelevant. This, to quote Patrick White again, is the ‘polishing’ stage in your work. The process should not aim to add complexity. Rather, at this stage, you should be generally trying to make your writing simpler and more straightforward. As the famous political economist J.K. Galbraith wryly observed, it was only after many rounds of re-drafting his own work that he created the appearance of spontaneity for which his writing was renowned!
Writing a thesis
Let’s turn now to more specific points for people writing theses, whether for an honours/advanced undergraduate degree, a Master degree or a PhD thesis. All the preceding points still apply, but you should also take account of the following:
- Whatever your topic, the success of your work will depend on how effectively your thesis is constructed and the interest it engenders for its readers. Getting the chapter structure clear is fundamentally important for this purpose because this shows the sequential development of the investigation and argument. The chapter structure is the skeleton on which you can, bit by bit, hang the flesh.
- Think in terms of developing one central theme in the thesis – the central question or concern to which you are seeking to provide a valuable contribution. Also consider developing, say, 3, 4 or 5 supplementary themes that relate to, or feed into, that central theme. Introduce these themes in the first chapter and refer to them recurrently throughout the thesis, thereby showing how your analysis is progressing.
- Your introductory chapter should set the scene, indicating: [a] why the topic is important; [b] the main questions to be explored; [c] the key concepts to be used; and [d] the method of inquiry to be adopted. End the intro chapter with a brief foretaste of the structure and contents of the chapters that follow.
- The next chapter may review the current state of knowledge on the topic. This serves as a literature review. It needs to be clearly structured, perhaps according to your principal thesis question and supplementary themes. The selected literature should be described and assessed from your own critical perspective, which should emerge in the process of doing the review. The conclusion of the chapter should indicate how you are proposing to advance the understanding of the topic. For example, you can say how your approach to the topic will differ from previous writers and/or build on the existing stock of knowledge in a distinctively innovative manner.
- The bulk of your thesis will then comprise a series of chapters in which the argument and evidence is presented. The number of chapters should depend on more-or-less ‘natural’ breaks in the material and issues being considered. Normally, about 8000 words per chapter is sensible in a PhD (or 4000 per chapter in a Master or advanced undergraduate thesis). Each chapter should begin with some ‘scene setting’ and an indication of the issues to be explored. Sub-sections should be used, typically 5-8 per chapter in a PhD thesis, depending on the material being considered. Each individual chapter should end with a short concluding section that succinctly states how the overall argument of the thesis has been advanced by the chapter’s content. It is cute, but not essential, if your very last sentence provides a ‘bridge’ into what follows, e.g. ‘These matters require consideration of the evidence about X which is presented in the next chapter’.
- Each chapter should be strong on its own but, together, also strong as a member of the team. Reassurance: sometimes a strong team may have a relatively weak team member.
- It is important to provide plenty of interim ‘signposts’ to the development of the argument throughout the thesis: the reader needs to be recurrently reminded of where the argument is heading and how it all fits together. It helps if you try to see your writing from a reader’s point of view. In effect, you need to ‘take the reader by the hand’, explaining the nature and significance of each step of the journey.
- Your thesis will be more effective if you write in an exploratory rather than dogmatic way: the latter is generally a turn-off in the academic world. Bold, declamatory writing has its place, but a more scholarly tone is the norm in university theses. Thus, for example, instead of writing ‘I will prove that…’, say ‘This thesis investigates whether…’ or ‘This thesis seeks to show that…’
- The concluding chapter needs to: [a] briefly summarise what has been argued and demonstrated, preferably making explicit reference to the themes and sub-themes you introduced in the opening chapter; [b] discuss any limitations or unresolved issues; and [c] consider the implications for public policy and/or future research.
- When you have a draft of the whole thesis, but before you undertake the final rounds of polishing, turn again to the introductory chapter to consider how it might be improved. You should make sure that you did not promise anything that you have not actually delivered: if you did so, promise less.
Writing an article for an academic journal
Postgraduate research students should aim to publish one or more articles arising from their work, either during their candidacy or shortly after completing the thesis. You can think of this as a process of ‘mining’ your own research and writing to create shorter, publishable contributions. Undergraduates doing theses as part of honours/advanced courses of study may also consider doing so. When this process is done well, useful skills are developed and advances in knowledge are shared. Having an article published in an academic journal is also a significant personal achievement, looking good on your c.v. However, because some academic ‘know-how’ is needed and a successful outcome is not guaranteed, it is advisable to bear the following points in mind.
- The typical academic journal article is about 8000 words. Journals vary in their requirements, so it is good to check these out, either online or in journal hard copies.
- Because journals also vary in the sort of material they publish, it is also good to look at the sort of things that have appeared in recent issues before you decide where to submit your article. There is much to be said for getting started by submitting your work to local journals that tend to be more open to early career scholars. In the Australian case, this would include journals such as the Economic and Labour Relations Review, Labour & Industry and the Journal of Australian Political Economy (JAPE). Applying for the annual JAPE Young Scholar Award can open a route to getting an article being published in that journal.
- For an article submitted to a journal, the opening paragraphs are particularly important. You can usefully think in terms of, say, four short paragraphs: the first sets up the topic; the second briefly says what is already known about the topic (or what is the prevailing orthodoxy on it); the third raises questions about what needs to be explored/investigated; and the fourth foreshadows how the article is structured to pursue those concerns.
- The main body of the article then follows that structure. It should be organised under sub-headings: always a minimum of 3 and more typically 5-7. You should try to keep the argument clear, well supported by evidence wherever appropriate, and consistent with the ‘general advice’ section earlier in this article.
- The concluding section of the article is also very important. It should briefly summarise the argument/findings, of course, but it is also good to add a bit of ‘fizz’, eg. by saying why the evidence and argument in the article matters – for example, what are its any implications for policy – and how future research could address anything that remains unresolved.
- When you think you have got your article pretty well ‘done’ you should congratulate yourself, take a break for a day or two, and then re-read it afresh with a constructively critical eye, looking for ways in which it may be improved. Maybe read it out aloud: if it sounds convoluted or tedious to you (or to whoever you can persuade to listen), then it almost certainly needs more work. The further revision should concentrate particularly on making the text ’flow’ better. Editing your own work in this way is time well spent because it can make all the difference between irritating and impressing your readers. Indeed, it is likely to have a strong influence on whether your article will ever be published.
- Academic journals are almost invariably ‘peer reviewed’. This process is typically ‘double blind’. That means that the referees will not know your name – so don’t put it on the submitted paper, only in your covering letter to the journal’s editor – and you won’t know the names of the referees. Most journals send submitted articles to two or three referees who evaluate its content and recommend whether it should be published, rejected, or revised and resubmitted. The final decision is then taken by the journal’s editor/s, who will let you know the verdict. A waiting time of at least two months, sometimes a lot longer, is normal. If you get a ‘revise and resubmit’, don’t be disappointed and give up: that’s quite normal and actually means you’re en route to getting published because you’ve now got the referees’ feedback indicating how your work can be further improved.
The writing tips in this article are the result of the author’s 50 years of experience in the ‘school of hard knocks’ – as an author, thesis supervisor, examiner, academic referee and journal editor. As should be obvious by now, many of these tips are not specific to political economy. Indeed, most apply generally to all writing in the social sciences. This generality is a good thing because, once you develop the work-patterns and skills, you can apply them to wider territories. Political economy is a great launching pad because the clear analytical thinking this subject requires goes hand in hand with effective writing.
Of course. writing is hard work, but each stage (‘drafting’, ‘oxy-welding’ and ‘polishing’) involves learned skills. The more you apply these skills the better the outcomes will be. Therefore, if you approach the task like a craftsperson, you can get considerable pleasure from the process. Enjoy.
For complementary advice on writing essays in political economy, you are also strongly recommended to look at a great article by Adam Morton.
Image: John Kenneth Galbraith, drawn by David Levine for the June 29, 1967 issue of the New York Review of Books.