The writing of an academic article

Alaric has taught academic writing in a range of contexts over the years, and has noticed that while students may have a good idea of what a finished piece of academic writing should look like, they often lack models for what draft work looks like. One common effect of this is that they feel that their first version should be as well-written as their last, which is an intimidating feeling!

This page is an experiment in presenting an academic article at several stages of drafting. How representative Alaric's methods are is an open question, but it's a start! When Alaric began writing this article, he already had a fairly good idea of what it would look like. This makes it rather different from students' dissertations/theses, which tend to involve more exploration, rethinking, rewriting, backtracking, and so on. But it also makes it easier concisely to illustrate the same overall trajectory which dissertations follow.

In getting the article ready to be submitted for peer-review, Alaric worked on it on about sixteen days. Some involved many hours' work on the paper, some very litte; and they were spread out over about three months. The article draws on ideas and arguments which had been brewing for a few years before that too. Don't imagine, then, that Alaric would have expected to write this from scratch in sixteen consecutive days!

Click on an image to download the corresponding stage of the article.

Opening gambit: oral paper

Alaric finds he has to give a short paper on something to do with medieval Scandinavia--an area which isn't his main focus. He has a few ideas knocking about, basically involving applying some concepts he developed in his PhD to Scandinavian material. He gathers them into this powerpoint presentation. Doing that and talking about it helps him to get the shape of an argument together in his mind.

Alaric doesn't write scripts for oral papers, which makes them quicker to prepare and more interesting to listen to. The act of giving the paper itself can be an important stage in developing ideas, so it's a useful part of the writing process.

Day 0 (word count: 337)

The title is already in place because Alaric had to give this long before he wrote the article!

The first paragraph is just a few colloquial notes about the context of the article; the second represents an idea which Alaric has had knocking around for a while, so it's quite well developed, but doesn't particularly fit in structurally.

Day 1 (word count: 1,742)

A nascent structure is introduced using sub-headings, and references in Harvard style are added when Alaric has them to hand. Other references are added by simply pasting from library catalogues.

Several paragraphs are added as Alaric quotes his two primary texts and sketches out his main point. Alaric's ideas here are fairly well formed already, so the writing is fairly formal, if a bit rambly. It nonetheless includes some notes to self, particularly at the end, where loose ideas and references are starting to collect.

Day 4 (word count: 2,667)

Alaric's started to think about how the introduction should progress, but hasn't got very far.

He's added a bit of material to the next section though, mainly about problems which he'd rather not deal with--and pasted in a diagram from his PhD.

He's also added a new section, 'fighting monsters and fighting illness'. This mainly amounts to a few notes (some in deceptively formal language) and a quotation from another source.

Day 5 (word count: 3,583)

Oops, that new primary source quotation didn't work very well there, so it's now in an earlier section, joined by some notes linking it into the argument there.

Back in 'fighting monsters and fighting illness', though, one of Alaric's notes to self is being expanded into colloquial prose.

And another new section has appeared, 'From myth and health to moral transgression'. For external reasons, this is the topic which the article has to address, and Alaric has steeled himself to the task with a paragraph of colloquial prose and another one summarising a further primary source (called Skírnismál). This source has been at the back of his mind since before he started writing, but he's still not quite sure how it's going to tie in...

Day 8 (word count: 5,988)

Now that he's got a better idea of the overall trajectory of the paper, Alaric's added a bit to the introduction.

In the second section, 'What is a þurs?' Alaric's told himself to mention his recently added primary source, Skírnismál: it's starting to get integrated into the text. He's also set about substantiating the claims he made in note form with some actual evidence.

The final section has been expanded with the addition of another source with some prose on how it relates to Skírnismál and some extensive quotation (added on a day when Alaric wasn't really up to inventing any prose of his own!).

In a moment of boredom or confusion, Alaric's emboldened the sub-headings.

Spare material and other notes to self are growing at the bottom of the document, and in footnotes.

Alaric's feeling a bit worried that the article won't be long enough, but experience has taught him this feeling will pass.

Day 11 (word count: 7,449)

The first serious revision of the introduction since day 0, spelling out what the article is for.

Scattered improvements of evidence and discussion widely in the article, some filling gaps marked in earlier versions, some representing unanticipated improvements. In the third section, 'monsters and illness' (olim 'fighting monsters and fighting illness'), Alaric decides he needs to discuss dwarfs at length and adds a chunk of material based on text which didn't fit in his PhD thesis.

The final section, 'myth, health, and moral transgression', has also been revised, with the language made more formal and some improvements to the content.

Alaric's started to spot a lot of articles he should be reading, footnotes with notes to self are multiplying... and Alaric is worried that the article will be too long!

Day 14 (word count: 9,168)

Things are starting to come together, with a step-change in appearance as Alaric moves from primary writing to serious revising.

There's been fairly thorough revision of wording throughout; an effort to plug most of the gaps in content (a translation of the long quotation from Skírnismál at the end has finally arrived, and Alaric's put in some library time on the references at the end of the article); and Alaric has put his Harvard references into footnotes (while retaining the Harvard system except for a new notes at the beginning, where he's begun to put notes in the journal's style). He's even added page-numbers!

In terms of content, Alaric's realised that all the stuff he added about dwarfs in the previous version is too long-winded, so he's parked it in a footnote while he builds up the willpower to rephrase it in a few sentences. He's moved the big diagram, told himself to revise it, and adjusted the associated prose. And he's added the sub-heading 'conclusions', without having the time (or, perhaps, mustering the willpower) to write anything under it.

Day 16 (word count: 9,309)

The article is pretty much ready for submission: the main change is that Alaric has combed through the footnotes changing them to the journal's style. He's also revised the diagram.

Some of the last loose ends are fixed before submission, while others are rephrased as if there wasn't a loose end at all (Alaric chases these straggling problems down over the next year or so ready for the final publication).

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