Editors of journals suggest that one of the major problems they see in submitted articles is a lack of focus. They observe that too many writers try to say ‘everything’, and this means that they end up saying ‘nothing’.
In essence a journal article is about one idea. At most it might be two.
In order to write about a single idea, the writer needs to establish its provenance – to state the idea clearly through the title and opening paragraphs, explaining why is important and where it fits in the wider field (see CARS). They need to explain the basis for their contribution (methods, theory) and then logically work through the idea as an argument, giving evidence/reasons in a clear and well-signposted manner.
Given that the average journal article is only about six to eight thousand words, if the writer tries to do this process for more than one idea, then it inevitably means scrimping on the work that needs doing to make the case – and make it comprehensible to the reader.
Very often the struggle to write the journal article is a struggle to find the one idea that makes it interesting and worth publishing. Many early career researchers succumb to the temptation to try compress all of their ‘thesis’ or research report into one article, OR they find it difficult to weed out only one idea. This is because a thesis in particular is an intricate tangle of ideas within one large argument; when you have been immersed in the detail for so long, it is tricky to think about how to disentangle one slice only. But this disentangling must be done.
Another common problem is a kind of slippage slide between ideas. This is when the article starts out with one lens and then says something entirely different in the conclusion. This is very confusing to the reader who has a feeling at the end of the article that they have lost their way – in reality it is because the writer has not carried through the ‘red thread’ of the argument. They have dropped one idea and moved on to another one somewhere in the middle of the writing.
It can also be hard to sort out the idea because it is just too soon to locate it … not enough writing along the way has been done to make sense of what you have. I sometimes find that I need to write myself a report of the data as a way of finding the angle and the theorisation for an article. This little report is not the article, it’s simply the means of getting to it. At other times I need to sit on a piece of data analysis for a while until the idea becomes clear. I often write abstracts as a means of helping to clarify what the idea might actually be.
And sometimes it seems harder to find the idea in some projects than others. I don’t know why this is so. I do know however that articles do not all get written at the same speed: some go quickly and others take a very long time. I can think of one piece which was five years in the making. This was because I just couldn’t get the right idea. I couldn’t write because I lacked focus. I had a description and findings, but no idea.
Talking to others about the idea for an article can also be helpful, or talking in the shower, or writing a conference paper. Whatever the approach you take however, you have to get the idea and the focus for the journal article to ‘work’. Otherwise the editor’s point will come true.
Whether it’s no idea or too many ideas, lack of focus equals rejection.