Researchers are often heavily entangled in their research. They’ve lived with it for a long time. And they can do that because the research is interesting to them. Really interesting. It’s not really surprising that a long-term-involved researcher might forget that other people may not immediately share their passion. Why would anyone not want to know about the stuff they’ve been working on for ages? And when they write about this work, they sometimes forget to tell their readers what about their research is worth spending time on.
Sad news but true… Often readers aren’t interested in your topic. Perhaps its because they’ve already read about it, or perhaps it’s because the topic just isn’t on their radar. But of course it could be. So what’s stopping them? Well, frequently it’s simply because the writer hasn’t convinced the reader that they should read the research that’s taken so much time and effort.
One of the very common problems I encounter in journal writing article workshops is that writers can’t work out what they need to do to encourage readers to engage. They just can’t find an angle that will do the trick. But what do I mean by angle? Well perhaps a metaphor might help.
Imagine the topic you are going to write about is an object – it’s one that you can’t entirely see. But you can see quite a bit of it as a result of the research you’ve done. Now, you can stand right in front of this (hypothetical) object and describe what you see in front of you. Equally, you might lie on your back, stand to one side, climb up a ladder, look through a piece of gauze, or peer through a tube at it. Perhaps the object seems to be telling you which of these standing points is more appropriate. But whatever position you take up, each standing point gives a different angle on your object. You see and can say different things.
Now think about the research that you want to write about in exactly the same way. There’s more than one position to take on it. More than one angle.
Next, think about the readers of your target journal. They may well be familiar with this object/topic, or one a lot like it. There may have been quite a bit already written about it. These readers don’t want to read something written from the most obvious or usual position, standing straight in front or standing a little to one side. They’ve had a lot of that already. So, giving them more of this same-old view is kind of hohum boring. But they’d be interested in something looking at the same object/topic from another angle, perhaps from the ladder or the view you get from lying underneath. OK, enough of the metaphor. You get the point I’m sure.
The point is that it’s generally not enough to have something to write about in a journal article, you also have to find an angle on it that is both interesting and unfamiliar/novel to the reader. This might for example be through:
- a novel data corpus
- putting several data sets together in an innovative way
- bringing new methods to the topic
- using a different theoretical approach
- bringing disciplinary perspectives together in a new way
Or the new angle could be something like:
- a new problematisation or
- a different interpretation, or
- a new argument.
Any of these things – and of course more besides, you get to be creative here – offer the reader a different way to look at a topic from the one or two they may be quite familiar with, or may know slightly.
The angle you take is established by setting up the paper from a particular standing point. Your introduction and conclusion are then written from your chosen angle. (We’ve all seen a lot of pictures of the Eiffel Tower but not so many from below… knowing an object only from one perspective means… etc). But it’s not always easy to find your angle.
In my writing workshops, I always spend time getting people to ‘pitch’ their paper. This helps them find an angle that works. I offer a few headings to work to:
- What’s the paper about? (the field and the paper focus)
- Who is the reader? (What’s the journal)
- What does the reader already know about the topic? What’s the usual way that the topic is discussed? (What’s already in the scholarly conversation in the journal in particular and the field)
- What’s the new approach that your paper will offer? Why will the reader find this angle of interest?
Participants often find the pitch exercise useful. Yes, having to present thoughts in a very short period of time – no more than three or four minutes – can be tricky, but it’s also often pretty helpful. However, it’s VERY often the conversation that happens around the pitch that’s most important and significant. It’s the bouncing-ideas-around and being-asked-to-think-about-why-the-topic-is-important, and why-this-angle that seems to make the most difference to Worksop participants.
Dealing with these questions – why this topic, why now, is this something that readers would like to know about, is it something that they are already quite familiar with – is incredibly useful preparation for writing, for thinking about the ways in which your material and argument can be presented. And dealing with the ‘angle’ questions through dialogue, in a supportive environment, with either peers, or a mentor, can be highly productive.
So why not try it out? Have a go, as we Australians say, at finding your angle, and focusing and refining it, before you start on that next paper you’ve been musing on.
Image: Nithi Anand.