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April 06, 2022

Creating a metanarrative conversation within a journal issue

Writing about web page https://exchanges.warwick.ac.uk/index.php/exchanges/

How much does creating a conversation between articles in a journal volume rely on luck, authors or the editors themselves?

This morning I was interviewing one of my associate editors (hi Anna!) who had reached the end of her time with the journal. As I’ve probably mentioned in previous posts, I always like to run exit interviews with my editors to explore what they’ve learned, how they’ve grown and perhaps most importantly what were the challenges they faced. All of which feeds into my plans and support for the journal team going forward. The interviews are also a great point at which I can personally thank the editors for their efforts: literally without them we are nothing as a journal, so it’s always worth saying.

While we talked over various issues in our chat, one point today’s editor made concerned not being able to see the ‘whole’ journal as she was only working on a few papers. Hence, for an associate editor how the journal comes together is seen from a very ‘fragmentary’ perspective. I thought this was an interesting point, worth a few minutes’ reflection of my own. I must confess, how collections of articles become more than an assemblage of text and evolve into a conversation, where pieces almost speak to each other, can be an incredibly illusive element of the editorial process. For our regular issues there have been a few glorious, serendipitous moments where articles can be seen to resonate with each other, occasionally even between issues. I say ‘serendipitous’, as our regular issues comprise articles usually submitted and developed entirely in total isolation from each another. I will acknowledge how on a rare occasion we have pieces submitted which are responding to earlier texts, but although these are worthy contributions, they are the exceptions rather than the rule.

For our special issues though, there’s a much greater chance its articles will exist in some form of cogent metanarrative. The articles are often framed as outputs from an event, most notably as in our first three special issues for example, or may instead emerge from a call for contributions. For the former option this means while articles might have been finalised by authors in private, there’s been some degree of interchange and interaction ahead of their creation with their fellow contributors. All of which will have influenced their thinking and writing to a degree, making the appearance of threads of commonality or counterpoint in the prose more likely. For those responding to an open call though, I’ll acknowledge there’s going to be less immediate interrelationship within the texts.

Certainly, though, as editor-in-chief it’s also part of my role to maximise any resonance between individual articles too. This might be achieved through how they are assembled within the running order of the issue, but also most notably within my editorial overview of the issue’s contents too. It’s often when I’m writing this guide, as I am currently for issue 9(2) that I begin to identify some of the common threads of discussion and debate within the pieces.[1]

The benefits stemming from a well-curated and highlighted collection of articles has been one of the stronger arguments for the continuation of the journal as a form of scholarly publication. Rather than expecting readers to only use an article level accesses to specific texts, co-locating articles within a single journal issue, serves to enhance people’s awareness of other works of interest. Hence, a collection of thought from disparate writers, aggregated within a single volume, can potentially offer something more insightful as a whole than the individual components. Or at least that’s how the common argument goes.

I am perhaps in awe, and slightly jealous, of those journal editors who make this work look effortless though. For some perhaps it is easier due to the volume of texts they receive and publish far exceeds that of Exchanges: with more work to pick and choose from, and a likely greater regularity of publication, collating these pieces to form volumes with a stronger central narrative core becomes a less-complex achievement. It also forms a powerful incentive for readers and contributors alike to turn to their journals knowing the volume will contain multiple points of interest.

Then again, attempting to achieve such a narrative for a disciplinary title – rather than one trading in interdisciplinary contents such as ours – is also likely an easier, if not entirely facile, task too.

That said, coming up in the next issue of Exchanges will be a call for papers on a singular theme. I have high hopes this may well offer the creation of such a coherent discourse. Naturally, whether it succeeds or not I suspect will be largely down the coherency of the call that I write, but more than anything on the perceptions and scholarship of the issue’s contributors. Hence, we will have to see what fate, and our prodigious and generous authors, provide!

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[1] Due for publication at the end of April '22


October 19, 2021

Hewn from the Research Bedrock

Writing about web page https://exchanges.warwick.ac.uk/index.php/exchanges/guidance

What's an author to do when there's simply too much text to cram into a single article? Focus on what's the most important, advices Exchanges editor-in-chief.

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I’ve been having an enjoyable and informative exchange today with a prospective author. They’ve an especially lengthy original piece which they’re considering submitting to Exchanges, which as it currently stands would be almost triple the size of a regular article. Far too big for us to consider, and I suspect, reading between the lines, it’s a version of a masters’ dissertation meaning they’re likely on the horns of that most typical dilemma for a nascent author: ‘But ALL OF IT is important!!’. I know, I’ve been there myself, in trying to rework a lengthy thesis chapter into a discrete article and becoming frustrated and dismayed in equal measure.

Given we try here at Exchanges, within a little flexibility, to stick to our word limits for our formats – for the sake our reviewers’ time and attention if nothing else – I’ve been offering the author some guidance on ways in which they might approach revising their original text into an article for the journal. I thought it might be worth sharing some of these thoughts here, for other prospective authors too.

For this enquirer, they were particularly wondering how they could possibly shoehorn in all the ‘core’ elements of a research article - literature reviews, methods and methodologies - within what they perceived as a very limited wordcount.

To paraphrase my (not that) old PhD Supervisor ‘Always focus in your writing on what you think is the most important or exciting element, and let the rest form around this’. I can’t argue with this approach, even if it means creating an article from the inside out, rather than a linear or skeletal framework approach. It does benefit the piece though in ensuring the most attention is paid, in terms of page landscape, to the crucial elements of what the author actually wants to say – outside of the supporting contextual scaffold .

As anyone who has read any of my professional pieces, I will freely confess as a wordsmith myself, I tend to write long rather than concisely. To quote my supervisor once more when at the point where I was looking at cutting around 25,000 words from my thesis ‘They’re not going to weigh it, but bringing a focus IS important’. Hence, looking at my writing with always the question of ‘is this bit important/exciting?’ in mind – and if not, wielding the editorial hatchet more severely has helped over the years. I guess my screenwriting training to ‘kill your darlings’ underlines this approach too: never be afraid to cut, cut and cut some more until you’re down to what really matters.

Of course, Exchanges gets all sorts and styles of articles from across the rainbow bridge of disciplinarity. Hence, it would be foolish to suggest there’s a single right or wrong way to formulate a winning piece. There isn’t. But one thing I’ve seen time and again, especially from first time authors, is a tendency to try and cram too many ideas, concepts or narratives into a single article. There’s an understandable fear within their relative publishing inexperience, that cutting any element will fatally wound their chance for publication. Hence, they clip words and phrases but remain timorous of cutting ‘core’ content.

In cutting down the word count, but still trying to include everything, these authors risk instead creating prose so dense or shorn of necessary contextualisation and signposting that it becomes near impossible to read. Reviewers have repeatedly picked up on this in pieces we’ve sent out for feedback, and understandably then demand extensive refinement and greater clarity be introduced. For a piece which can then become so muddled by attempting to be all things at once, this can present the author with a literal literary mountain to climb or syntactical swamp to traverse.

It is a far better approach, where sculpting an article based on a prior, unpublished lengthy work for authors to ask time and again ‘Am I trying to introduce one, two or even three different core ideas in this piece?’ Or even simply ‘what’s the elevator pitch for this article?’

Simply put, if you are unable to boil down your article’s core message to 25 words or fewer…chances are you’re on the verge of taking on a Sisyphean mountaineering challenge post-review! The more skilful and time-savvy approach, is always to recognise the power of publishing a singular piece with a masterful lone, clear concept or argument at its heart. Rather than one which attempt to a muddled jack of all trades.

Nothing is lost though in your condensation of text. Simply because any material you’ve judged as extraneous to your core can be utilised as the foundation for one or more follow-on articles. In this way, you can develop and build higher and further on the firm bedrock of your original piece. You will be beginning to create a discrete vision, a research narrative, and singular voice within the tapestry of your research and publications. This can go a long way towards forming the basis of a publications strategy, alongside establishing your unique contribution and insight within the wider research discourse.

It also serves to soften the admitted heart ache of culling thousands of words from your original piece, if you consider they are not redundant entirely, but the solid foundation of subsequent publication.

As always, I’m interested in our readers and authors’ thoughts on this issue, so please let me know in the comments below if you’ve any advice or insights to share on condensation of longer pieces into impactful articles!


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