how to write articles

Last semester I was talking to some grad students about academic writing. I made some remark about how learning how to write an article well is really tough and that it is probably one of the biggest barriers to academic success. I really do think that’s true. Graduate programs are filled with smart students with great ideas, but very few of them become known for those ideas. I think that selling the idea is where some of those academics fall short. If you can’t write it, nobody will read it.

With that in mind, I noticed that Ezra Zuckerman has a nice set of tips posted on his website for people who want to learn how to write articles. Ezra, who is an excellent writer, gives very sound, practical advice.

One hypothesis (or a few tightly related hypotheses) is enough. If people remember a paper at all, they will remember it for one idea.

A paper will not be interesting unless there is a really compelling null hypothesis.

Never write literature reviews.

The only reason anyone cares about a literature is because it is helpful in clarifying puzzles in the world. So start with the puzzle.

This last tip reminds me of something I once heard an editor of a prominent sociology journal say. He said that he advises his grad students to conceive of an article as a solution to a paradox. He thought that the first couple of sentences of every article should describe what that paradox is. The rest of the paper attempts to resolve it.

UPDATE: Speaking of great writing, check out the American Book Review’s list of the best last lines from novels.


Written by brayden king

March 26, 2008 at 6:00 pm

7 Responses

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  1. Agreed. Writing’s the one thing that does not get taught (other than trial and error perhaps) in doctoral programs. And, many a brilliant student has not finished their program given writing problems.



    March 26, 2008 at 6:11 pm

  2. […] write articles Brayden at Orgtheory links to a piece by Ezra Zuckerman: Ezra, who is an excellent writer, gives very sound, practical advice. One hypothesis (or a few […]


  3. I’m going to have to write post around this idea of Ezra’s: “The author’s job is to explain to the reader that s/he was right to believe x about the world, but that since x doesn’t hold under certain conditions, s/he should shift to belief x’.” That’s exactly right. I normally put it like this: the author should explain what the relevant discipline would expect of the empirical situation that is dealt with in the paper. And then explain how the particular study disappoints those expectations, or at least requires us to modify them. But the additional rhetorical advice of explaining that the reader was right to hold those expectations (because the reader is a well-educated member of a particular discipline) is worth emphasizing. Another way to put it: if your paper isn’t published, members of your field will be compelled to believe something that your results show isn’t exactly right.


    Thomas Basbøll

    March 26, 2008 at 7:13 pm

  4. Brayden alerted me to his link to my ‘article tips.’ I’m glad that you and Thomas found them useful. And thanks for the compliment on my writing, Brayden.

    One note on the line that struck a chord with Thomas, on the ‘author’s job.’ To wit: I don’t think that the reader is usually moved by “results” unless they are incontrovertible (rare!) and the issue at hand concerns a question of fact. (For instance, I was dubious that much had changed in the amount of ‘social capital’ held by Americans until McPherson, Smith-Lovin, and Brashears showed pretty clearly that some kind of decline has taken place). But especially insofar as the issue at hand is theoretical (what mechanisms/processes operate in the world and how do they work?), I think the reader is moved when it is pointed out to him/her that two ideas (theories) that s/he believes in are basically in contradiction unless the clarification provided by the author is accepted. The best case is where the reader is *compelled* to switch to the new belief even though s/he has a lot invested in the old belief but becomes persuaded that his/her old belief clearly doesn’t work. In Martin Hollis’s wonderful book The Cunning of Reason, this is how he defines rationality (and, by implication, human agency)– i.e., a stimulus to action based not on a desire to do so, but the recognition that it is the right thing to do. That is, the ultimate is overcoming people’s biases to gain rational assent.


    Ezra Zuckerman

    March 27, 2008 at 12:33 am

  5. I agree with this. I should probably just have said “members of your field will be compelled to believe something that you think isn’t exactly right.” I.e., I was thinking of the “results” of your research, reading, reflections, etc., on the topic. What I would emphasize (following Ezra) here is, first, that one should be writing to effect a theoretical shift of *some* kind, i.e., a change in the way the reader perceived the phenomenon in general, and, second, that there should be some (yes, compelling) reason to make that shift in one’s thinking beyond merely being able to assimilate the writers latest empirical observations. Those observations/results may be interesting to you, but your reader needs to be convinced that the theoretical shift will be fruitful over the longer term.



    March 27, 2008 at 9:15 am

  6. That is, a reigning theory is a legitimate bias. Your reader has every right to be biased by an established theory. So you have to grant that. Again, what I like about Ezra’s remark is that it draws attention to this rhetorical constraint on academic writing, too often ignored by PhD students … like me, when I was one! You guide your reader in another direction, unavoidably towards a new bias, which someone else will later try to correct in turn.



    March 27, 2008 at 9:21 am

  7. Thanks very much for sharing this, Brayden, it’s an excellent read!

    Ezra: I think your tips on the null hyp. are the most interesting, along the one on never writing lit. reviews (which suck).

    Specifically, what I liked in the tips is that they translate in simple ideas two important yet overlooked concepts: counterfactual analysis (build a compelling null), and variable manipulability (save the null: no use looking at x=1 if if x cannot be equal to 0).



    March 27, 2008 at 5:33 pm

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