By Gordon Rugg
It’s spring. To some people, it’s a time of flowers and buds and growth and new hope. To other people, it’s the time when they’re trying to write their undergraduate dissertation, and are feeling lost and confused.
This article is intended for people who are grappling with academic writing, and who are having trouble working out what the core concepts are. It has elements of humour in it, but the underlying point is completely serious. It’s about the deep structure and the internal logic of academic writing. Most people are unfamiliar with those two topics in the academic context, but they’re very familiar with them in a different context, which is the core of this article. That context is the fairy tale.
This article goes through the key stages of an academic article, mapping them onto the corresponding stages of a fairy tale, and explaining the underlying logic behind them.
Stage 1: The Problem
Every self-respecting fairy tale starts with a problem. Here’s a time-honoured example.
There’s a simple reason for this stage; if there wasn’t a problem, then the story would be short and boring, even if it was happy.
In a fairy tale, this is where you tell the audience about just how big and scaly and scary the dragon is. In an academic article, this is where you tell the reader about just how big and scaly and scary the problem is.
One important thing to remember is that you need to pitch the right type of problem for the audience you’re addressing. Knights take on big adversaries such as dragons and ogres and villainous knights; they don’t do plagues of rats and suchlike, since those are someone else’s job. Similarly, in an academic dissertation or article, you need to focus on the academic aspect of the problem that you’re tackling, not on the business aspect of the problem or the societal aspect. A lot of students lose sight of this, and in consequence fail to show enough of their knowledge of the academic content on which they will be marked. Caring about worthy causes is a good and praiseworthy thing, but you need to remember that it won’t get you any marks; you get marks for showing that you know and understand relevant stuff from your course.
Stage 2: The Case of the Crisped Knights
The next part of the story involves people trying unsuccessfully to solve the problem.
Why “unsuccessfully”? Because if they were successful, then the story would end at that point.
In the fairy tale, this is where you tell the audience about two previous attempts to solve the problem, and how they ended badly.
Why two previous attempts? Because that’s the smallest number needed to establish a pattern. You see the same thing in the 1-2-3 type of joke, where the first two cases set up the pattern, and the third case breaks the pattern in a humorous way.
In an academic article, this is where you tell the audience about previous attempts to solve the problem, and how they ended badly. There’s a key difference here, though, from the fairy tale. In an academic article, you are supposed to give a fair, comprehensive overview of all the key approaches that have been tried before (which will probably be more than two). This is your literature review. You don’t need to cite every single article involved; that would be impractical. Instead, you cite every significant approach that’s been tried, with examples of key articles that used those approaches.
How do you know what counts as “key”? That’s what academic judgment is all about. (As a shortcut while you’re a learner, though, you can look for which articles keep being cited in the introductions and literature reviews of previous articles on the topic. Review articles are also an invaluable source of guidance for this stage.)
A good storyteller or academic writer will use this stage to prepare the ground for the next stage. In academic writing, many disciplines make a significant distinction between a literature report and a literature review. A literature report is what it sounds like – just a “he said, she said” summary of what each article said. A literature review goes beyond that, by including an overview of key themes across the articles surveyed, and by including a critical analysis.
Why does that matter? If we look at the fairy story, a good storyteller will deliberately include key information that drives the plot forward – for instance, mentioning that all the knights who tried and failed to slay the dragon were wearing open-faced helmets. That sets up the opportunity for the magical benefactor to give the hero or heroine a closed-faced helmet, together with an explanation of how this will give protection from the dragon’s fiery breath.
In the same way, a good literature review will identify things that previous studies have already tried, and also identify things that previous studies didn’t try. This sort of gap-spotting is something that literature reviews do well, and that literature reports don’t do well, which is why literature reviews are usually viewed more favourably in academia.
Stage 3: Your Shiny Solution
In the fairy tale, this is where the hero or heroine is given a wonderful solution by a good fairy or a wise wizard or whoever.
In academic writing, this is where you describe the method that you’re going to apply to the problem.
In the fairy tale, this is where you describe the wonders of the solution – how strong the steel is, or how miraculous the magic mirror is, or whatever. In academic writing, this is where you demonstrate your detailed knowledge of the method you’re going to use, including key references, and where you explain why this method ought to work where previous methods have failed.
At a low and mercenary level of academic writing, this is where you establish your escape route in case things don’t go as planned; if the method doesn’t work, then you can focus on why the respectable and well-established method didn’t work, which is very different from having to explain why your personal idea was wrong.
Stage 4: The Central Confrontation
In the fairy tale, this is where the hero or heroine tackles the problem, with their enchanted sword or magical mirror or by using the Force to target their missile on the exhaust port of the Death Star.
In academic writing, this is where you show the reader your results. Different disciplines have different conventions about how to do this. You need to find out the conventions for your discipline, and how best to portray yourself as the equivalent of someone who vanquished a fearsome dragon heroically in fair fight, rather than as an unspeakable cad who beat some small and inoffensive reptile that was minding its own business.
This is where your supervisor can be invaluable. If that route won’t work for you, for whatever reason, then you can try judicious flattery of another member of staff who is approachable and who has relevant wisdom.
Stage 5: Happily Ever After
In the fairy tale, this is where the story concludes with the loose threads being brought together into a silken skein, and with the heroic main character getting due recognition and reward.
In academic writing, this is the “discussion” section where you discuss your findings in a modestly understated way that shows the reader just how brilliant you were in your choice of method and in your amazing results. This stage is also where, if you’re a professional, you set yourself up for whatever you want to do next, in the “conclusion and further work” section.
At a sordidly mercenary level, the “further work” section is where you plant a flag showing that you were the first to think of the brilliant next step. That flag establishes your priority, which is important in academia; it also tells potential competitors that you’re ahead of them in the game, since by the time they read your article, you’ll already have been working on the idea for a year or two, since that’s how long it takes an article to go from submission to publication in a good journal. So from your point of view, that’s the equivalent of riding off into the sunset towards the next heroic challenge, before the other heroes and heroines have even started to saddle their trusty steeds.
That concludes this brief overview. Once you understand the logic behind the structure of academic articles and dissertations, everything makes a lot more sense, and it’s much easier to decide which things to focus on and which things to move into the background.
I hope you’ve found it rewarding and useful.
For readers who are interested in odd mediaeval things: There’s an entire genre of mediaeval pictures showing knights in armour fighting giant snails. I have no idea of the background story, and I’ll probably sleep better at night if I don’t know it.
If you’re interested in the deep structures beneath different forms of writing, a good place to start is Propp’s work on story grammars, in particular his Morphology of the Folk Tale. If you search for his name you should find a lot of interesting, accessible material.
There’s been a lot of interesting academic research into regularities in humour, such as 1-2-3 jokes and “stupid” jokes. We’ve touched on this in an earlier article:
If you want to know more about the craft skills of academic writing, Marian Petre and I have written about this in some detail in our book The Unwritten Rules of PhD Research.
Although it’s mainly intended for PhD students, there are chapters on academic writing which are highly relevant to undergraduate and taught postgraduate students. It’s written in the same style as this article, if that’s any encouragement…
The Unwritten Rules of PhD Research, 2nd edition (Marian Petre & Gordon Rugg)
A happy closing note for readers who worry about such things: The picture of the raging inferno shows a burning tractor, not a knight and trusty steed coming to a tragic end. I have no idea what the story is behind the burning tractor, and I suspect that I’ll be happier not knowing.