How (and When) to Write the Background Section of a Manuscript

The related posts: How to Review a Manuscript, How to Write a Manuscript, How (and When) to Write the Background Section of a Manuscript.

The background of a paper may have different names depending on your field. It might be called the introduction, or the literature review, or the theoretical framework. Certainly, you should be familiar enough with existing research BEFORE you start a study to know that your work aligns with accepted studies and offers something new. However, WRITING the background should be your LAST step in writing a paper.

  1. As always, look at example papers from the journal you are targeting.
    • How many paragraphs are typical for backgrounds in this journal?
    • What is the purpose of each paragraph?
    • How many sentences are each paragraph?
    • Do backgrounds have subsections?
    • What is the purpose of each subsection? How long? ETC.
  2. Write the literature review backwards. Many people recommend the hourglass method for writing articles. I recommend it for the literature review and discussion. The hourglass starts broad, becomes narrow, and then broadens again. For the literature review, you are writing a broad and narrow piece. For the discussion you are writing narrow and then getting broad.
    • Write the narrowest part of the introduction first. What is your research question? This is the last paragraph of your background (or a separate section depending on the journal)
    • Who in your community cares about this specific research question and your specific findings? Focus in on work that speaks to your specific findings. Someone WITHIN your community has done something similar. Discuss that similar work. This is towards the end of your background.
      • For example, imagine you studied the role that the availability of LEGOS plays in shaping girls’ notions of gender roles. Someone in your community (the TOY-GENDER community) has likely studied LEGOS, or other types of toys, and their impact on gender role notions among girls and boys.
    • What other communities might care about this specific research question and findings? Focus in on work that speaks to your question and findings. Someone OUTSIDE OF your community has done something similar. Discuss that similar work. This is in the middle of your background.
      • Someone outside of your community (in the CAR-GENDER community or the TOY-ETHNICITY community) has likely studied different types of objects (e.g., cars) and their impact on gender role notions among girls and boys; or, the impact of toys on societal role notions among different ethnic groups.
    • In your discussion points, you should have thought beyond your specific question and findings to discuss the broader implications of your work. Other communities studying other concepts related to your work will be interested in the implications of your work. This is near the beginning of your background.
      • People who study TOYS or GENDER (but not necessarily both) or WORKFORCE or PLAY or IDENTITY-BASED PERCEPTIONS (but not necessarily of gender) would be interested in your TOY-GENDER findings in a broad sense. Describe this prior work.
    • The very first paragraph of your paper should set up why your work is so vital. This should be written like this: FACT, FACT, FACT, PROBLEM, HEY – I CAN SOLVE THAT PROBLEM! Like this (I am totally making this up, but in real life there would be references. And don’t judge me – again, I made this up as an example of a first paragragph): Many careers are outside of the reach of young girls, not because of ability, but because of societal expectations. Often, these expectations are transmitted when we are quite young, in the objects we encounter. For example, the toys we play with can instill a sense of how we – as gendered individuals – are expected to engage with the world as we age and begin to work. In the western world, toys are often labeled by the gender group we expect to use them, up to and including use of specific colors (pink, purple) for toys deemed appropriate for girls. This labeling can encourage unconscious bias among parents and children alike, and can shape how young girls view themselves as workers. Reshaping how children play, and what they play with, can have far reaching implications for women in the workforce.
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How to Write a Manuscript

The related posts: How to Review a Manuscript, How to Write a Manuscript, How (and When) to Write the Background Section of a Manuscript.

My personal opinion is that writing – especially technical writing – hinges on planning. Set very specific goals. Here is what I would do for an empirical paper; this can be adapted for theory/argument. Let’s say you need to write a journal article. Set a daily goal. Take about a week to dig into article structure and make your blueprint, and each subsequent day do one paragraph/table/figure. You’ll be submitting in 3 months.

  • Pick a journal.
    • Review all of the possible journals.
    • Check to make sure they are legitimate publication venues.
    • Look at metrics that other people might care about (impact factor, who is the publisher).
    • PICK ONE.
  • Examine the structure of articles in that journal.
    • Pick three example articles that you really like and which are similar to the kind of work you will be presenting.
    • Tear each article apart
      • How many sections?
      • How many paragraphs in each section?
        • What is the form and function of each paragraph?
        • How many sentences in each paragraph? ETC.
        • Tear the articles apart down to sentence structure if needed.
  • Based on what you have learned about articles published in this journal, develop a blueprint for the components of your paper. You can model the blueprint in as much detail based on example articles as you are comfortable with. Notice – this should be generic. You are going to drop the story of your research into this blueprint.
  • Once you have that blueprint, I recommend writing in this order:
    • Research question/hypotheses
    • Methods
    • Figures/tables.
    • Bullet points for each figure/table that articulate the information in the figures/table. If a figure/table is in the results section, also write bullet points for the SO WHAT? of each figure/table.
    • Write out bullet points for results not shown in figures/tables.
    • Bullet point discussion themes – these should convey the SO WHAT? of your research and connect to the literature (which you haven’t written up yet). Nail down discussion points – this is the hardest part.
    • The content of the background should be aligned with your discussion. The discussion should consist of:
      • 2-4 very specific findings linked to the work that most closely aligns with your study.
      • 1-3 broader implications that align with work that is linked with some, but not all aspects of your work.
      • 1-3 very broad implications that align with the most general community.
      • Then, and only then, do you write the background (this is the introduction or literature review or theoretical framework or whatever your field calls the background). As you write the background, your discussion points might adjust to accommodate any new literature that you discover. See this post for suggestions about how to write the background.
    • After finish your background, flesh out the discussion by weaving the literature you have cited into the discussion.

How to Review a Manuscript

The related posts: How to Review a Manuscript, How to Write a Manuscript, How (and When) to Write the Background Section of a Manuscript.

Reviewing a manuscript for a professional journal can seem like an overwhelming task, and can be time-consuming. I use this technique to help me dig into a paper quickly.

  1. Read the abstract and the title.
  2. Make a note of the central theme of the paper.
  3. Flip to the research question (usually at end of intro).
  4. Make a note of the connection or lack thereof between the research question and the theme as depicted by title and abstract.
  5. Flip to discussion.
  6. Does the discussion address the theme and question? Often, this is where a paper will fall apart first. Don’t read in great detail yet, just skim for alignment.
  7. If discussion, theme, and question do not align, then your review should focus on this. Do the next steps, but the authors either made a mistake, or didn’t actually do the work as they thought they had.
  8. If discussion, theme, and question all align, then go to methods. As above, check to make sure methods align with theme/question. Now, however, you get to decide if the methods are adequate. Not perfect. Adequate. You can note imperfections, but new reviewers are often too focused on minor details and then miss major errors. Look up any methods that you feel weak on – I do it all the time, especially for stats and even for things I’m an expert on. If I have any questions, I always double-check that my concern is legit.
  9. Dig into the results.
    1. Do the results align with the theme/question/method?
    2. Do the results need to push things further?
    3. Are figures/tables telling the story of the paper or are they difficult to follow?
  10. Dig into the discussion. The biggest mistake I see is a discussion that simply repeats results. A good discussion will tell a reader the SO WHAT of the paper. Seriously, why should anyone care enough to read it?
  11. Remember, you still shouldn’t have read much of the introduction or literature review. Read it now.
    1. Does the introduction link into the discussion?
    2. Does the discussion adequately reference both the literature they cite and the existing literature, in general? Often, people will have a misalignment between the literature they reference and their discussion. You might not know the literature well enough to know what’s missing, but GoogleScholar does.