Develop a coherent argument

Writing a purpose statement
Good introductions and conclusions
Some things to avoid
Make effective transitions
Using headings

Writing a purpose statement

In an interview given on this site, John Peters, Emerald Editorial Director and Editor of Management Decision, had this to say about how to counteract the vagueness and lack of clarity in some papers:

Write a purpose statement! Write, “The purpose of this paper is….” Then do what you say you will do. And please tell us why it’s important, or novel, or valuable. What’s in it for the researcher and the practitioner? [Please can you link to 'Meet the Editor' article on Management Decision - should I also ask John's permission?]

In other words, be very clear what your paper is about so that you could articulate it to anyone who asks. In these pages we give some hints about how you can make your language clearer, but the most important thing in getting your message across is that you fully understand your message.

Good introductions and conclusions

Your introduction is your chance to get your reader interested in the subject. First impressions count, in research as in life. A good approach is to:

  • Establish the importance of the research area.
  • Establish a reason why your own particular study is important - because it is particularly important for the industry, as in corporate brand partnerships, or because there is a gap in the literature and is would be dangerous or inappropriate to apply existing knowledge.
  • Having outlined the territory, you can now stake your research claim directly: 'The purpose of this article...', 'This article investigates...'
See how this is done in the following examples: 'A longitudinal study of corporate social reporting in Singapore' and 'Equity in Corporate Co-branding'.

Likewise, the conclusion of your piece should be a summing up of the methodology and the findings, but also a bit about why they are important, and in particular what is the importance to research and to managerial practice. Look at how the author concludes the article in the co-branding study quoted above.

Some things to avoid

There are some writing habits which are easy to fall into but which are inimical to a clear style. Here are some of them:

Don't use undefined terms

When using terms with which the reader may be unfamiliar, always give some explanation, as in the following definition of 'grounded theory':

One of the most developed inductive research methods is that of grounded theory...In this methodology the researcher starts with a priori constructs, inquires deeply into organisational behaviour and gradually tests and forms theoretical constructs. 'Grounded theory methodology and practitioner reflexivity in practitioner research.' , in International Journal of Quality and Reliability Management, 18:2, 2001

Note how in the above example, the author does not explain 'inductive': if you are writing for an academic audience, it is reasonable to assume that they will know basic terms.

Temper generalisations

Never make general claims unless you really can prove them - qualify in some way. Words that can temper generalisations include: as a rule, for the most part, generally, in general, potentially, normally, on the whole, in most cases, usually, the vast majority of, a large number of, it is likely that, have tended to.

Giving examples is also a good way of backing up generalisations (bold mine to indicate tempering words, and examples).

Here, the literature suggests that contracts have tended to reinforce the position of large community organisations, and diminish the position of smaller organisations. For example, Ernst & Young's (1996) study of the New Zealand Community Funding Agency found that there was a clear concentration of public resources in favour of large community organisations... 'A comparison of contracting arrangements in Australia, Canada and New Zealand', Neal Ryan, International Journal of Public Sector Management, Vol 12 Issue 2 1999.

Use analogies with care

Make sure that analogies really do work - in the second Irak war, there were many comparisons of Saddam Hussain with Hitler.

Avoid faulty logic

Logical traps to avoid falling into include:

  • if you are developing a general argument, make sure that the statements on which you base the argument are valid. Take, for example, the case of research into language acquisition that assumed that the development of vocabulary was natural to all children. Is this really true?

'It is the belief of the authors of this paper that much CAL software has been designed more with presentation than with learning effectiveness in mind.'

This author makes this claim without substantiation from any literature or examples.

This extract is reproduced by kind permission of Professor Gabriel Jacobs, Professor of European Business Management at University of Wales, Swansea, and remains his copyright.

  • non sequiturs. Here, the author makes sudden jumps in the sense, with the effect that a point raised in one paragraph is followed by a completely different point in a subsequent paragraph, or even within the same paragraph. This leaves the reader confused and unable to hold onto the gist of the argument! A research article should not be like a conversation between old friends which by its very nature roams over everything and anything.

Make explanations coherent

The 'flow' of your paper should be consistent: when providing descriptive or explanatory information, as in a literature review or report of research, or a case study, make sure that you avoid either giving too much information or too little. Avoid jumps in the logic (where you require the reader to understand certain things which are obvious to you but not necessarily to them), or repeating information.

Make effective transitions

Any piece of writing tells a story - in the case of a research article, the story concerns a contribution to research, with an outlining of territory with your literature review, then an outline of your methodology followed by your results with their implications. With any story, it is important to fill in the necessary steps so that the reader has all the facts. This sounds too obvious to mention, but it is surprising how often people neglect to do this with the result that the article is not very clear.

The chances are that if when you read through a draft of your article, if you become aware that there are uncomfortable gaps in your narrative, then you may well have left out some important steps, so it is very important that you check that you have included everything, and look to see whether in fact you have neglected to explain causality, or failed to explain an important fact.

However, assuming that the correct logic is in place, your draft can still read 'jumpily' but can be easily fixed through a gracious transitional sentence, which connects the subsequent point with the previous one. Such sentences will probably use a transitional word or phrase such as the following:

Likewise, in the same way, similarly, in comparison Shows similarity, comparison, drawing a parallel
On the other hand, in contrast, despite, nevertheless, despite, in spite of, on the contrary Contrasts with what has gone before, dissimilarity
First, second, to begin with, at the same time, later, finally Placing in order, showing a temporal sequence
Thus, accordingly, therefore, because, in consequence, as a result, because, owing to, since Shows causality, cause and effect
As has been said previously Referring back
For example, for instance, such as, thus, as follows Examples
In other words, namely, to be more precise, that is to say Explanation
Also, for example, in other words, moreover, more importantly Addition, reinforcement
Finally, in brief, in conclusion, in short, overall, to conclude, to sum up, this paper has demonstrated In summary, conclusion

Using headings

Using headings is another very effective way of guiding your reader through your material, and making it more readable, because it forces you to divide up your material into chunks.

Two very different articles show examples of the use of headings: 'Conducting market research using the Internet: the case of Xenon Laboratories' (Journal of Business & Industrial Marketing, 19:3, 2004) uses headings to signal the literature review and the case study, as well as different elements within those sections (such as the background, limitations of the traditional approach etc.); 'RoMEO studies 1: the impact of copyright ownership on academic author self archiving' (Journal of Documentation, 59: 3, 2003) makes far more frequent use of numbered headings.
Use the paragraph effectively