Saturday, February 25, 2012

How to turn a conference paper into an article (for early grad students)

I'm sure other people have written about this already, but here are some tips that I am realizing I wish I knew.

1. Good conference papers don't have to sound like articles.  They're more conversational and they are less dense.  This makes it actually a lot easier to write a good conference paper, because if you know your argument well, you should be able to just write it out to last fifteen minutes (or seven or eight double-spaced pages) in a few hours.  Now, you'll want to revise that and strengthen it, but the point is, you ought to know your argument well enough that you can just bust it out and nod at the people you're citing without bothering to look up the cites or pull a specific quote.  You can, mind you, but you don't have to.
2. The above is a problem for turning your paper into an article.  Look at an article. It's super-dense: there are tons of citations in every paragraph.  You have to discipline yourself to write your paper as though it's an article, in that you'll have to stop at about every other sentence to look up a citation and add it to your works cited.  You'll have to make more explicit connections right away.  So, while you're writing the conference paper, focus on the following things (you'll be grateful you did later):
a. look up the most likely journal you'd like to send the piece to.  Be realistic.  Find out what it's citation, footnote, and reference policies are, and be sure you follow those.
b. Cite everything.  You might want to wait until you're done writing and just write, say, (Weber XX) so you can finish a thought or a section, but then go back and fill in that XX.  Trust me, you'll thank yourself when you're getting it ready to publish.
c. Write well, just cite densely. I'm a huge fan of clear and conversational prose in sociological writing, but you have to be sure it's "dense" enough (the first piece I submitted to a journal got an R and R, but one problem a review identified was that it "read too much like an essay."  I realized the "essay" problem was not that I had conversational prose but  just that I wasn't densely citing.
d. Pay attention to the organization of sections and ratio of empirical and theoretical in your target journal's articles.  Make sure yours match.
e.  Try to get pretty close to the word limit of an article in your target journal.  This will be much longer than you can possibly read at the conference, but writing longer will help you to cut out stuff you don't need.  You'll probably be well served by shrinking the argument for its "conference paper version" and then seeing if that shorter version actually improves upon the argument.  You can then make whatever changes you want on the first document.
f. The main point is to write the conference paper as though it will be a future article and not simply as a conference paper.  If you do this, your life will be a lot easier, and your conference paper will be a lot better.