Jan 10 Written by 

Tips on Writing Scholarly Papers

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This past year I wrote two scholarly articles about Sylvia Plath based on research I’ve been at since 2013, and then, from gristly translations made in 1822 and 1940--in English so muddy it looked like Dutch--I wrote a fresh translation of a 2000-year-old astrology manual, Tetrabiblos, nicknamed “the bible of astrology.” I reworded the whole into plain contemporary English, 40,000 words, and sent it off. The manuscript is at its third potential publisher now. It's a hard sell, because as a reference book a thrill-a-minute it's not. The original text is in Koine Greek. I think the book is readable now, and useful, and the new translation fulfills a need.

If the writer knows the work is good, there is no reason to fear anything or anyone. When trying to publish a piece of writing I remember what a writing teacher told me: “If it’s good, it will eventually be published.”

I’ve edited works of scholarship, and of course read them, but was challenged by the task of writing a high-quality scholarly paper that 1) read well in plain English, no jargon 2) clinched its argument 3) presented both new and established but always documented facts and 4) would interest and serve an exceptional readership: Plath scholars. There are scads; by now I have met a few dozen and they know Plath’s life and work better than their own.

It took a month to draft each paper and the remainder of 2017 to reread, double-check, and incorporate reader feedback. My beta readers were a professor and a historian. One suggested a different structure for the paper. The other said he wanted more of an essay. For inspiration and models I re-read essays by James Baldwin, and also Joyce Carol Oates' well-known essay about Plath: "The Death Throes of Romanticism." It's very opinionated. Because I wasn't writing literary criticism but presenting research, I couldn't quite use an opinionated tone. Instead I tried to figure out why that essay is so learned yet so readable.

Tips I gathered about writing works of scholarship:

  • Open the paper with the treasured five Ws: who, what, when, where and why. Or start with an anecdote. Be reader-friendly.
  • Cross-pollinate with techniques of creative nonfiction such as:
  • Suspense. Yes, suspense in scholarship. That’s how to make people read and remember it. Save the conclusion for last.
  • A great title is worth its weight in gold. Brainstorm until you extract the right title from the universe. Don’t be hasty.
  • One must define terms. Imagine a non-scholar reading it. Would he or she understand?
  • Specify. For example, what does "she paid attention to her studies" mean? That she did homework? For hours? What was she studying?
  • There’s room, just a little, for personality.
  • Humanities scholarship is about people (duh).
  • Seek feedback. Scholarship is a conversation.
  • Always, the spirit of inquiry.
Catherine Rankovic

Writer, with 30+ years' writing and publishing experience, 20+ years' teaching experience. Last book read: Mrs. Lincoln by Catherine Clinton.