Identifying and Narrowing a Topic - From Trepidation to a First Draft - Professional Roles and Publishable Writing

Writing for Publication: Transitions and Tools that Support Scholars’ Success - Mary Renck Jalongo, Olivia N. Saracho 2016

Identifying and Narrowing a Topic
From Trepidation to a First Draft
Professional Roles and Publishable Writing

Many times, writers are discouraged by thinking that they have no right to discuss a topic until they are recognized as leading experts in the field. Instead of bemoaning what you cannot do at the moment, think about what it would be possible to do with a concerted effort. A practicing professional who studies the literature may be uniquely qualified to explain the “real world” implications of that research to fellow practitioners. In fact, you may be much better suited to do this than the leading theorist or researcher who may be somewhat distanced from the daily concerns of practitioners.

A place to begin is by reflecting on your strengths. As you decide about topics, some things to consider are (1) relevance (your level of interest), (2) capability (your skill set), and (3) marketability (can this topic lead to a published manuscript?) (Skolits, Brockett, & Hiemstra, 2011). Use Fig. 3.2 to highlight your educational attainment, work experience, current role and interests, and your future aspirations. Usually, something that fits the intersection of the four is a particularly fertile area for generating ideas for scholarly writing projects. If you have published previously, try working backwards to see if the project reflected these strengths. Perhaps, if you abandoned the project, it was a “goodness of fit” issue.

Fig. 3.2 Identifying topics for writing

Many times, beginning writers assume that they should choose a “hot topic” that is being discussed in the literature. Or, they may wonder if it is advisable to wade into a persistent controversy and disagree with a leader in the field as a shortcut to establishing their reputations. Neither of these approaches has much to recommend them. Where the hot topic is concerned, the pace at which writing moves from conceptualization to publication is slow—a book, for example, typically takes 2 or 3 years. By that time, the issue may be tepid or cold. Where the controversy is concerned, authors run the risk of “going unarmed into a battle of wits” because, chances are, a leader in the field has an enviable depth of understanding and facility with debate. Rather than hoping for fame and fortune, aim to make a contribution to your field. To illustrate, Rae Ann Hirsh decided to write about the role of emotions in learning and, for her dissertation study, she observed children who had been identified as having serious reading problems. Based on that shared interest, her advisor invited her to co-author an editorial (Jalongo & Hirsh, 2009) and, based on the success of that writing project, they wrote a book chapter together for an edited book (Jalongo & Hirsh, 2012). Some strategies for identifying topics are in Activity 3.2.

Activity 3.2: Generating Ideas for Manuscripts

· Scan the professional journals, book publisherscatalogs, and publishersweb sites. For example, there may be a call for papers for a thematic issue published in the journal or an invitation to submit chapters for an edited volume. Authors are sometimes disappointed to discover that something very similar to the article or book they had in mind has been published already. Rather than giving up, think of a different focus.

· Attend meetings, professional conferences, talk and listen. Participating in meetings helps to identify topics that are on the minds of fellow professionals. The trends, issues, controversies, and questions discussed can suggest a topic or a focus.

· Collaborate with others. Do a Google search of professors and colleagues to see their curriculum vitae and determine if you have shared interests. Faculty members often welcome the opportunity to collaborate with exemplary practitioners and graduate students who are serious scholars.

When first discussing writing topics, it is commonplace for authors to identify broad domains of interest, for instance: college student retention, ethics in nursing, or leadership qualities in higher education administrators. Each one of these topics could be a book or even an encyclopedia. How, then, can the topic be narrowed to make it more manageable? There are several basic ways in Activity 3.3.

Activity 3.3: How to Narrow a Topic

As you read each invented article title below, try “playing with titles” for your manuscript. Strive to make your focus more specific from the very beginning. Some ways to do this include:

· By audience—for example, “Presenting Research at a Professional Conference: A Guide for Nurse Practitioners”.

· By purpose—for example, “Increasing Retention of College Freshmen: The Role of Peer Tutors in Learning Support Programs”

· By strategy—for example, “Using Mind Mapping to Draft a Practical Journal Article in Counseling”

· By time—for example, “Research Trends in Bullying Prevention and Interventions, 2005—2015”

· By participants—for example, “Sociology Alumni and Satisfaction with Graduate Degree Programs: A National Survey”.

· By a unifying feature—for example, “Common Characteristics of Effective Pre-Engineering Programs: A Review of the Literature.”

Note that a colon often is used in the title. This is not just an affectation; it often makes it possible to include more information without adding too many articles, prepositions and other words. Remember that the APA Guide specifies that a title should not exceed 12 words.

Another strategy for narrowing the topic is to identify a suitable outlet early in the process of manuscript development.