Writing Your Journal Article in 12 Weeks: Week 3: Abstracting Your Article

Photo by hannah grace on Unsplash

This chapter was a much needed confidence boost for me–after reading it, I realized that I already had a fairly good handle on abstracts. It included so much of what I’ve taught my students when helping them with their literature searches. Skim reading abstracts is a vital skill when you’re trying to get a good understanding of “what’s been done” on and around your topic. You need to make sense of the hundreds (or thousands) of search results, and you don’t have time to (or need to) read everything. My ESL students, in particular, sometimes felt overwhelmed by the prospect of having to read countless academic books and journal articles, only to find that very few would turn out to be relevant for their project in the end. Many of my students thought that if you cited something, it meant you had read the whole thing–that is a big misconception about academia. We skim and cite. We use indexes and keyword searches to zoom in on just the relevant sentences or paragraphs or pages. We rarely read anything from cover to cover. Those overflowing bookcases in professors’ offices don’t mean what you think they mean–most of their books probably have some margin notes or underlining here and there, and haven’t been read cover to cover. It’s not because academics are lazy–we love reading! It’s because you don’t have to read something cover to cover for it to be useful in your own work.

That’s where abstracts come in. They are a little summary that highlights the argument and key findings, so you know whether it’s worthwhile for you to read further. They can give you a good enough idea of the content to decide whether it’s useful. Sometimes it’s useful in a negative sense, because it helps you to say “previous studies have focused on x, but overlooked y…and this is significant because…”. You can rely on an abstract and a quick skim read to cite examples of the thing you’re not doing, if you’re using that as part of your rationale/justification for the study. It shows the reader that you’re aware of other approaches and suggests that you have a good understanding of where your topic/approach sits in the broader field.

I loved the “talking your way to clarity” task–it made me realize how much talking about my work with friends/family has helped me, and how much talking with my students about their work helped them! It’s a bit like talk therapy in psychology–communicating your thoughts to somebody else helps you understand them better yourself.

Writing the abstract helps clarify your article’s focus and argument. Belcher recommends you start with the abstract and, since this article stems from a conference paper abstract I wrote back in 2018, I actually did start with the abstract in this case. The project has grown and changed over the past 2 years, but I was able to build on some of the basic ideas from that original abstract to write this one.

I also loved the task of reading abstracts to get an idea of what they should contain, what to leave out, and to consider the strengths and weaknesses of real life, published abstracts. For someone who doesn’t regularly skim the current issues of various journals in the field, it was also just a nice way to get a quick impression of what’s going on in research at the moment!

My abstract before doing the task of reading recent abstracts in journals:

In the aftermath of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Parkland, Florida, Congressional Twitter became a site of partisan debate on gun policy. Survivors appeared on the news and challenged policy makers to take action, asserting that adults had failed in their duty to protect them, the children of America. Despite broad popular support for gun control measures such as universal background checks, Congressional inaction persisted after each mass shooting.  As survivors quickly became activists and organized the March for Our Lives, Parkland appeared to be a critical discourse moment for the gun debate in America. But how did Congress respond to this school shooting and the movement that followed?

This study conducted a critical discourse analysis of Congressional Twitter posts to identify dominant themes and frames, to categorize performances of empathy and calls to action, and to assess the state of the gun control vs. gun rights debate in the wake of Parkland. It found that members of Congress used the phrase “thoughts and prayers” in starkly partisan ways. While some Republicans expressed sympathy with “thoughts and prayers” on the platform, others avoided using the exact phrase. Many called the shooting “heart-breaking,” “tragic,” or said they were “praying for Parkland” instead. Democrats used the phrase “thoughts and prayers” in their criticism of inaction, describing “thoughts and prayers” as an insufficient response and calling for “real action” to prevent future shootings. In this paper, I argue that there was a distinct backlash against public figures using the phrase “thoughts and prayers” as a performative act of caring after Parkland. The study demonstrates that there was a discursive turn towards calls for action from both parties in the turn away from “thoughts and prayers”. Activists’ demands for action elicited significant Congressional Twitter responses from members of both parties, with partisan differences in terms of the actions endorsed. Overall, the study identifies Parkland as a critical moment for Congressional discourse on gun policy. It brought about a new way of responding to shootings, shifting from “thoughts and prayers” to calls for action.

I read 10 abstracts from current issues in 3 quite different journals in my field, from 3 different publishers. I quickly saw that each journal has a preferred style, and some abstracts were definitely stronger than others (also realized that I’m a harsh critic–I read 7 before really liking one!). They were all quite brief, around 200 words, and just one paragraph long. My draft abstract was 342, so one clear outcome of the task was that I knew it needed some trimming down. It also showed some interesting trends about word choice–the strongest ones used “show”, “demonstrate”, “highlight” instead of “examine” or “explore”, and nearly all of them used “argue” or “argument”. My earlier drafts included “examine”/”explore”, and I removed them during the week 2 chapter because they felt too descriptive. I tried to follow the rest of the checklist im my revisions and cuts, too.

Abstract draft after reading 10 abstracts:

In the aftermath of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Parkland, Florida, Congressional Twitter became a site of partisan debate on gun policy. As survivors quickly became activists and challenged persistent Congressional inaction, Parkland appeared to be a critical discourse moment for the gun debate in America. But how did Congress respond to this school shooting and the movement that followed? This study used critical discourse analysis of Congressional Twitter posts to identify dominant themes and frames, to categorize performances of empathy and calls to action, and to assess the state of the gun debate in the wake of Parkland. The study identifies Parkland as a critical moment for Congressional discourse on gun policy, one which brought about a new way of reacting to mass shootings. In response to a distinct backlash against public figures using the phrase “thoughts and prayers” as a performative act, there was a discursive turn towards calls for action from both parties. While the actions endorsed were starkly partisan on Congressional Twitter, the findings suggest that Parkland’s March For Our Lives activists were successful in challenging Congress to move beyond “thoughts and prayers.”

This trimmed down version is 190 words, with far less detail about the findings. It’s clearer, neater and tidier. Although cutting it down was difficult, it made me focus on what was really going on. It’s like on makeover shows, when they give someone a drastic haircut and it makes their eyes pop!

Thanksgiving in Lockdown: Advice from Abroad

For most Americans, Thanksgiving is going to be different this year –and PSA: if it’s not going to be different, maybe you should cancel your plans and make it different! Canada’s early Thanksgiving resulted in a big spike of COVID-19 cases–Americans should look at this example and opt to stay home (and Brits should learn from it re: Christmas gatherings, too, but Boris is trying to figure out a way to “save Christmas”–we shall see).

Source: Time

Airline travel figures are about half of what they were the weekend before Thanksgiving last year, so even though headlines (rightly) decry “Millions of Americans Traveling for Thanksgiving, Ignoring CDC advice“, it’s good to see that millions are also staying home and following CDC advice. The Macy’s Parade is going to be downsized to one block and only televised performances, with no spectators. Thanksgiving day football is still going ahead somehow–3 NFL games, yet we can’t actually meet up in person…

I’ve spent 12 out of the last 14 Thanksgivings in the UK–sometimes alone, sometimes with friends, sometimes just with my husband, and now with our kids (it’s Paul’s first Thanksgiving!). I know what it’s like to have a weird Thanksgiving, to miss home and friends and family, to miss certain foods you can’t get hold of, to miss the Macy’s Parade (the time difference means I’ve often watched previous years’ parades on YouTube while cooking!). These experiences have given me some brilliant coping skills that I want to share as some of you go through a weird Thanksgiving for the first time:

Modify your menu!

The best part about a scaled-down Thanksgiving is that you can make only what you want–no more, no less. Growing up, our Thanksgiving table was loaded with so much amazing food–enough to feed our whole extended family and still provide leftovers for weeks. When I started cooking Thanksgiving abroad, it occurred to me that I didn’t have to recreate that same menu. If something felt like more work than it was worth (yeast rolls from scratch), I could use store bought–or simply cut them out altogether! I don’t have them any more, and I really haven’t missed them.

This weird Thanksgiving is also an opportunity to try a new recipe–something you probably wouldn’t risk if you were feeding a big crowd. If you’re bored with mashed potatoes, there are a million other ways to prepare them. You can even leave them out entirely–I stopped making mashed potatoes for Thanksgiving because they’re not really special when you live in ‘pie & mash’ country. Growing up, I was not a fan of the marshmallow-topped sweet potato/yam/”hot dish”, so I don’t make that. I make sweet potatoes with a Paula Deen recipe that doesn’t have marshmallows but does include butter, brown sugar, and Jack Daniels. This author is making an all-side-dishes feast that sounds fabulous. Embrace the freedom to modify your menu!

You can make a meal for whatever dietary needs you have–gluten free, dairy free, vegan, nut free, etc. For some people, this might be the first Thanksgiving where they can finally relax and not have to worry about explaining their dietary requirements and fielding jokes about being an awkward dinner guest. For a vegan/vegetarian main dish option, I love a good chestnut-mushroom pie. This version is vegan, while this one has Gruyere cheese so it’s just vegetarian, not vegan. Don’t waste your time doing anything sad with roasted cauliflower or tofu in the shape of a turkey–Thanksgiving deserves better than that, and you deserve better than that.

For the traditional turkey eaters, I highly recommend getting a turkey crown instead of a whole turkey. It’s the breast meat, so you still get a beautiful centerpiece and the “look” of a roast turkey, without the excess of leftovers. I use Nigella’s method of brining my turkey crown and it’s always amazingly juicy and full of flavor, never dry and boring like most turkey breast. Another crucial tip is to leave it out and let the turkey come to room temperature before it goes in your preheated oven. This makes your cooking time more accurate, which reduces the risk of overcooking and drying it out. I don’t remember if I learned that one from Jamie Oliver or Paula Deen, but it’s key!

Enjoy Socially-distanced Togetherness with Video Chat and/or Texts

If Thanksgiving won’t feel like Thanksgiving without a certain loved one, there’s always video calling. I recreate cooking together by talking to my mom about making her cornbread dressing or her pie crust recipe, but you can do whatever helps you. Maybe your family always plays a board game together after Thanksgiving dinner–do it via zoom. Watch a film at the same time and text each other your inside jokes that you’d normally be saying out loud. Send each other memes! Every time a friend or family member sends me a meme, I know they were thinking of me, and it shortens the distance to laugh at the same things together.

Focus on the positives

Obviously, some people have been through hell this year, losing jobs and losing loved ones–I’m not pushing “toxic positivity” on them. But for the majority of Americans whose biggest frustration is having to wear a mask in a supermarket, I think it’s important to focus on gratitude–the actual meaning of the holiday!

There was a great Oprah quote about gratitude–if you’re breathing, be grateful that you’re breathing. And if you need a machine to breathe, be thankful that you’ve got the machine! Start with the basics and work your way up. We used to have to go around the table every year and name something we were grateful for–recreate that, and write your answers down in a diary or journal. Look back on them at times when you don’t feel like being grateful.

Feel the weirdness and do it anyway!

I know a lot of people won’t feel like celebrating this year. I’ve been there, too–in 2008 I had pizza for Thanksgiving dinner. But marking the day in some small way can help make this crazy year seem a little bit better. Maybe read Lincoln’s Thanksgiving Proclamation and think about the circumstances of its creation as an official holiday. America was even more divided then (during an actual civil war) than it is now! For a more lighthearted approach, watch a classic TV special like Charlie Brown’s Thanksgiving or Garfield’s Thanksgiving, or start in on the Christmas movies–Miracle on 34th Street opens with the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, making it a great choice for kicking off the holiday season on Thursday.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Little Pilgrim George at Thanksgiving 2016, one of my 2 spent in America over the past 14 years

Election Week 2020: Memes as Coping Mechanism

I was beating myself up for taking so long to write something about the election, but actually, it’s only been a week since the results were called–and Trump still hasn’t conceded, so I can’t be too far behind! Here are a few thoughts on the long election week we’ve been living in for the past 11 days:

Election night: This was my fourth US election night in the UK, and due to the time difference, we don’t really get any results until after midnight. I had originally planned to going to bed early and just watching the coverage when I was up with the baby, as he usually wakes me up around 3 am anyway. I ended up doing what I always do, and stayed up all night watching the results. I stayed up too late watching a movie and then the baby didn’t want to go to sleep, and I figured the polls would be closing soon anyway…Paul fell asleep around 1am, and George didn’t end up joining us as he’d wanted to–he slept through the night.

I knew about the “red mirage” prediction, but it was still a very concerning election night. When I gave up and went to bed after the 4am calls for the West coast, I was still vaguely confident about Biden’s chances but I was disappointed about the Senate results. I couldn’t believe Mitch McConnell and Lindsay Graham were re-elected–and even Susan Collins. It wasn’t the blue wave I’d hoped for, that much was already clear.

The next 3 days are a blur. I constantly checked my phone for updates and grew so tired of seeing the same electoral vote count every time I checked. On Saturday, we went for a walk and got takeaway Starbucks Christmas coffees as a little treat, and while I was taking a break from my phone, the election was finally called!

I was so relieved that it was over and that Biden had won. I don’t know how the US and the world would have faced four more years of a Trump presidency. I’m well aware of the criticisms people have of Biden & Harris, but one thing is certain–they are competent and experienced leaders.

Back in 2017, Joe Biden was interviewed on Oprah’s Super Soul Sunday. I remember listening to the podcast at the time and crying on my commute over his beautiful words about grief and loss. I watched it again this week (it was reposted by OWN on YouTube), and was reminded what a truly decent, empathetic person Biden is. It’s the greatest contrast with Trump–he has no sense of empathy. Narcissists can’t empathise.

My favorite part about the week has been the memes. They have been a form of self-medicating during the wait for results, offering a way to express ourselves and share our emotions with friends and family during this chaotic time.

Nevada being slow—it wouldn’t have mattered if the election hadn’t been so close! They only have 6 electoral votes!
“Stop the Count!”
So many amazing memes about the Four Seasons Total Landscaping press conference. I love that the company went with it, and every detail was just brilliant. Such a perfect moment to cap off a chaotic 4 years!
As long as he stays quiet, we can just assume this is what he’s doing. According to aides, he’s “watching even more television than usual”!

Pre-Election Anxiety

It’s the big day—the end of voting and the start of determining the results. I’m anxious for the outcome. I can’t fully trust the polls. Even if Biden wins by a landslide, Trump will contest the results and say it’s rigged. He’s already said he’s going to send lawyers in to stop the counting of ballots, which is crazy and unprecedented. I’m worried about the reaction of Trump supporters—I know they won’t be gracious in defeat or victory, and I fear for the safety of people who aren’t white, cis, straight men.

I’m worried about violence. We’ve already seen the MAGA crowd get violent many times over the past 4 years—at Charlottesville, in Portland, ambushing the Biden Harris convoy in Texas last weekend. Trump condones this behaviour—encourages it, praises it.

I’m also cautiously optimistic. Biden is unifying and people are engaged. The early voting turnout has been amazing. Young people have shown up and broken records. In Texas alone, 1.8 million more people have registered since the last election. There could be a landslide. It’s possible. I just have a hard time letting myself get excited about that possibility!

I’ve been reading about the March For Our Lives movement as part of my study on Parkland, and I was struck by this passage:

from Parkland: Birth of a Movement, Dave Cullen, 2019

Since 2016, we’ve been seeing each other as enemies, not adversaries. Sometimes, that’s for very good reasons–white supremacists are definitely enemies, rather than reasonable people you just happen to disagree with. I’ll readily admit that the tiki-torch-wielding mob in Charlottesville was evil, or at the very least, had evil intentions at that time. But in other cases, I’ve seen people treat each other as enemies when they really aren’t evil people. I hope we can get back to recognizing the difference between enemies and adversaries, between actual evil and just a dissenting viewpoint. I hope Biden, if he wins, can unify the country and get us back to acknowledging our common humanity.

Election countdown: 1 day

Wyoming is a solid red state— conservative and rural, with a total population that’s smaller than many cities. Trump carried the state in 2016 by a massive 47 points, but that translates to fewer than 120,000 votes. It’s also the home state of Vice President Dick Cheney and Representative Liz Cheney.

After the 2016 election, Wyoming was used as an example to illustrate inequalities within the electoral college system.

Wyoming has three electoral votes and a population of 586,107, while California has 55 electoral votes and 39,144,818 residents. Distributing the electoral vote evenly among each state’s residents suggests that individual votes from Wyoming carry 3.6 times more influence, or weight, than those from California.


The electoral college has taken the presidency away from the winners of the popular vote twice in just 16 years, and both were the same party—reform is long overdue.

Election countdown: 2 days

Wisconsin was consistently blue from 1988 until 2016, when Trump won by less than 1%. Along with Michigan, Wisconsin was seen as the key to Trump’s electoral college victory. It was a state that Democrats took for granted and overlooked—Hillary Clinton sent Biden there on her behalf, and she had just over half the number of campaign offices in the state that Obama had.

Biden currently has an average 8 point lead over Trump, and given the fact that Wisconsin elected a Democrat as Governor in 2018, I think it’s likely to flip back to blue this year.

Election countdown: 3 days

West Virginia is another special state for me, as it’s where my grandpa’s side of the family is from. It’s beautiful, and the people are the salt of the earth. It was the last state to get a case of covid-19, probably because so many of its communities are relatively rural and isolated, compared with the other states around it. I would call its natural beauty ‘unspoiled’ because there’s something relaxing and peaceful about it, but actually it has been spoiled—by mining and fracking. It ranks poorly on economic and health measures, much like its rust belt neighbors, and it went for Trump by 300,000 votes, a massive 41 points.

West Virginia is solidly red now, but that hasn’t always been the case. They’ve gone for Adelai Stevenson, Hubert Humphrey, Jimmy Carter, Michael Dukakis and Bill Clinton. They’ve been fickle and have a strange habit of voting for an incumbent whom they initially rejected—voting against Eisenhower then for him, voting against Nixon then for him, voting against Reagan then for him. It doesn’t look like they’re going to turn on Trump—he’s leading by 35 points in recent polls.

My grandpa always said he voted for Democrats because poor people are better off when Democrats are in charge. That’s why West Virginia re-elected Democratic Senator Robert Byrd so many times—because he looked after them. That’s why they went for Trump—because he said the Democrats had failed to look after them, and he promised to do it better. I really do want the best for West Virginia, and I hope if Biden wins he can turn things around for them.

Election countdown: 4 days

Washington has been consistently blue since 1988, and in 2016 Hillary Clinton won by over 500,000 votes, or 16.2 points—the biggest margin of victory in Washington since 1972 (Nixon won by 18 points). Like its neighbor Oregon, Washington is an all mail-in ballot state, with further evidence of the security of postal voting.

The Lieutenant Governor race is actually a surprisingly interesting one this year. Incumbent Democratic Governor Jay Inslee is running for re-election, and will likely win—he’s leading by 15 points on average. But if Biden wins, there’s a real possibility that Inslee could be chosen for a cabinet position. In that case, the lieutenant governor (a post I’ve never paid attention to) would be the next Governor of Washington. In the primary, two Democrats were selected—Denny Heck and Marko Liias. Heck is a US Representative who decided not to run for re-election and went for this post instead. Liias is the State Senate Majority floor leader, and I’m not convinced, based on their photos, that he’s not just a younger version of his opponent:

I’ve been a Washington voter all of my adult life, and since overseas voting registration is based on your last US address, that’s unlikely to ever change (fun fact: my kids will also use my last US address when they register to vote, despite never having lived in America!). While I love Washington and I’m proud of my state, being a member of the majority party in a safe state does make you feel like your vote doesn’t matter, at least not as much as it would in a swing state. I’m just adding another drop to a blue ocean. That said, Trump held a rally in Everett in 2016, and I’ve seen people from high school with MAGA hats in their Facebook profile pics, so this is no time to get complacent. I voted weeks ago and confirmed that my ballot has been accepted. I’m not taking any chances!

Election countdown: 5 days

Virginia is a fascinating swing state. It was red from 1968 to 2004, then went blue in the past 3 elections. Even before this recent flip, presidential elections were fairly close in Virginia—almost always single digit margins. There hasn’t been a double digit margin of victory in Virginia since 1988, when Bush beat Dukakis by 20 points. Hillary Clinton won by 5 points, and Biden is currently leading by an average of 11.7 points. If the polls are correct, this would be the biggest margin of victory since 1988, and the biggest for a Democrat since 1944.

In the Senate race, Democratic incumbent Senator Mark Warner is 15 points ahead of Republican challenger Daniel Gade, so it looks like a safe Democratic hold.

Election countdown: 6 days

Vermont is very liberal and anti-Trump, so it’s no surprise that Biden is currently polling around 30 points ahead of Trump.

Vermont has been blue in every presidential election since 1992, and usually by quite big margins. In 2016, Hillary Clinton’s margin was smaller than Democrats usually get in Vermont, because over 18,000 people voted for Bernie Sanders. While I understand their frustration with the primary process (I voted for Bernie in the 2016 primary, too!), this is not the time for a protest vote. Look at it this way, Vermont—you get to keep your beloved Senator!