Writing with Brown’s Eight Questions

I’m juggling several different writing projects at the moment (book chapter, journal articles, conference paper, research proposal) but no matter what I’m working on I always begin the same way: with Brown’s Eight Questions.

I can’t remember when I first came across Robert Brown’s 1994/95 article Write Right First Time, but it radically improved the way I approach writing. In this article Brown provides eight questions, or writing prompts, for academics to use before they start writing. His goal is for academics to take more time at the start of the writing process to think carefully about what they want to say, so that they will become better writers and more likely to produce high quality work that is “right the first time.”  Although he intended the questions to be used as part of an action learning group (where a small group of people get together and peer review one another’s work), I find them just as effective in my own independent writing process.

Brown’s Eight Questions are:

  1. Who are the intended readers? – list 3 to 5 of them by name;
  2. What did you do? (limit – 50 words)
  3. Why did you do it? (limit – 50 words)
  4. What happened? (limit – 50 words)
  5. What do the results mean in theory? (limit – 50 words)
  6. What do the results mean in practice? (limit – 50 words)
  7. What is the key benefit for your readers? (limit – 25 words).
  8. What remains unresolved? (no word limit).

I recently found a modified version of Brown’s Eight Questions on a wiki run by La Trobe University Scholarship of Learning and Teaching Research Network. This list (which is really more like 13 questions) is designed for journal articles and Question 6 is especially useful.

The [Modified] Eight Questions

1. Working Title of Paper (20 words)

2. Authors (in order of appearance)

3. Anticipated journal/s

4. Intended readers
Name 4 to 6 potential readers – give their names and why they should be interested (e.g. “Tachabod Crane, paleo-fudgologist interested in polygalatic fudginomiality” not “other paleo-fudgologists”).  Make sure all nominated readers really are likely to read the nominated journal (e.g. few practitioners read refereed journals).

5a. What is the central question that your paper will pose? (30 words)
The central question of my paper is …

5b. What is the answer it will provide? (30 words)
The answer it will provide is that …

6. If your readers had only one sentence to summarize your article, what should it be? (25 words)
Focus on the outcomes from the work, not the inputs.

7a. Why did you do the work? (70 words)
Briefly outline the problem you are tackling and why it is important.

7b. What did you do? (70 words)
Briefly outline the methods you used to gather evidence.

7c. What happened? (100 words)
Briefly outline the key results. Focus on outcomes.

7d. What can you add to the theory? (70 words)
A research paper has to add to broader understanding.  What will yours contribute? Think about how your results and conclusions will change how people see the world.

7e. What can you add to practice? (70 words)
Superior research also has practical consequences.  What are the consequences of your work?  Think about how your results and conclusions might change what people do.

8. What remains unresolved?
This is more for your own benefit, but will provide some guidance for your audience and some of it may be useful in your discussion.

Working through these questions takes time but really helps me clarify my central arguments and develop a strong structure.

I’m always keen to hear about the processes others use to develop academic writing. Have you used Brown’s Eight Questions, or a version of them? How did you find them? What other techniques or tips do you have?

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