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6 Words to Guide Your Writing

This is a nice little tip that I picked up from the journalist profession but it’s useful in academia as well. It goes back to a poem written by Nobel Laureate Rudyard Kipling. In this poem, he talks about the 6 words that guide his writing and his exploration into the world of literature. I’ll quote the poem in full, before we talk about each of the words:

I keep six honest serving-men
(They taught me all I knew);
Their names are What and Why and When
And How and Where and Who.

I send them over land and sea,
I send them east and west;
But after they have worked for me,
I give them all a rest.

I let them rest from nine till five,
For I am busy then,
As well as breakfast, lunch, and tea,
For they are hungry men.

But different folk have different views;
I know a person small—
She keeps ten million serving-men,
Who get no rest at all!

She sends’em abroad on her own affairs,
From the second she opens her eyes—
One million Hows, two million Wheres,
And seven million Whys!”

If we leave aside the comedic bit at the end, he is essentially talking about using the common words that we use to create questions as keywords to inspire our writing.

1. What: What is the exact issue that you want to describe? What is the purpose? What exactly are you trying to get at? What should be included, and more importantly, what ought to be excluded? Let the what guide your statement of purpose and your research inquiries.

2. Where: Where was the data collected? Where is the results applicable, are they idiosyncratic to one one location, or generalizable to a larger geographical area? Think about the where, particularly in your method section.

3. When: When were the studies conducted? Are they still valid today or has a change occurred in the research literature? Connect the different “when’s” in your literature review. Likewise, think of the when in your closing argument, specifically when discussing future research and its relation to your own work.

4. How: This is your study. It described the how of whatever you are exploring. How exactly does your study differ from those of your predecessors? How can your synthesization, your arguments or your analysis be placed in the larger discourse that is occuring in your field?

5. Who: Who are the main authors to explore in this field? This is a good question to start out your research, and familiarize yourself with the research landscape.

6. Why: The most important question. Why? Why do we need your study in this world? Why are your results useful? Why should we care about all the hard work, and pain that you went through to publish this?


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