how to structure a paper
how to structure a paper
It’s helpful to think of the different essay sections as answering a series of questions your reader might ask when encountering your thesis. (Readers should have questions. If they don’t, your thesis is most likely simply an observation of fact, not an arguable claim.)
Your map should naturally take you through some preliminary answers to the basic questions of what, how, and why. It is not a contract, though—the order in which the ideas appear is not a rigid one. Essay maps are flexible; they evolve with your ideas.
Reread that paragraph. Does it tell you what the topic of the essay is? What the point is? What the essay plans to do? Now, without reading think about just the size of that paragraph. If a marker were to see an introduction that were any less than that they would automatically know, without even reading a word, that the topic was not going to be well introduced. That is not to suggest you simply fill up the paragraph, but that a certain amount of information in the introduction is expected.
Now you should have a solid grasp of a typical essay structure, but might not know how to actually begin structuring your essay. Everyone works differently. Some people have no trouble thinking everything out in their head, or putting together an outline, and starting with the introduction and finishing with the conclusion.
I distinguish between a few different types of papers. Standard empirical papers tend to follow a standard structure: introduction, methods, results, discussion, conclusion, acknowledgements, references. Sub-headings are common (and useful) within methods and discussion, in particular, but sometimes also in the results section.
No matter what type of paper you write, it needs to have a clear thread through it, and sections need to clearly link. One of the challenges is that writing is linear – it has a start point and an end point. By contrast, much academic content is complex – more like a website, where things are related in many different directions. The challenge of writing is to turn the multi-facetted nature of the content (where everything is related and linked to everything else, like the internet) into a simple, one-directional argument.
In academic writing, the central argument, or the thesis, is often the most important component of the paper. Therefore, making a central argument successfully and immediately is important.
“In this essay I will…”
Common mistakes seen in manuscripts submitted to this journal
A good research paper addresses a specific research question. The research question—or study objective or main research hypothesis—is the central organizing principle of the paper. Whatever relates to the research question belongs in the paper; the rest doesn’t. This is perhaps obvious when the paper reports on a well planned research project. However, in applied domains such as quality improvement, some papers are written based on projects that were undertaken for operational reasons, and not with the primary aim of producing new knowledge. In such cases, authors should define the main research question a posteriori and design the paper around it.