Saturday, September 29, 2012

How to Structure Academic Writing

To access a PDF copy of this blog post and other articles, visit my page

In academic settings, writing is the most fundamental method for sharing knowledge. This is true for scholars who share their work through peer-reviewed journals, and it is also true for students writing in learning settings. However, many students (and even scholars) often fail to provide coherent structure to their academic writing. This is a problem because using an appropriate structure allows the writer to express ideas more effectively. In addition, using appropriate structure aids the reader in understanding what is written more easily. As an instructor of graduate courses at several universities, I have found that many of my students have benefited from guidance on how to structure their papers; therefore, in this post, I will share a useful, basic reasoning structure for writing academic papers. I will also share how to structure academic papers using this thought structure. I will then provide a set of tips for making a paper more structured and more readable. Finally, I will share examples of how I have used this structure. 

The Basic Reasoning Structure for Academic Writing
In my experience, the basic reasoning structure for academic writing has three basic components. (1) A general description of the context or situation being discussed. This orients the reader to the topic of the paper and helps the writer focus on that context while writing. (2) A description of the problem or need being discussed. This helps the reader understand why the paper is relevant or useful and helps the writer keep focused on the specific needs. (3) A description of the solutions that are being proposed or reported. This provides the reader with something that they might use or apply themselves. The image below summarizes this basic reasoning structure.

Structuring Academic Papers
The basic reasoning structure described above should be used as part of a coherently structured academic paper. An academic paper typically has five main sections:
  1. The Abstract summarizes the entire paper in one paragraph. These abstracts are typically somewhere between 150 and 500 words and are not included in the main body of the paper. Student papers often do not require an abstract.
  2. The Introduction introduces the topic being discussed, briefly describes the problem that is being addressed and previews the solutions being discussed or described in the body of the paper.
  3. The Body of the paper discusses in detail the problem being discussed, as well as the solution being proposed or presented. If research was performed, this section includes a description of the methods, procedures, and results of the research. The body of the paper can include several sub-sections.
  4. The Discussion attempts to interpret the findings the paper or of the research and discusses their significance and/or meaning.
  5. The Conclusion summarizes the paper and provides recommendations for future actions and research.
***Here is an important point: The reasoning structure described above (context, problem, solution) should be followed in the abstract, in the introduction, in the body of the paper, and in the conclusion. The reader needs to have continuity between each section of the paper, and using this same structure will provide that continuity. Applying this kind of structure should also help the writer stay focused on the key issues of the paper.

A Note on Evidence and Critical Thinking
Good academic writing is based on evidence. This evidence can come in many forms - research, well-document experiences, or verifiable information are all good sources of evidence. Not only should the assertions in an academic paper be based on evidence, but the reasoning should be clear and reflect critical thinking. With both of these elements in place, an academic paper has a strong foundation and the structure of the paper becomes more clear.

Tips for Making a Paper Readable
In my experience, using the following tips can make an academic paper more readable and well-structured. I try to follow these tips when writing my own papers and blog posts.
  • Use headings and sub-headings - this provides further structure to text and orients the learner to what is being discussed.
  • Share figures and images - well-designed images can clarify important points and help to summarize what is being discussed in the article.
  • Use tables to organize complex information - well-designed tables can summarize complex information effectively and help learners see the relationships between concepts being discussed.
  • Use bullet lists to summarize key points - bullet lists of key concepts can help learners to organize what they are learning more effectively.
  • Use bold or italicized text to further organize and structure the text. This helps learners to focus on what is important in the paper and can help students further mentally organize what they are reading.
Examples of Structure in Academic Papers

Example 1 - This Blog Post
The first example of structure in academic writing is this blog post. If you look back at this post, you will see that I have attempted to apply the strategies and tips I describe in the post. Here is how:
  1. The Reasoning Structure - In this blog post, I've tried to follow the basic reasoning structure.
    1. Context or Situation- In the introduction, I describe how academic writing is a fundamental way that we share knowledge in an academic environment.
    2. Problem or Need - In the introduction, I describe the how students (and some scholars) often have a hard time structuring their papers effectively.
    3. Solution - In the introduction, I previewed how I would provide structures that students can use in their writing. Then in the body of the paper, I provide several tools a student might use to structure their papers effectively.
  2. Structuring the Blog Post -  In this blog post, I also follow the basic structure of an academic paper, though I did not provide an abstract.
    1. Introduction - I described the context or situation (writing in academic settings), share a specific problem (students struggling with structuring their papers) and preview how my blog post might provide solutions to that problem (giving a reasoning structure and a paper structure). 
    2. The Body of the blog post - In this section, I share my solutions to the problems identified in the introduction. You will note that I didn't reiterate or expand on the context or the problem- this is often done in academic papers but for the purposes of this blog post, I keep it succinct. 
    3. The Summary of the blog post - In this section, I summarize the situation, the problem or need,and the solutions I am proposing.
  3. Using the Tips - In this blog post, I also attempt to use the tips that I described above. I used italics and bold text, provided an organizing image, used bullet lists to summarize concepts, and use headings and sub-headings to structure the paper. 
More Examples
Below I link to some of the articles and academic papers I have written in the past. These articles should serve as examples of the strategies described above. I begin with a simple example and move to more complex examples to show the variety of ways these structures can be used.
Because academic writing is crucial in an academic setting, it is vital that students can understand and apply basic strategies for structuring their academic writing. I have found that using the strategies above for structuring the reasoning of a paper, structuring the paper itself, and using strategies for making the paper more readable can help students create papers that are more organized and readable. I've provided examples that students can review to see how the structures can be applied in meaningful ways. In further posts, I plan to provide a general template that students can download and use in their academic writing.
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