Structures

Your instructors know that writers face anxiety about writing, but they want to see your enthusiasm, not your anxiety, in your writing. They want to know what you think and how you reason. Here are some tips for structuring your writing:

Tips for Structuring Your Writing[1]

  1. Consider your audience and make your prose reader-friendly. Writing is more than just a way to demonstrate your knowledge.
  2. Address your research question explicitly by showing how you understand it. Explain how you interpret the research question and the significance/relevance of the research question before you move ahead into an argument or discussion.
  3. Provide a brief overview of the rest of your response: what resources — conceptual, methodological — are you bringing to the research question? How will you proceed?
  4. Define key terms before you begin a discourse about them. Even if you think your readers share an understanding of these terms, they want to see how you define them before moving ahead.
  5. When citing, do not assume your readers understand the whole framework of the text. Give your reader an overview before proceeding. Treat the material dialectically, meaning that you show your reader how a “branch of knowledge” or a “school of thought” relates to other branches or schools, how the branch you are dealing with is divided, and how the various parts relate to each other. Be systematic, but also be critical, where appropriate.
  6. State your thesis clearly. What is your position? Explain how you will back up your claim.
  7. Present obvious counter-arguments to your claim clearly and refute them systematically using strong evidence and clear reasoning (see box below for addressing counter-arguments) Do not dismiss counter-arguments out of hand without first engaging them.
  8. In your writing, alternate between the conceptual and the concrete (we discussed this practice in a previous chapter). In other words, when you discuss a concept, show us how it applies to a particular case. When you discuss a case, explain which concepts you use to make sense of it.
  9. Explain the warrants — logical connections — as you move your reader from thought to thought or from claim to claim. Make sure your readers can follow your connections and that they make sense logically.
  10. Avoid common stylistic errors such as the use of vague pronouns (“it” and “this” are the usual suspects), passive voice sentences that hide agency, and common punctuation problems such as comma splices.

Presenting Counter Arguments

You should assume your audience will look with skepticism at your thesis. They will be considering alternative claims and will be looking for weaknesses in your argument. You should, therefore, address the reader’s questions and concerns clearly and directly by putting yourself in the reader’s shoes, imagining these possible questions and concerns, and addressing them one by one.

One approach is to present counter-arguments other critics have made and then contrast the weaknesses in their arguments to the strengths in yours. Sometimes you may not be able to find counter-arguments to your thesis in other publications. In that case, you should imagine possible objections to your arguments and state them clearly in your paper before refuting them with evidence and persuasive reasoning.

This process of argument/counter-argument is what you would expect in a courtroom trial where a prosecutor and defense attorney take turns building up their own arguments and tearing down arguments from the opposing side. In most academic papers, your tone will be civil. In general, there is no need to berate a scholar who happens to be wrong. The 16th-century astronomer Tycho Brahe believed that the sun orbited the Earth. It doesn’t help your case to write, “Tycho Brahe! What a loser!” Instead, you should explain why Brahe believed what he did and then explain that he was lacking the information or the perspective that you have now.

Basic Structure of Academic Writing

The structure described below is a bare-bones, basic framework for college writing. You are not locked into it (unless your instructor says so) and there are many other structures, but this one will do for most research papers.

Basic Structure of Academic Writing

1. Title

  • Reference your thesis statement, theory, method, or topic; name the author and title of the work being analyzed.
  • Example: The Downfall of the Southern Gentry: A Marxist Reading of Faulkner’s “Barn Burning.”

2. Introduction (usually one paragraph)

  • Attention-getting opener: problem, anecdote, question, quote, analogy, definition, or example
  • Narrowing of general topic
  • Research question
  • Thesis:
    • Clarifies specific topic, purpose, and focus (your particular point or perspective about topic)
    • Does not “announce” these things (“In this paper I will”) but explains why the claim is significant or necessary.
    • Usually the last sentence of introduction paragraph
    • The rest of the paper supports and explains the claim made in the thesis

3. Body

  • In your transition from the thesis statement to the body (main part) of the essay, you lead the reader through your argument and its relevance. Avoid the temptation to merely summarize a literary work. You may, if you choose, present a preview of your argument while summarizing the literary work along the way.
  • Topic sentence: each paragraph has a topic sentence that states the main idea of the paragraph
  • Support:
    • Reasons/Explanations: show your reader the evidence and reasoning that supports each claim
      • Evidence includes direct quotations from the text; try to avoid long quotes by paraphrasing or by breaking them into smaller parts.
      • Never include a quotation without framing it within your argument. Introduce the quote, then present the quote, then comment on it.
    • Climactic order: your best or most significant idea should be discussed in your last body paragraph

4. Conclusion (usually one paragraph)

  • Reaffirm thesis: don’t use exactly the same sentence, but remind reader of the main idea
  • Finish with a broad point or generalization, a suggestion for further research, or a rhetorical question
  • Don’t bring up new ideas or points regarding your thesis in your conclusion; all support should stay in the body of the essay.

Wendy Belcher’s Writing Your Journal Article in 12 Weeks provides excellent advice for structuring your research paper:

“Structure is the organization of your argument and the evidence for your argument. When each part of your article leads logically to the next part, you have a coherent structure” (172). Structures allow your reader to make logical connections as they move through your ideas. They also help you, as you are writing, to connect your ideas into a greater whole.

Belcher identifies two types of structure: micro (paragraph level) and macro (paper level):

Micro-Structure (Paragraph Level)

  1. Description: provides information about a topic and answers who, what, where, and when. Includes “for example,” “such as,” and “that is.”
  2. Sequence: chronological or procedural information such as background, histories, and experiments. Includes: “before,” “after,” and “more recently.”
  3. Causation: cause and effect relationships. Includes “because,” “thus,” and “therefore.”
  4. Problem/solution: asks and answers questions. Includes “argues that,” “proposes,” and “responds.”
  5. Comparison: differences and similarities. Includes “in contrast,” “instead,” and “on the other hand” (173).

Macro-Structure (Project Level)

In general terms, you should start with an introduction that focuses the reader’s attention, then provide background, propose your argument, provide evidence, confront counter-arguments, and state a conclusion. Most undergraduate essays follow the structure of topic, thesis, evidence, and conclusion. More specifically, you introduce the problem, discuss critical approaches, apply the approach, speculate on implications, and conclude (Belcher, 180).

Two millennia ago, Roman scholars Cicero and Quintilian developed the six-part structure of argumentative presentation that we use to this day.

  1. Introduction (exordium). The beginning in which you give your main argument and relevant information.
  2. Statement of the case(narratio). Discuss the facts and qualities of the case. For a paper on literary studies, the “case” is the literary work you are examining.
  3. Outline of the major points in the argument (divisio or partitio). Present the disputed issues and list the arguments in the order you will present them.
  4. Proof of the case (confirmatio). Validate the statements in the narratio and divisio.
  5. Refutation of possible opposing arguments (confutatio). Anticipate disagreements and refute them.
  6. Conclusion (peroratio). Sum up your arguments.

Structure helps your reader stay connected to the flow of your ideas. Belcher offers the following advice for organizing your ideas in a reader-friendly way:

Principles of Organization

  1. “Go from what your readers know to what they don’t know. That is, start with the familiar.”
  2. “Go from the simple to the complex. Get your reader comfortable before introducing the difficult.”
  3. “Go from the uncontested to the more contested. Readers who have been convinced to believe one thing may be more easily believe the next.”
  4. “Go from the general to the particular. Start with the large picture and then focus on the details.”
  5. “Go chronologically from the past to the present (This common structure is not always the best one for your particular argument and evidence).”
  6. “Go spatially through a succession of linked objects, as if on a guided tour. This works particularly well for art history, geography, and so on.” (Belcher, 174)

Solving Structural Problems

To maintain your paper’s coherence, connect every sentence to the next sentence. The same is true of paragraphs (182). Below are additional strategies you should use to organize your paper.

  1. Use Subheads: Subheads help the author and the reader to group information (182-183).
  2. Use Summary: Peter Elbow writes, “Good summaries move the article forward by articulating what has been said and what will be said. Good summaries are not simplistic, verbatim restatements” (183).
  3. Organize around your argument: Relate all particulars (evidence and proofs) to your argument.
  4. Stay on topic. Don’t digress. Ask yourself whether each particular claim is relevant to your main argument (184).
  5. Develop examples evenly: Develop all of your sections equally. Don’t treat one part of your argument at length and another with a brief statement (185)
  6. Do not use a discovery structure: Structure your presentation based on evidence (not on your discovery process). Organize notes in the data collection stage around themes and topics. Your structure will emerge from these themes and topics (183).
  7. Do not use the “mystery novel” structure : State your argument up front. Tell people where you are going, then lead them through your evidence (183).

Structuring Your Writing Refresher


  1. In the “Back Matter” of this book, you will find a page titled “Rubrics.” On that page, we provide a rubric for Structuring Your Writing.

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