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Organization and Structure

There is no single organizational pattern that works well for all writing across all disciplines; rather, organization depends on what you’re writing, who you’re writing it for, and where your writing will be read. In order to communicate your ideas, you’ll need to use a logical and consistent organizational structure in all of your writing. We can think about organization at the global level (your entire paper or project) as well as at the local level (a chapter, section, or paragraph). For an American academic situation, this means that at all times, the goal of revising for organization and structure is to consciously design your writing projects to make them easy for readers to understand. In this context, you as the writer are always responsible for the reader's ability to understand your work; in other words, American academic writing is writer-responsible. A good goal is to make your writing accessible and comprehensible to someone who just reads sections of your writing rather than the entire piece. This handout provides strategies for revising your writing to help meet this goal.

Note that this resource focuses on writing for an American academic setting, specifically for graduate students. American academic writing is of course not the only standard for academic writing, and researchers around the globe will have different expectations for organization and structure. The OWL has some more resources about writing for American and international audiences here.

Whole-Essay Structure

IMRAD

While organization varies across and within disciplines, usually based on the genre, publication venue, and other rhetorical considerations of the writing, a great deal of academic writing can be described by the acronym IMRAD (or IMRaD): Introduction, Methods, Results, and Discussion. This structure is common across most of the sciences and is often used in the humanities for empirical research. This structure doesn't serve every purpose (for instance, it may be difficult to follow IMRAD in a proposal for a future study or in more exploratory writing in the humanities), and it is often tweaked or changed to fit a particular situation. Still, its wide use as a base for a great deal of scholarly writing makes it worthwhile to break down here.

  • Introduction: What is the purpose of the study? What were the research questions? What necessary background information should the reader understand to help contextualize the study? (Some disciplines include their literature review section as part of the introduction; some give the literature review its own heading on the same level as the other sections, i.e., ILMRAD.) Some writers use the CARS model to help craft their introductions more effectively.
  • Methods: What methods did the researchers use? How was the study conducted? If the study included participants, who were they, and how were they selected?
  • Results: This section lists the data. What did the researchers find as a result of their experiments (or, if the research is not experimental, what did the researchers learn from the study)? How were the research questions answered?
  • Discussion: This section places the data within the larger conversation of the field. What might the results mean? Do these results agree or disagree with other literature cited? What should researchers do in the future?

Depending on your discipline, this may be exactly the structure you should use in your writing; or, it may be a base that you can see under the surface of published pieces in your field, which then diverge from the IMRAD structure to meet the expectations of other scholars in the field. However, you should always check to see what's expected of you in a given situation; this might mean talking to the professor for your class, looking at a journal's submission guidelines, reading your field's style manual, examining published examples, or asking a trusted mentor. Every field is a little different.

Outlining & Reverse Outlining

One of the most effective ways to get your ideas organized is to write an outline. A traditional outline comes as the pre-writing or drafting stage of the writing process. As you make your outline, think about all of the concepts, topics, and ideas you will need to include in order to accomplish your goal for the piece of writing. This may also include important citations and key terms. Write down each of these, and then consider what information readers will need to know in order for each point to make sense. Try to arrange your ideas in a way that logically progresses, building from one key idea or point to the next.

Questions for Writing Outlines

  1. What are the main points I am trying to make in this piece of writing?

  2. What background information will my readers need to understand each point? What will novice readers vs. experienced readers need to know?

  3. In what order do I want to present my ideas? Most important to least important, or least important to most important? Chronologically? Most complex to least complex? According to categories? Another order?

Reverse outlining comes at the drafting or revision stage of the writing process. After you have a complete draft of your project (or a section of your project), work alone or with a partner to read your project with the goal of understanding the main points you have made and the relationship of these points to one another. The OWL has another resource about reverse outlining here.

Questions for Writing Reverse Outlines

  1. What topics are covered in this piece of writing?

  2. In what order are the ideas presented? Is this order logical for both novice and experienced readers?

  3. Is adequate background information provided for each point, making it easy to understand how one idea leads to the next?

  4. What other points might the author include to further develop the writing project?

Organizing at the sentence and paragraph level

Signposting

Signposting is the practice of using language specifically designed to help orient readers of your text. We call it signposting because this practice is like leaving road signs for a driver — it tells your reader where to go and what to expect up ahead. Signposting includes the use of transitional words and phrasing, and they may be explicit or more subtle. For example, an explicit signpost might say:

This section will cover Topic A­­ and Topic B­­­­­.

A more subtle signpost might look like this:

It's important to consider the impact of Topic A­­ and Topic B­­­­­.

The style of signpost you use will depend on the genre of your paper, the discipline in which you are writing, and your or your readers’ personal preferences. Regardless of the style of signpost you select, it’s important to include signposts regularly. They occur most frequently at the beginnings and endings of sections of your paper. It is often helpful to include signposts at mid-points in your project in order to remind readers of where you are in your argument.

Questions for Identifying and Evaluating Signposts

  1. How and where does the author include a phrase, sentence, or short group of sentences that explains the purpose and contents of the paper?

  2. How does each section of the paper provide a brief summary of what was covered earlier in the paper?

  3. How does each section of the paper explain what will be covered in that section?

  4. How does the author use transitional words and phrases to guide readers through ideas (e.g. however, in addition, similarly, nevertheless, another, while, because, first, second, next, then etc.)?

WORKS CONSULTED

Clark, I. (2006). Writing the successful thesis and dissertation: Entering the conversation. Prentice Hall Press.

Davis, M., Davis, K. J., & Dunagan, M. (2012). Scientific papers and presentations. Academic press.