How to structure a scientific paper

Academic writing is a skill that takes time and effort to develop, and is essential for career progression. As a freelance academic proof-reader and editor, structure is one of the most frequent things I edit in client’s writing. Academic manuscripts, book chapters, dissertations and even grant applications, all have a common, general structure and, once you know the basics, you can quickly improve the readability and flow. Improved readability and flow, of any piece of writing, make it much more accessible to the reader and increase the likelihood of publication.

The beginning, middle and end

Academic writing needs a beginning, middle and end, much like creative writing, you are telling a story. Organising your document and information this way will quickly and effectively give your writing a solid structure. It will ensure the reader has the information they need, when they need it, and enable the information you are presenting to be easy to follow and interpret. It also helps with the writing process, as you can quickly determine what information goes where within your document — good structure is a win-win!

The beginning needs to ignite curiosity and provide the relevant background information needed to both understand your document and know why your topic is important.

The middle is the place to provide information. At the document level, this includes the methods and results, along with any figures and tables.

The end summarises the information of the middle, in the context of the introductory information (beginning) and synthesises it into a conclusion.

Each level of your academic document should have beginning, middle and end structure.

At the document level, the beginning, middle and end are the document’s sections.

Beginning: Title, abstract, keywords and introduction.

Middle: Materials, methods, results, figures, tables.

End: Discussion, conclusions, references

At the section level, the beginning, middle and end are formed of paragraphs.

Beginning: Paragraph introducing the section’s topic, with relevant background information.

Middle: Paragraphs with the main information and/or argument(s) of the section.

End: Concluding paragraph.

At the paragraph level, the beginning, middle and end are formed of sentences. This is why paragraphs should have at least three sentences.

Beginning: The first sentence of each paragraph is the Topic Sentence, introducing the topic of the paragraph.

Middle: At least one sentence detailing the main information or argument of the paragraph.

End: The concluding sentence interprets the information given in the middle within the context given in the beginning, and ideally also provides a link to the next paragraph.

Academic writing structure by Dr Caroline Palmer, Academic proof-reader and editor.

Overall, the trick is to provide a beginning, middle and end to the whole document, each section and paragraph, without being repetitive. Structuring this way means that the information in your document should fall, often quite clearly, into each of these categories, and not be muddled-up among them. For example, you cannot have introduction (beginning) information in your discussion (end), or results (middle) in the discussion (end). You can discuss your results (middle) in the discussion (end), but don’t present the results. Once you start organising your documents in this way, it becomes easier to avoid repetition and to keep your work count down.

Here is an example of how to write an academic abstract, which is both a section and a paragraph. The example structure can be applied to all sections and paragraphs of your document:

Abstract example

Beginning

Sentence 1: General background information, the broad topic, why is it important.

Sentence 2: Background information specific to your study, highlight gaps in knowledge.

Middle

Sentence 3: Briefly describe the methods.

Sentence 4: Describe the main findings.

End

Sentence 5: Explain what your findings mean, and give specific conclusions.

Sentence 6: Conclude what future directions should be and/or detail the broader implications of findings.

Start getting to grips with academic writing structure by reading academic papers and looking for the beginning, middle and end in each level of the publication. Looking for structure in published papers will also help familiarize you with frequent phrasing and wording in each section. Start applying structure to your own document by working your way through from the document level to paragraphs. It will immediately improve the structure and flow of your document, getting you one step closer to publication or submission.

If you’d like some more help with your academic writing, please get in touch www.flourishlife.co.uk

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Freelance academic editor and writing coach www.flourishlife.co.uk

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