Structuring academic papers

Patrick Dunleavy of Writing for Research (@Write4Research) breaks down all well-structured academic journal articles into two types, with three sub-types:

  • Conventional papers
  • Designed papers
    • The focus-down model
    • The opening out model
    • The compromise model

Dunleavy’s paragraph-by-paragraph explanation may be especially useful for writers who struggle when faced with a blank page. You can read the full article at Structuring and Writing Academic Papers.

Keep in mind, though, that “academics who always plan, research, and write to a template risk thinking to a template as well”–as Helen Sword tell us in Stylish Academic Writing. The conventional IMRAD structure (Introduction, Methods, Results, and Discussion), which dates to the 1940s, can restrict innovative thinking just as much as the five-paragraph essay–which teaches students to think and write “by the numbers”–can restrain the creative, critical arguments of our undergraduate students.

So what do you do, if you’re caught in the bind between fitting your discipline’s structural conventions, and wanting to avoid thinking to a template?

Dunleavy’s approach offers one angle: consider alternatives to the ‘conventional paper.’ Sword offers other options:

  • break apart your sections with vignettes or anecdotes that personalize and individualize your research subjects;
  • use “unique subsection titles,” perhaps one borrowed from or inspired by models from other disciplines;
  • adapt the conventional model to suit your content without disorienting the reader, by doubling or multiplying the individual sections within an IMRAD structure, as suited to your needs.

Whether or not you end up writing to IMRAD or to one of Dunleavy’s structural alternatives, it is good practice to consider how the structure of your article may shape or even restrict your thinking. Asking yourself, “how else might I present this content?” or “what would an alternative outline look like?” enables you to take a new perspective on your research, and address a novel point-of-view that you may otherwise have missed.

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