How to structure your writing: top tips from my marking experience

Hi again! Lately, I’ve been writing a lot for my own personal research. I had to write up a first draft of my first paper and edit it to apply for conferences. However, it was another first-time experience that made me appreciate all the high-school type of tips the teacher used to give us on how to structure our writing: marking the essays of my undergraduate students. It was actually extremely useful to have to judge someone else’s work looking at, among other things, how they structured their ideas and organised the content. I know this might sound basic for PhD-level students, but I find that this is not the case when I see a lot of doctoral researchers being stuck in front of a blank page. So, here are some tips on how to structure and organise your writing.

  1. Start with an outline

I find that the most useful thing to do when writing an academic paper is to write down an outline. It is also very useful to prepare a presentation of around 20 minutes and articulate it in the following points (this varies depending on the discipline-here is for an empirical research in Economics, but I find it quite flexible to adapt to other purposes):

  • Introduction: broad definition of what the research is about
  • Motivation: why does it matter? recent trends in the data?
  • Contribution: what are the gaps in the literature? how does my research contribute?
  • Literature Review: short and essential. Nobody likes it.
  • Theory behind your work: describe theoretical framework you are going to test
  • (in case of applied work) Description of the context: This is why it matters in this context and at this time.
    • Description of the data: if any
    • Summary Statistics
  • Analysis of your main results:  this is what I find
  • Analysis of the limitations: this is what I don’t find and why
  • Policy recommendation: following up from my results this is what we should be doing
  • Conclusions

Once you write down a couple of lines for each slide/point you have the structure for what you are going to say in your paper. Stick to it.

2.Write the introduction and the conclusion at the end.

Most journals referees and most scientific committees will read your paper if they like your abstract. Then, they’ll read the introduction and eventually the conclusion. If you are very good they might read the content. Let’s admit it this is what most of us do when reading a piece of academic work.

This doesn’t mean that you have to be sloppy when writing your paper, but that you have to be extremely good in writing your introduction. Some top tips on this: So, given the importance of these parts of your text: leave them to the end. You will have a clear idea of what you wrote in your paper and you can reflect this clear and logical structure in your introduction. The main goal is to guide your reader through your reasoning and to never make him feel lost.

3.If it needs a long footnote, consider deleting that part.

Unless you are a great novelist, J. Joyce, or Homer, writing a lot is not always appreciated. We all know you did a lot of research, and you know a lot about your topic, but if you are thinking to write a 10-lines long footnote: you might want to reconsider. If the content is relevant, fit it in the main text. If you are just clarifying something: write a footnote. If you are just showing off how much you know: don’t. Digressions are almost always distracting and make the reader want to go back 2 pages to understand why did you even start talking about that topic in the first place. If the digression is so good you think you can’t eliminate it: maybe you should consider writing another paper about it.

4. Take a long break before reading your work and start editing.

One of the best advices during my doctoral training has been to write a little bit everyday. Start your day by writing on a document the progress you made the day before and the main concepts you think are relevant from that progress. This will help you writing up later on. Similarly, take your time to assimilate what you are writing. Writing is not a last minute thing (as many of us tend to consider it) that you can rush through. For a piece of work to be good and interesting to read you need to put some thought into it, and it’s difficult to think when the deadline is at midnight and you started writing at 9am.

5.Structure comes first, editing last.

Even though, it is crucial to have a good structure as a starting point, the first writing session does not have to be perfect. Oppositely, it has to be chaotic, rich and long. The first thing to do is to write everything you think is relevant without thinking too much about how to say it. This phase is mostly to show that you understand the concepts and to describe what you are doing. Editing is a much longer process and comes later. After the first writing session take some time to add the tables and the figures you need. After that and a couple of good nights of sleep: start editing. Your goal is to show that there is a central idea underlying each section of your paper. Now is the time to be logical and organise the content in the most efficient way. For this, let Socrates inspire you and use critical thinking:

  • Assert your thesis
  • Defend it and discuss it
  • Present an antithesis
  • Convince that you are still right 🙂

Remember this three phases as you edit your text, but mostly organise your introduction around them. This will be a great exercise for your presentation as well.

Overall, the keys to a good structure are: synthesis, logic, TIME.

Want to do a bit of intense writing/editing next week? We will be running our Shut Up and Write sessions every Tuesday at 10 in the Hive bookable rooms. Let us know if you are coming, so that we can reserve some coffee for you at 9.30 in the Library Café!

Are you more interested in how to deal with marking and other challenging aspects of teaching? Join us for our Doctoral Discussion “Journey to Teach”. Liz Sage and other PhD fellows will be sharing their experience as ATs and teachers and answer all of your Qs. Join us : 17th March 2017 @12:00. Book your place here.


Thanks for reading!





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