Writers think about structure, a lot. They don’t necessarily tell that to their readers. That’s because writers often want their readers to focus on what’s been written, rather than how it’s been organised. But yes, there are loads of texts where writers play with structures and want the reader to notice. But even then they don’t always tell the reader what they are doing. They show, rather than tell all.
However, academic writers are in the business of explaining what they/we do. We generally signpost what we’re going to say, as well as the order in which we will present our information and argument. Unlike the novelist, we often give away our end point at the very beginning. No surprise twist for us. But we may still do some structuring of our text that we don’t make explicit.
Yet here’s the thing. Even when we haven’t pointed out what structure we are using to organise our “stuff’, what it is and why it’s the way it is, academic readers often “feel” the presence of structure. Or perhaps it’s more accurate to say that readers notice the absence of structures, and/or when we shift the logics of one structure to another mid-stream, without saying anything.
Academic writers have a load of common structures to call on to sequence and order material and ideas. These common modes of organisation can be used in small bite sized morsels, for tables and graphs and paragraphs, as well as in larger chunks of writing about literatures, methods and results.
It really is helpful to understand the most common ways to structure academic writing. When we know what the options are, we can consciously choose the way we want our readers to encounter our material and to engage with the case we are making. So academic writers are, like any other writers, choosers. Choosers from a range of possible structures.
Here are some of the most common structures used in academic writing:
Pyramid structure related to specificity
- Abstract to concrete, and concrete to abstract
- General to specific, and specific to general
- Wider context (big picture) to specific local instance, and the reverse, specific to general
Pyramid structure related to complexity
- Simple to complex (not so often the reverse, but never say never)
- Easy to difficult (not so often the reverse)
Linear structure related to scale, number and size
- Few to many, or many to few
- Lowest to highest, or highest to lowest
- Small to big, or big to small
- Wide to narrow, or narrow to wide
Linear structure related to familiarity
- Known to unknown (rarely unknown to known)
- Open-ended to fixed, or fixed to open-ended
Linear structure related to chronology
- Newest to oldest, or oldest to newest
Structure related to function
- Compare and contrast
- Point and counter point
- Call and response
- Evidence and interpretation
This is not an exhaustive list mind you. Just the structures you’ll see a lot.
These structures may also be combined. The text may not be a simple this to that. It is more a case of this to that, and then back to this again. For instance, a very common way to think about a paragraph is to see it as beginning with a sentence about something quite general, then it moves to specifics than moves back out again to something more general. The last general paragraph sentence leads onto the next paragraph general opener. This cotton reel structure will be and feel familiar to readers. A lot of academic articles work the same way, with the introduction beginning out wide with context/background then narrowing to specifics. The conclusion moves back out again.
Understanding structure matters. Knowing your structural options can help you when you want to knock some shape into those pages of brain dump you produced during a timed rewriting session. And one of the things to look for when revising is the consistency of structures. If, for example, your tables are a mix of high to low and low to high, this is likely to be confusing for the reader. If the axes on graphs are ordered inconsistently, it’s harder for readers to easily grasp the information because they are constantly adjusting to how it is presented. Getting to grips with structure means keeping your reader in mind.
You can build your understandings of structure by looking for the ways in which other academic writers have structured their text. When you see a table for instance, ask yourself – How has this table been structured? Is this the only way the information might have been presented? What are the advantages of this structure? What are the downsides? Is there a better alternative? When you recognise a structure, let’s say a chronological discussion of events, ask yourself – What is the advantage of a timeline approach? What might it make more difficult to establish? (A chronology tends to be descriptive, so look for the presence or absence of argument).
A caveat before I’m done. If we are thinking about how to structure a thesis or a set of results chapters we might use themes or the moves in an argument as the basis of the sequencing and chunkings of stuff. There are a range of narrative structures that can be adapted for academic purposes too. We can also organise big book writing around artefacts and/or specific texts. However, chances are that within the broader structural decisions about text, there will still be a load of other, smaller choices to be made about how to order and present discrete pieces of information.
Structuring academic writing is not about applying a template or a format, but is about writerly choices. Even if your writing is framed by conventions and genres, there are always choices to be made. Keeping your reader in mind is a key to making good structural decisions.