The shortest ever guide to academic writing

Academic articles handle dense and complex subject matter, which means that a great degree of care goes into writing that tells this complicated story in a simple and compelling way. I like writing, and I thought I’d share my approach to structuring my own written work. It relies on three rules.

  1. Each paragraph can be summarised in a single sentence. If I need more than one sentence to describe the essence of the paragraph, the paragraph needs more work.
  2. When those sentences are pulled out and stacked together, they tell a story. If the story meandres, or misses a point, or has points that don’t link up well, or isn’t complete, or has a weird arc, the overall structure needs more work.
  3. Once I have a sentence that describes my paragraph, I take it and put it at the beginning of the paragraph (or thereabouts). The reduction in cognitive load for the reader is massive if they know which point I am making before they read why I think this point is the right one to make.

I treat the first two rules religiously, while the third is sometimes in competition with making a smooth transition from one paragraph to the next, in which case I side with overall flow of text. I do not apply these rules to methods sections. With methods, it’s too important to state everything pedantically to let style override detail. Results are somewhere in between, with a different set of rules. But for an essay, or an introduction, or a discussion section, these principles will help your text flow.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *