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Structuring academic writing

Structuring: where to start?

Once you have a plan for your writing, you can use this plan to create the structure of your writing. Some academic writing, such as lab or business reports, will have a fairly rigid structure, with headings and content for each section. For more details see our Report writing tutorial.

In other writing formats, such as essays and blog posts for example, the appropriate structure will be less clearly defined and more dependent on your content or line of argument. For more details see our essay writing pages.

Creating an overall structure 

The specific structure of your writing will be determined by the type of assignment you have been asked to produce (essay, report etc). However, most writing will still follow the same overall structure: a beginning, middle and end - the introduction, main body and conclusion - and the key characteristics of these are outlined below:

The introduction outlines the main direction the writing will take, giving any necessary background information and context, defining any specific terms and indicating any boundaries the content will operate within.

In the main body each point is presented, explored and developed. This must be set out in a logical order, to make it easier for the reader to follow and understand.

The conclusion brings together the main points, highlighting the most important. This should be the key message or argument you want the reader to take away. It may also identify any gaps or weaknesses in the arguments or ideas presented, and can recommend further research or investigation where appropriate. 

Structuring your paragraphs

As well as the overall writing structure, you need to think about the structure of each sentence and paragraph. You can use paragraphs to build and structure your argument, separating each of your points into a different paragraph. Your point should be made clear in the first or second sentence of the paragraph to make it easier for the reader to follow the line of reasoning.

The rest of the paragraph should explain the point in greater detail, providing relevant evidence and examples where necessary or useful, (where relevant, in reflective and journal writing for instance, you can draw in examples from your own practice or appropriate case studies). Your interpretation of what these show and your reasoning, as well as any underlying assumptions or value judgements, will help to substantiate your thinking and can lend weight to your argument. At the end of the paragraph you should show the significance of the point you have made to the overall argument or point you are trying to convey in the assignment or link to the next paragraph.

Ordering your points

To decide how to arrange the content of your writing, try using the following steps:

Know what you want to say before you start writing

  • This may have developed from your original plan (in fact you may have several plans) so it is worth taking time to write this again for clarity. Start by reminding yourself of the purpose of the writing
  • What question are you trying to answer?
    Try to write in one or two sentences your answer to the question that has been set. If you just have a topic or statement you will find it helpful to phrase this as a question
  • Take a look at our Interpreting your assignment activity for tips on deciding how to tackle your assignment.
Create a list of your main points 
  • To select the main points you want to include, ask yourself whether each point you have considered really contributes to answering the question. Is the point relevant to your overall argument?
  • If you are not sure what your points are that you want to make, consider dividing your topic up into a series of questions that need to be answered in order to answer the overall question
  • Think about what information your reader will need to know and in what order they will need to know it. 
Link the facts, evidence and data you have with each point
  • You need to be able to provide evidence for each of the main points you are making. You will need to be selective about the type and amount of evidence you incorporate into your assignments (especially if you are very limited on your word count). When selecting what information you use to support/substantiate your claims, you must evaluate that information as not everything you find will be of high quality
  • See searching for information page for advice on how to find high quality, academic information
  • In your writing, there are a number of ways that you can incorporate the work of others into your own work and still make your academic voice and your ideas clear. See using other's work page for more details.
Separate your points into groups
  • To help you put your points in a logical order, try to categorise them into groups. These groups will broadly fit into an overall pattern, such as for and against, thematic, chronological or by different schools of thought or approach. There is not just one way to approach this, you will need to decide what is most appropriate for your purpose.
Put your groups, and the points within your groups, into an order
  • Think about the sequence of information that the reader will need to follow in order to make sense of the topic and/or your proposal or argument. You could try copying and pasting each point and reordering them to see which order is the most logical. It can also be helpful to talk through your argument with someone and consider whether the order you are presenting your points makes sense.
Revise, edit and proofread your work

  • Most writing will require several drafts and revisions in order to improve the clarity and structure - it is rare that a writer will make the very best decisions in the first draft. See proofreading page for more details.