How to Structure a Research Paper

[See also: How to write a research project. How to write the background, theory, method, analysis and discussion sections. How to write the introduction and conclusion and how to review the literature. How to finish on time and how to reference properly. Part of the Craft of Research series. Full program here.]

TL;DR: “Towards an Outline”

Video from March 9, 2023

“It must be remembered that structure is the residual deposit of duration.”
-Roland Barthes

It takes about three quarters of an hour to read a typical research paper in the social sciences. (It constitutes roughly “forty measured little difficulties” for the reader.) In that time, it should present a single, easily identifiable claim. It should provide an argument, not just for the truth of that claim, but for its relevance for a particular line of inquiry. It should situate both the claim and the line of inquiry in a world of shared concern that goes beyond the narrow, scholarly interests of both the writer and the reader. Within those narrow limits, however, it should respect the field’s theoretical and methodological commitments. Before it is over, it should offer a simple one-paragraph statement of the argument for the central claim of the paper — a statement that assumes that the very knowledgeable and highly intelligent reader has understood the paper as a whole.

For every section of your paper, my advice is to distinguish the different sections of a paper in terms of their basis and their purpose. What sorts of sources are you basing the section you are writing on? This could publicly available documents, like annual reports or newspaper coverage, for your background section, or the scientific literature for your theory section, or your data for your analysis. Or, you might be basing your methods section mainly on your experiences gathering the data, and your discussion on your own reasoning. Likewise, what are you trying to accomplish in each section? You might be trying to inform the reader in your background section and set up their expectations in the theory section; you might be trying to gain their trust (in your data) in the methods sections and challenge their expectations (with your data) in the analysis. In your discussion, you might be presenting what you think are the most important implication of your research. These bases and aims need not be exactly the ones you choose, but you should make both your goals your materials clear to yourself, and you should use this clarity to organize your presentation. (See “The Key and the Content” for some ideas about how to relate each individual paragraph to the overall structure.)

A standard empirical paper in the social sciences can be divided into seven sections. For example:

  1. Introduction
  2. Background
  3. Theory
  4. Method
  5. Analysis
  6. Discussion
  7. Conclusion

The essence of planning is to appreciate your finitude. One good way to do this is to decide roughly how many paragraphs you’re going to put into each section. In a forty paragraph paper, for example, you might have a three paragraph introduction; 5 paragraphs for each of the background, theory, methods, and discussion sections; 15 paragraphs of analysis; and a two paragraph conclusion. These are of course rules of thumb, not to be followed slavishly. You also don’t have to call the sections what I have called them in the talk. I’m really just trying to give you some sense of the finitude of the problem of writing a research paper. That will literally help you to finish it.

While these different components are worth mastering in any case, not all academic writing consists of full, formal research papers. Sometimes you will be writing shorter papers and essays. In such cases you might find my posts on “Sentences, Paragraphs, and Essays”, “How to Write Five Paragraphs”, “How Papers Work”, and “How Essays Work” of interest.

Here’s a lecture from 2019 on the same topic:

Here is the video from 2022: