How to Structure a Paper

Papers can be structured in many ways, but some aspects are fundamental, and you should know about them. This short guide will help you understand the basics.

Why structure matters

Presenting your work in a cohesive and understandable manner while also following the principles of scientific theory can be hard if you don’t know what is expected of you. The structure of your paper is what makes it possible for others to understand and ultimately evaluate your work, so following some of the basic conventions is an absolute must.

Writing a paper is like building a complex structure, you need both excellent plans and a lot of patience. The Eiffel tower was not built over a weekend; impressive structures take time and effort.

What makes a paper excellent?

Remember, the backbone of any paper is the problem statement, so be sure to check out my post on how to write a really good one. Really good papers have several things in common. They:

  • Make a distinct and meaningful contribution to the body of knowledge through original research
  • Demonstrate competence in research processes
  • Understand appropriate research
  • Are able to report, interpret and integrate findings in a cohesive manner (also called synthesis)
  • Relate findings to the theoretical foundation of the study and draw conclusions from findings
  • Indicate implications of the research
  • Are well written (be careful of those long unnecessary sentences)
  • Do not have any spelling errors or typos

Exam structure – the bare minimum

Many exam papers can be structured a bit differently because they do not expect the author to do actual research. It depends on the course and the type of exam of course. But whatever kind of paper is expected of you, it should always include the following, as an absolute minimum:

  • Title page
  • Table of contents
  • Introduction
  • Problem statement (or specific exam questions)
  • Discussion
  • Conclusion and implications
  • List of references
  • Appendices

Paper structure – the classic approach

A larger paper will naturally include more sections. The following list is a pretty classic structure, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t include other important sections. In the end, it will depend on your research problem and how you like to work.

  • Title page
  • Abstract
  • Table of contents
  • Introduction
    Problem statement
    Scope of study
  • Theoretical Considerations
    Theoretical basis (literary review)
    Key concepts
  • Research design and methodology
    Justification for the methodology
    Research procedures including method of analysis
    Ethical considerations
  • Research results
    Description of empirical materials
    Analysis of materials
  • Discussion
    Summary of findings
    Discussion of select findings
    Discussion of method and choice of theory
  • Conclusions
    Conclusions on the problem statement
    Implications and recommendations
  • List of references
  • Appendices

6 important things to get right

  • The difference between methodology and method is a very important distinction and many get it wrong in their research design. Methodology is the study of methods, the systematic, theoretical analysis of the methods applied to a field of study, usually encompassing ontological and epistemological considerations. Methods, however, are specific procedures or tools on how to empirically approach a target of research. Always start with methodology and proceed to specific methods.
  • In larger papers it’s a wise choice to write in the introduction of each chapter what you are going to do, and subsequently conclude at the end of each chapter by summarising the main points of the chapter and then link it with the following chapter. You can make it easier for the reader if you include ‘introduction’ and ‘conlusion’ sections in all of your chapters.
  • Avoid using “etc.”, it’s vague and implies more of what you write is superfluous. The same goes for adding notes and similar “stuff” – if something is important to your work then you may as well include it in your main text.
  • Remember, as a writer it’s your work and you are in control. Have a logical presentation of your arguments and try to lead the reader in an integrated way to what you want to achieve. This is best done by building your arguments gradually – think about what it is you claim and how you can strengthen that proposal (e.g. by using Toulmin’s model of argumentation).
  • Don’t use time pressure as an excuse. It’s just a silly and vague argument for not managing your time properly. We all know how much time we had from the beginning, no surprise there.
  • Students do not have opinions in a scientific presentation (whatever your experience or knowledge might be). You can only claim to have an opinion if it is based on original research. In essence, any claim you make, and any idea you present, needs to have a scientific backing, yours (original research) or others (references to articles).

Good luck with your paper!