Structure: Introduction

To understand why one must think about Structure, it helps to consider the reason academic writers do more than simply state their thesis and leave it at that. Why isn’t it enough to just announce the big idea in clear terms—much the way one is supposed to do in the introduction of an essay, chapter, or article—and count that as a job well done? The answer, of course, is that there is a difference between understanding the broad outlines of a knowledge contribution and really comprehending the nuance and complexity of the knowledge being proposed. Put differently, while a reader can understand an introductory statement quite easily, it takes a lot more to get that reader to have a deep appreciation of the knowable thing that lies behind that statement. For an academic writer, structuring the paragraphs and sections that come after an essay’s introduction has everything to do with the hard work of moving readers beyond a superficial, preliminary understanding of the knowledge being proposed.

Revising your way toward a clear and effective structure is essential because of two inescapable conditions under which your reader is encountering your work:

  1. Your reader begins from a position of relative ignorance. While readers may come to your piece with some existing knowledge that is relevant, they don’t know nearly as much as you do about the existing scholarly conversation, your original research, the conclusions you’ve reached, the analysis that supports your conclusions, and information you understand to provide necessary context, among other things.
  2. Your reader can only encounter your work sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph, which means that each step has to make sense to them in the absence of all the steps that have not yet taken place in the paper.

As a writer, structural decisions can be challenging because your knowledge contribution makes the most sense to you when you think about it as a complete picture. Consequently, it can be very hard to figure out the right way to break your presentation into a sequence of steps that “adds up” to a complete understanding for your reader. To better understand the work that structure does, it helps to consider the paired concepts of “plot” and “story” as these terms are used in the field of narrative theory. “Plot” names the sequence of events as they are related to us, an order that often departs from a linear chronology of events in the fictional world being described. In other words, the plot of a movie or novel can begin in the middle of events, then move to a scene that happened earlier. “Story,” by contrast, names the reader’s or viewer’s retroactive reordering of events into their proper chronology. This is often what happens to people who have finished a book or watched a movie; what they remember is and relate to other is not the plot but the story, that is to say, the chronological sequence of events regardless of how the novel or movie might have mixed those events up in their delivery.

The key insight is that readers and viewers tend to remember a novel or movie’s story, but what they experienced was its plot. From a writer’s point of view, making choices about plot is a way to influence a reader’s experience and the thoughts they end up having about the story. For example, someone writing a mystery might relate events that cast suspicion on a particular character, but only because the reader does not yet know until later that this character was doing something else when the crime was being committed. Revision strategies in this section offer ways to distance yourself from the complete understanding in your mind and to better consider the partial and accumulative process of understanding that will be experienced by your reader as a direct result of your draft’s structure.

While the work of revision can be helped by focusing one’s attention specifically on issues of structure, it bears saying that the concerns of structure inevitably involve other aspects of academic writing. In particular, structure holds a close relationship with the concerns of argument. A piece of academic writing exists specifically to argue that a particular knowledge contribution is in fact valid knowledge and does in fact contribute to what we know. Consequently, the structure one follows in academic writing should always be in service of building the most effective case for your proposed knowledge. Often, writers who are struggling with structure are getting caught up in alternative organizing principles (like the chronology of their object) in a way that departs from an argument-oriented sequence.