How to structure your academic paper in five minutes

A couple of weeks ago I introduced a basic principle that will make your writing easier and more efficient: you need to separate writing from editing. Now it's time to get a bit more specific. What do you actually DO to separate the writing phase from the editing phase?

The first step is to map out what you're going to do. Remember all those outlines you had to do in high school before you wrote an essay? OH YEAH, THOSE THINGS.

I thought they were a total waste of time. But then I tried to write my first big paper without having any kind of structure and I ugly-cried through the whole process. Lesson learned: use an outline.

It doesn't need to be really detailed or ambitious. In fact, it shouldn't be. You can bang out a loose structure in just a few minutes, and it will save you TONS of time in the long run.

Continued below...

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The general idea is to create a guide for yourself so that when you really get into the writing process you're not going to get distracted. You want to be able to let loose when you sit down to write. Having some direction will really help.


How to make a writing road map


Take 5 minutes to do these three things and your writing time will get a lot easier:

  1. Get clear on your message
  2. Verify the guidelines you're working with
  3. Make top-level headings


Get clear on your message

What do you want to say?

What is the one thing you want your readers to walk away with? We sometimes take for granted that we know what our message is but we haven't really distilled it. It really pays off to get clear so DON'T SKIP THIS.

Think of your message as your destination. How are you going to get your readers to your destination without driving them into a lake?


Verify the guidelines

What do you need to say?

If you're writing for something specific, like a call for proposals or a particular journal, most of them have specific guidelines or conventions for your submission. Make sure you know what these are before you get started because it's a real pain in the ass to reorganize everything after the fact.

No guidelines for your writing project? Skip ahead to the next step.


Make top-level headings

You know what you want to say and you know what you need to say. How are you going to say it?

If your message is your destination, think about how to get your readers there in the easiest and most logical way you can. What do they need to know so that your message makes sense? What are the logical signposts along the way?

Those signposts are your headings. If you have guidelines for your writing project, these may be enough to act as your signposts. But if they don't create enough of a logical flow for you, feel free to create the headings you need to get your writing done and then sort out where to put everything in the editing phase.

A signpost on a hike I did in Iceland. Proud to say I did not get lost. On that particular day.


Extra Step if you need it: SUB-HEADINGS

If top-level headings aren't giving you enough direction, create a few sub-headings. These may be points you need to hit in a particular section, or ways to further organize a big idea. They can be really useful to help you and your readers along, especially if you're new to this way of organizing your writing.

WARNING: Don't go crazy with the sub-headings. First of all, you're creating some direction for yourself, but you're not actually doing the writing at this point. If you spend too much time on the structure, you're just half-assing the writing part.

So: create just enough structure so that you can fill in the sections later on, but not so much that you're starting to actually write.

That comes next. My all-time favourite piece of writing advice.


Do you use outlines? Will you start? Tell me in the comments!

Sarah xx

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