Most academic texts follow established structures. This page describes some common structures in academic writing: the three-part essay structure and the IMRaD structure. Structure should be considered on all levels of text so you will also find information on structuring paragraphs.
The structure of your writing depends on the type of assignment, but two common structures used in academic writing are the three-part essay structure and the IMRaD structure. Even shorter essays that are not divided into titled sections follow such a structure. Longer texts may be further divided into subsections. Different disciplines or departments may prefer that students use a certain structure, so make sure to check with your instructor if you are not sure what is expected of you.
The three-part essay structure
The three-part essay structure is a basic structure that consists of introduction, body and conclusion. The introduction and the conclusion should be shorter than the body of the text. For shorter essays, one or two paragraphs for each of these sections can be appropriate. For longer texts or theses, they may be several pages long.
More on the three-part essay structure
Your introduction should include the following points (be aware that not all points may be relevant for your project):
- Introduce your topic
- Place your topic in a context
- Provide background information
- Point out the aim of the text
- Describe how you will fulfill the aim
- Provide a thesis statement or research question
- Suggest what your findings are
- Explain why your topic is interesting, necessary or important
- Give the reader a guide to the text
- Catch your reader’s interest
The statements you make in the introduction are to be developed in the body of the text and returned to in the conclusion.
You may write the introduction at the beginning or at the end of the writing process. If you write it early in the process it can serve as a guide to your own writing, but be aware that you most likely will have to go back to it and edit it as the writing progresses.
This is the main section of your text and it should also be the longest. Depending on the length of the text, the body may be divided into subsections. If your text is divided into subsections, remember to briefly introduce each section. For longer works you may also need to conclude sections.
The body of the text is where you as a writer and researcher are the most active. It is the most substantial part of the text; this is where the research or findings are presented, discussed and analyzed. This is also where you present your arguments that support your thesis or answer your question. The structure and contents of this main part may differ depending on your discipline.
In the conclusion you should return to the thesis or problem that you presented in the introduction. But be careful to not merely repeat what you wrote in the introduction; instead, show your reader how what you have written sheds new light on the problem presented at the beginning. For longer works a brief summary of your findings may be in place, but this should not be necessary for shorter texts. Be careful that your conclusion is not just a repetition of what you have already written. In your conclusion, you may also evaluate and explain whether or not you have reached the aim or solved the problem presented in the introduction, and how. No new material should be introduced in the conclusion, but it is quite common to suggest topics for further studies.
The IMRaD structure
The sections of the IMRaD structure are Introduction, Methods, Results and Discussion. Watch this short film about the IMRaD structure:
More on the IMRaD structure
See the description of the introduction in the above section about the three-part essay structure.
In this section you describe how you have conducted your study. This is where you present your material and your research as well as any previous research and background material. You describe what method or methods you have used and how you have come up with your results. You may also explain why you have chosen a particular method.
Read here for more tips on how to write the method section. However, you should be aware that there can be differences between disciplines in the contents and structure of this section.
In this section you report the results of your research. Usually the results are not discussed or analyzed in this section but you may have to explain some of your findings to avoid misunderstandings.
The discussion is the section where you as a writer are the most active and it should be the most substantial section of the entire paper. You should interpret, analyze and discuss your results as well as compare and contrast them to previous research.
Sometimes papers that use the IMRaD structure will have a separate conclusion and sometimes the conclusion will be merged with the discussion. Be sure to check with your instructor what is expected of you.
Other parts of academic papers
Apart from the parts that are treated in the above sections about the three-part structure and the IMRaD structure, academic papers also consist of other often quite formalized parts.
The title should catch the reader’s attention and interest and also indicate what to expect of the paper.
Many academic titles consist of two parts where the first part catches the reader’s attention and the second part is explanatory. Look at the titles of other academic papers and articles within your discipline for inspiration on how to construct titles.
Most often you are required to use a certain format or template for your title page. Make sure to check the instructions or ask your course teacher to find out what is expected of you.
An abstract summarizes the main contents of your thesis and should give the reader a well-defined idea of what the thesis is about. Readers often use the abstract to determine whether or not the text is relevant for them to read.
It is recommended that you read abstracts that are written within your own discipline to learn what is expected of you, since what is included in an abstract may differ in each field of study. Make sure that your abstract has the length that is required in the assignment and keep in mind that shorter assignments do not usually require an abstract.
Table of contents
Longer works usually have a table of contents. You will most likely be expected to use a certain format according to the template you are using. Otherwise most word processors will have formatting tools you can use to create a table of contents. Make sure to structure your table of contents in a way that makes the relationship between sections and subsections apparent to the reader.
The reference list is placed after the text. Any appendices should however be placed after the reference list. The list should include all sources you have used in your work. How to construct the list and how to cite sources differ between disciplines and reference systems.
A paragraph is a collection of sentences that deal with one topic or idea. When a new paragraph begins it signals to the reader that the focus shifts to a new idea or thought. At the same time, all paragraphs should connect to the main topic.
Topic sentence and supporting sentences
Paragraphs consist of sentences. Each paragraph should have a topic sentence that presents the main point or theme of the paragraph. This sentence is most often near the beginning of the paragraph. All other sentences in the paragraph are supporting sentences that connect back to the topic sentence. These sentences develop the idea that is expressed in the topic sentence. This development may for example be a deeper analysis, a contrast or an illustrative example. The last sentence of the paragraph is the concluding sentence or transitional sentence. It sums up the contents of the paragraph and leads the reader to the following paragraph. It is important to transition smoothly from one paragraph to the next. Otherwise the impression will be that the paragraphs are piled onto each other rather than constitute one coherent text.
The length of each paragraph depends on its contents. This means that the length of paragraphs may vary. That is, you should not begin a new paragraph simply because you feel that now it is long enough. However, if a paragraph is very short it could be an indication that something needs to be developed. If it is very long it could be an indication that it contains more than one central idea.
When you use language that guides the reader through the text it is called signposting. Read more about signposting
Paragraphs can be structured in different ways. The internal structure of each paragraph often depends on the idea that is treated in that specific paragraph and its relationship to the surrounding paragraphs as well as to the text as a whole.
Your topic and the purpose of the paragraph should determine its organization. For example, if your purpose is to illustrate the differences between two theories, your topic sentence should tell the reader that you are about to contrast two theories. You may then describe first one theory, then the other, and finally contrast the two.