Structure: The Key to Quality Writing

Thinking deliberately and explicitly about the structure of a paper can help you improve many aspects of your writing. It can help ensure you provide sufficient support for claims, that your ideas are reasonably easy to identify, and that your ideas flow and hang together well. Thus, having a clear picture of how to structure a paper is perhaps the single most important aspect of writing.

Fitting Structure into the Writing Process

Although structure is vital to good writing, that does not mean it should be the first thing you focus on. Instead, explicit focus on structure fits into the writing process in the following way:

  1. Brainstorm ideas: Just write down some possible things you may say, in no particular order and without concern for sentence construction, grammar, etc.
  2. Thinking Draft: The first draft of any paper is the ‘thinking draft’ – it is the one that you are writing as you are thinking. This is why they almost always read as “streams of consciousness” – because they are. But, writing encourages thinking, and so this step is invaluable. This is where you take that random set of ideas and try to lay them out together.
  3. Structuring: Now that you have ideas on paper, you can reflect on how to re-organize and re-present them so they are as clear and convincing to a reader as possible. This involves identifying your main idea, major reasons, and minor reasons as well as (likely) cutting out a bunch of stuff that, while interesting, doesn’t fit in the “best story” you can tell
  4. Revised Draft: The paper you write based on your structuring and the starting point for editing for clarity

How to think about Structure

Structuring writing is largely a matter of thinking logically about the ordering of claims, although it also involves thinking creatively about what ordering tells the best story. Since logical structure is more straightforward and more important, we will focus on that.

The logical structure of an argumentative paper can be understood as various “nesting claims”:

  1. The main idea (i.e., thesis or ‘conclusion’ of the argument)
  2. Major Reason 1 in support of the main idea
    1. Minor Reason 1 in support of Major Reason 1
    2. Minor Reason 2 in support of Major Reason 1
  3. Major Reason 2 in support of the main idea
    1. Minor Reason 1 in support of Major Reason 2
    2. Minor Reason 2 in support of Major Reason 2

As you can see, minor reasons do the same thing for major reasons that major reasons do for the main idea. In every case, they are answering the “why should I believe that?” question. Why should I believe the main idea? Because Major Reason 1 and Major Reason 2. Why should I believe Major Reason 1? Because Minor Reason 1 and Minor Reason 2.

Importantly, while every claim in need of support should have at least two reasons in support, they could have more.

Finally, notice that this logical structure can effectively function as an outline of the paper.

Translating a Structural Outline into a Complete Paper

Once you have your structural outline, the process of converting it into an essay is really just a matter of “filling in the details”. But to do that, it can also help to think about the structure of a paragraph and the placement of the main idea in the paper.

  1. The main idea should always be clearly presented early in the paper. Typically this is in the first paragraph, but in longer papers it could be a bit later. You are not writing a mystery novel, so you don’t want your reader to be unsure of “who did it”
  2. Major Reasons and their supporting minor reasons should be contained within a single paragraph or across a couple of consecutive paragraphs (depending on overall paper length).
  3. An ideal construction of a (body) paragraph may look like this:
    1. Sentence 1: Statement of the major reason (this is called a ‘topic sentence’)
    2. Sentences 2-5ish: Discussion of the minor reasons
    3. Sentence 6 (or final): Reassertion of the major reason and how it supports the main idea

From Development to Deployment

Early in the process of developing your ability to think about structure, it is valuable to be very explicit to yourself and to your reader as to what you are doing. For instance, to ensure you clearly state your main idea in the introduction you may say “In this paper, I will argue that…” and fill out the sentence with the main idea. Similarly, you may say, in a body paragraph, “The first reason to support my position is…” and then state the first Major Reason.

It is completely acceptable to do this and leave it like this for the reader. While it can appear a bit cumbersome and repetitive, at least it is very clear!

However, over time, you will want to start removing some of the more repetitive and explicit language and let the structure “do the talking”. You may simply state the major reason without providing any specific indication that it is a major reason. But if this is done in the context of a clear overall structure, the reader will still understand.

Similarly, over time you can start manipulating the paragraph structure so that it still contains minor reasons in support of a major reason but perhaps in a less predictable fashion. It is here where the “creativity” element starts to come in, and is a much more individualistic technique.


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The Primacy of the Public by Marcus Schultz-Bergin is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.