Your experiment is complete and the results are in! Now you have to write the research paper that will share your brilliance with the rest of the world. But, how do you get started? How do you structure a research paper? What separates rejected papers from best papers?
Getting started on a research paper can feel daunting, but like with all difficult tasks, it just needs to be broken down into manageable chunks and tackled piece by piece. Most research papers follow a simple structure that is designed to make your argument as simple, logical and clear as possible. Remember that clarity is key when it comes to communicating complex research. And ideally, you should begin the writing process before you even begin your experiments. If you conduct research with your manuscript in mind, not only will your paper be better but so will the quality of your research.
Writing a Research Paper is Hard
Before you start banging your head against the wall, just remember that writing a paper is not easy. Academic writing requires you to communicate complex ideas in a convincing and understandable way. Your research question needs to be justified and explained. Your experiment needs to be reproducible and defensible. Your results clear and compelling. Your conclusion demonstrative of a tangible lesson and outcome.
It’s a skill that needs to be learned through experience, even the most prominent academics will have had to learn it the hard way. Reading a lot of manuscripts can help, but the best experience comes from writing as much as possible.
On top of this, research is difficult and is rarely a linear process. If only it was as easy as:
- Formulate hypothesis
- Conduct experiment
- Get results
- Write paper
- Academic success!
Instead, it’s an iterative process. Often the hypothesis is unclear at first. Your first experiment is simply to try and see if it works. Your first results are confusing and unexpected. If you’re only starting to think about writing your paper at the end of this process, you’re in for a rough time. Writing while researching is the key to success, but it requires a degree of organisation on your part.
And finally, nobody writes papers in a vacuum. You’ll also be juggling your experiments, reading, paper reviews, teaching and so on, all of which are taking up your precious time. Even with tools like Academic Scout (which can help keep you organise your online research), it can be hard to find the time and concentration to write.
And there’s so much riding on your paper. All of your hard-earned experimental results and findings are worthless if you can’t find a way to publish them, which will be difficult to do if you don’t know how to structure and write a research paper in the first place.
So here are some tips that will hopefully relieve the pressure and help get your papers written and published in no time.
The Research Paper Format That Lets You Tell a Story
A good research paper is simple, clear and logical. You want to be your reader’s friend, not their lecturer. Your reader is educated but not an expert in your field, so dumb it down, but not by too much. Your aim is for your reader to completely understand your main idea.
So before you even get started, you need to understand your main idea. What is your research question? What is the one thing you need your reader to learn from this paper? Because the whole point of writing your paper is to convince the reader that your idea is useful and correct.
You should be able to write down your idea in one sentence. For instance, “Gravity is the curvature of spacetime” describes the idea of general relativity in one sentence. Your idea should be peppered throughout your paper, reminding the reader again and again of what it is they need to know, and how each section relates to it.
History has shown that the best way to share an idea is to tell a story about it, and stories have structure. A good narrative structure for communicating your idea is:
- Let me tell you about a problem
- Here’s why it’s an interesting, important and unsolved problem
- Now here’s my idea for solving that problem
- My idea works, and this is how
- Here’s how my idea compares to how other people have tried to solve similar problems
This narrative structure underpins how most research papers are written. This is the format you should thinking of using when writing your own:
This is your one sentence description of your idea!
This is the synopsis of your story and should be no longer than 4-6 sentences. Your reader should be able to broadly understand the problem, your idea and results, from the abstract alone.
Your introduction is kind of an extended abstract i.e. a longer summarisation of the paper. Your aim here is to give a high level view of what the paper is about, setting the scene, so that the reader can dive deeper in the next sections.
Start by stating the main problem that you’re tackling. Always try to give a concrete example of the problem, preferably using real data or a real-life scenario. Choose an example that most other academics can relate to and are familiar with.
Lay out your claims at the end of the introduction. These are concrete statements listing the specific ideas you have had that tackle this problem. At this point, you’re just stating the claims, you don’t need any evidence to show that you’ve proven them because this is what the rest of the paper is for.
Bullet list them, this is the part of the introduction you want your reader to remember. Your aim at this point is for your reader to be excited by your claims and want to read more.
Here is where you go in-depth on the problem. Remember, in the introduction you just wanted to familiarise the reader with the problem and you used an example to make it easier to understand. Now you need to go deeper.
Remember that you have three things you need to convince the reader about the problem:
- The problem exists – Prove this by giving real world examples
- The problem is interesting and important – Explain what the consequences are if this problem is not solved, to whom it is important and why.
- The problem is unsolved – This isn’t yet the related work section, but here you want to show why this problem hasn’t been solved yet. Has it only recently become important? Was it too hard before? What’s changed recently that means you’ve been able to solve it when others haven’t?
This is your opportunity to show how brilliant you are. This section is where you explain what your idea is and how it works.
Remember to explain using simple language as clearly as possible. Use diagrams. Refer to the examples you used in the previous sections and show how the examples change when your idea is applied.
Your idea should be clear enough that another academic could pick up your paper and implement your idea for themselves. While writing this, imagine you’re trying to teach someone about your idea while using a whiteboard. Don’t try to tell the reader about the journey you took in discovering your idea. Get to the point and tell them only what they need to know.
It can help to quickly write down everything you know about the idea, and then edit, edit, edit it down until it’s concise and to the point. Or, to record yourself verbally explaining the idea, use speech-to-text to transcribe it and then edit from there.
The Details i.e. Methodology and Results
Here’s where you present the proof that your idea works. Here you should be referring back to the claims you made in the introduction. It’s at this point that you are now providing the evidence that your claims are true.
The formatting and expectations of this section are largely dependent on your academic field. Nonetheless, you should still be trying to keep your language simple and understandable. Your methodology should be almost like a recipe that other academics can follow to replicate your experiment. Your results should be unambiguous with clear indicators of which results are important and why they should be considered evidence for your claims.
The time to talk about related work is after you’ve presented your results. It’s only at this point that the reader actually understands the problem, your idea and your claims, and can fairly consider them in the context of other work. Plus, by the time the reader has made it to this point, then they’ve already seen the most important parts of the paper i.e. your idea.
Your aim here isn’t to discredit other work. Your aim is to use it as a foundation to build your work on top of. Praise it, explain why it was important enough for you to cite it in your paper. Acknowledge the strengths in other approaches and how they compare to your own.
It helps to use a tool like Academic Scout to keep track of your references so you can export them into your paper when you finally get around to writing this section.
Conclusions and Further Work
What is the one thing the reader of your paper should remember after they finish it? Write that down. How does the world change because you have now solved this problem? You mentioned earlier that this problem had consequences, do these go away with your solution? Use this section to answer these questions and acknowledge the weaknesses and strengths of your approach.
Good Structure Comes From Good Process
Having a good structure in place doesn’t make the task of writing any less daunting. But by getting into the habit of writing while you conduct research, the quality of your work and your writing will improve enormously.
Start the writing process as early as possible. One of the things that holds people back from starting is that they have doubts about their main idea, or it isn’t yet fully formed. This is totally natural. It’s OK to start writing even when your ideas are half-baked. In fact, the best way to figure out and refine your main idea is to write about it.
So don’t stress too much about whatever vague title you have in mind at the moment. Just write it down knowing that by the time you’ve finished writing your paper, the title and main idea will be crystal clear.
The title isn’t the only part of your research paper that can be written in advance. By working on the following sections you’ll gain a better understanding of your main idea and the experiment you need to perform:
- Abstract – Write this first. This will help you crystallise your research question (which can often be a bit vague at the beginning) and also force you to think about what kind of outcome you expect from this experiment.
- Methodology – Write down in detail your methodology before you do any experiment. Not only will this act as a sort of blueprint for the experiment you’ll need to run, but you’ll spot the flaws more easily before you commit your time to it. Get someone to review this before you run the experiment.
- Related Work – Once you have a research question, make sure to check the other work out there to ensure you’re up to date, you’re using the latest techniques and data, and no one else has answered this research question before.
- Conclusion – Obviously, without running the experiment, you don’t yet know what the conclusion will be. But writing this up-front forces you to articulate what you think will happen. And then once you do have your experimental results, you can see how what actually happened differed. Writing about the differences between your expectation (and why it was your expectation) and the actual result, is an important finding to share. And if they did not differ, then your conclusion is already written and you were on the right track all along!
Writing your paper can very often inspire new ideas that will have you jumping straight back into your experiments. Having to defend your methodology in your writing can also make you realise how to improve your experiments. If you leave your writing until the end, this can cause frustrating delays, especially as you may end up needing to re-do an experiment which may give different results.
And finally, the best way to figure out how to improve your manuscript is to have other people tell you to how to improve it! Get others to read it. Seriously, as many people as possible. Get your supervisor and research team to read it. Get your academic rivals to read it! Get the authors of the papers you’ve cited to read it. These people are likely to be your reviewers anyway, so it’s worth getting an “early review” from them so you can address their concerns in advance.
The best way to contact academics is by using a tool like Academic Scout, which can find the contact details and collaboration distance between you and any other academic online.
Writing a good research paper is about developing your skill in communicating complex information. The way to do this is to communicate a well thought out main idea using a narrative structure that fits into the conventional academic paper structure.
But being a good writer isn’t enough. Incorporating your writing into your day-to-day research process is the key to not only good writing, but also good research. Follow these tips and you’ll be writing best papers in no time.