Toggle navigationOpen menu
Researcher Development

Researcher Development

Writing your paper

Every paper should have a clear message, or argument, which appears in the abstract and in the first paragraph (even the first line) of your paper. This message should run all the way through the paper, from beginning to end.

So, what’s the message for your paper? Read over the notes you made for the ‘what’s the story’ activity, in the first part of this Resource. Imagine that someone on a bus has asked you to quickly explain the paper in clear, everyday language. Explain it to your mother, or the next door neighbour, or the cat. This will help you to frame the paper in your mind and the more you practise, the clearer your message will become.

Top tips

  • What do you want them to know? The best papers are the ones for which you can say: “It’s the paper that…”
  • The message makes a definite claim. It is not a question, although it could be the answer to a question.
  • The message is as specific as possible and includes important key words
  • It is essential that the message is supported by the research you present in your paper

(1) Work out the structure

It is valuable to produce a detailed structure for your paper, before you start writing. And it makes sense to base this structure on the format used in your target journal from the outset.

By now you should have identified the most suitable journal for your article. Find three examples of papers in your target journal, with a similar focus or theme to your own article. The papers should be published as recently as possible, since a journal style and format may change over time.

Use the appropriate format table to analyse the structure of each example paper:

Consult the journal’s ‘author instructions’ as well, to find out if there are any other factors to include in your structure.

Using the tables you completed as a guide, you are now ready to produce the outline structure for your paper, with headings, sub-headings and word count guides.

(2) Plan the content

Once you have your outline, you can start planning the content.

One way to approach this is to write a ‘big list’ of everything you can think of that needs to go in your journal article: relevant literature, facts, issues, detail, findings and figures, for example.

Next, map the contents of ‘your big list’ to your structure. You might want to write the section headings on a wall, write each ‘big list’ item on a post-it note and work out which heading it fits with. Make sure you organise these in the best way to tell your story and discard any items that are not relevant to your message.

Alternatively, once you have your outline, you might want to start planning the paragraphs that will go in each section. You might wish to write one informal sentence for each planned paragraph. Remember, each paragraph should have a defined role in advancing your story.

Whichever way you approach it, the document you end up with is the first outline draft of your paper. Now you are ready to start writing.

Reproduced from Mewburn (2015)

Titles are becoming increasingly important as a way for scholars to navigate the literature and decide what to download. Google Scholar has placed more emphasis on the title than the journal where the paper is located, making databases and journals less important than the paper’s content (a good thing I think).

Dr Barry White, author of ‘Mapping your Thesis’, claims there are different kinds of paper title: questions, explorations, statements, investigations, hypotheses and thesis. Writing the title first is a way of working backwards from a desired outcome in order to decide what kind of data you might want to collect and what kind of analyses might be appropriate.

Let’s say that my son, Thesis Whisperer Jnr, now aged 14, wants to write a paper to convince me to let him play more computer games. He could try the simplest strategy of writing the paper title as a question: “Is Kerbal Space Program more educational than Team Fortress?” This title implies would be measuring and comparing the relative merits of one program against another. This paper might convince me of which program is a better use of his time, but not whether or not he should spend more time gaming.

He could, instead, pose the paper title as an investigation: “The online gaming platform Steam: which games are kids are playing most?” This paper might give me some background information on what other parents allow their kids to play, but since I’ve never really cared what other parents do, it would be unlikely to sway me to let him have more game time.

If Thesis Whisperer Jnr writes the title as an exploration of the topic of gaming it might be more persuasive. He could try a title like: “The educational outcomes of kids who game a lot”. He would then have to define ‘educational outcomes’, perhaps by means of an indicator like grade point average. He could test this idea further by writing a paper with a hypothesis as a title: “If kids game they will get better grades”. I’d imagine this would be some kind of controlled study where he measured the outcomes of one group of kids who gamed with another group who didn’t.

I like a bit of data to inform my parenting decisions. If the results of these two papers showed there was a measurable effect of gaming on grades, he could follow up with another paper title posed as statement; something like “Kids and gaming: the benefits for parents”. In this paper he could draw on the data generated in the two previous papers to make the case. Better still, he could write all these papers and collect the evidence in a paper with a thesis style title. Remember: the definition of a thesis is a position you are taking on an issue. This final paper could be something like “Kids learn more from gaming than from their teachers”.

If he did all that he could definitely have more gaming time. Actually, next time he complains about his gaming privileges I might just hand him this study design and say “do this first”. Heh. Anyway, I digress. There’s some useful literature on what titles academics give their work, most of it written by James Hartley from Keele University. My favourite is his paper “There’s more to the title than meets the eye: exploring the possibilities” in which Hartley lays out twelve different types of title. Let’s use Thesis Whisperer Jnr as an example again. Here are thirteen different paper titles he could write about gaming, using Hartley’s taxonomy:

  • A title that announces the general subject, e.g.: “The effect of playing Kerbal Space Program on teenager’s grade point average”.
  • A specific theme following a general heading. These papers usually have a semi-colon in them, for example – “Teenage gamers: the relation between hours spent gaming and grades at school”.
  • A title which indicates a controlling question, e.g. – “Is gaming a waste of time for teenagers?”
  • A title that indicates an answer will be revealed, e.g. – “Playing computer games increases teenagers’ grade point average”
  • A title that indicates the position the author will take, e.g. – “Gaming  is good for teenagers’ mental health and social development”
  • A title that indicates the methodology used, e.g. – “Teenage gaming: a survey of the literature”
  • A title that is suggestive of guidelines or comparisons, e.g. – “19 ways that playing computer games boost teenager grade point averages”
  • A title that bids for attention using a startling or unusual statement, e.g. – “It’s educational Mum!”: an analysis of negotiations between teenage gamers and their carers”.
  • A title that bids for attention using alliteration – the same letter at the start of most of the words, e.g. – “PvP, PvE and perpetually perplexed parents”
  • A title that bids for attention by using literary or biblical allusions “To raid or not to raid? An analysis of teenage gamer friendships”.
  • A title that bids for attention through using a pun, e.g. – “I’ll be your player 1 if you’ll be my player 2: teenage gamers and dating”.
  • Straight out mystifying or confusing titles, e.g. – “Mum said Whiskey Foxtrot Tango”

I hope I’ve convinced you that taking time to deeply consider the title of a piece of work is worthwhile. Every paper you write is competing with many others for attention. No one really knows how many academic journal articles there are online, but some estimate there are more than 50 million and others estimate that the majority of academic papers are never cited. That’s centuries of human effort … wasted.

Now that you have your key message, your outline structure, and you know what each section should cover, it’s time to write your first draft. Here is a reminder of the ‘writing tips’ from the previous video:

Unplug from email, internet and all devices
Take regular exercise
Try doing a writing ‘warm up’ before you start
Start writing new material each time you sit down
Write as fast as you can, not as well as you can
Follow the “think – write – edit  – polish” cycle
Let an interval of time lapse before you edit passages of text
Set specific writing goals, on a week by week basis
Seek regular feedback from your peers, from start to finish

As you progress from first draft towards your manuscript, the grammar and syntax in your writing will become increasingly important. You may find this paper, on the most common grammatical errors committed by academic authors, helpful.

Don’t neglect the tables and figures in your paper, if you have any. Daniel Bebber, Associate Professor in Biosciences advises: “Visuals are everything, these days. Make sure your data is presented beautifully, as well as correctly.”

It is crucial that your final draft is edited by an experienced writer. This person can be from outside your specialist field, which is really helpful for ensuring that you are not using jargon or undefined technical terms.

And remember, you will have ‘good days’ and bad days’ with your writing. Just keep going, and stay positive. You will see that paper in print by the end of this journey.

Adapted from Murray (2013)

IconWe value your feedback, and would appreciate it if you could take 2 minutes to give us some feedback on this resource