Ivory Tower Writing #10: Structuring your body

This post provides pointers on how to organize your ideas in the body of your paper.

Now that we’ve covered the introduction, it’s time for us to tackle the brunt of the writing work in the body of the paper. Let’s assume your introduction has been interesting enough so the readers want to read more. This is where you will have to organize your ideas in a meaningful manner and develop your argument to the fullest.

As usual, I won’t speak about how you ought to write; writing in an academic style is fairly straightforward and you are allowed to insert your personal style a bit. However, I will provide some pointers as to how you could organize your ideas so they make sense. We’ll cover paragraph structure and bit by bit, we’ll get to body structure.

Let’s get started.

Typical paragraph structure

A common mistake that students make when writing their body is to assume that length equals clarity. What they do is they cram a lot of details into one paragraph and hope it makes sense. Well, to be frank, all it does is confuse the reader. Here’s a method I’ve used to structure my paragraphs called the ARE method.

ARE framework.png

A paragraph have a main idea; this is called the assertion. This should be followed by the underlying reasoning of the assertion, followed by evidence.

To see how this works, let’s review a passage from a chapter of a book I’ve been reading:

However, being maritime can be at least as much a source of weakness as of strength if a country cannot defend those interests. Poor inter-island sea communications, maritime crimes at sea, uncertain and disputed maritime boundaries and the proximity of other more powerful maritime states could imperil Indonesia’s integrity, security and prosperity. The more relative maritime power (political, economic, constabulary and military) Indonesia has, however, the less likely those threats are to materialise. This helps explain Indonesia’s push to be a stronger maritime power. (Supriyanto, in Till and Supriyanto (eds.), 2017)

Notice the bolded section. We can get the main idea that Supriyanto is trying to tell us, which is “while the sea can be a source of strength, it can also be a source of weakness.” He then explains what these sources of weakness are and how to prevent them from emerging. In the end, he teases the remainder of his chapter-length argument.

Of course, the ARE framework can also be expanded as you see fit. But for a 2,000-word paper, ideally, each paragraph should represent one major idea, which we’ll discuss below.

One paragraph, one idea

A rule to remember is: one paragraph should host one idea. Perhaps you may want to refer back to the literature review post to review the “Bucket Method”, because what I’m discussing is a lot like that.

One tip for this is to first prepare an outline of topics that you want to discuss. This should be consistent with your introduction. Let me take an example from a paper I’m currently working on which discusses Indonesian naval counterinsurgency operations in the 1950s. So, I make a heading labelled “Naval Operations, 1950-1955”. Under this heading, I want to talk about three major operations that occurred. At this point, I will likely dedicate 1-2 paragraphs to discuss the details of the operation, 1-2 paragraphs on the conduct of the operation, and 1 paragraph detailing my opinions of the operation.

Here’s an example outline:

  1. Naval operations, 1950-1955
    1. Operations against the Darul Islam insurgency
      1. What was the insurgency about?
      2. Who were the main actors?
      3. What was/were the main operation(s)?
      4. What were the major results?
    2. Operations against the PRRI/Permesta Rebellion
    3. Operations against West Papua
  2. My analysis of the operations
    1. What the operations tell us about the political conditions of the time
    2. What it tells us about the character of maritime strategy at the time

In this outline, point (1.1) represents the main idea, which is elaborated in sentences (1.1.1) through (1.1.4). Of course, it’s a matter of personal taste; I’m just suggesting an example guideline.

WordPress doesn’t allow for a mixed tiered numbering system, so I had to do with what I had.

Flow is important!

Now that you have an idea of what paragraphs should look like, it’s time to connect them all together. This is called creating flow, and it usually determines whether a reader is likely to stick around and read your paper till the end… or give up halfway because you’re not making a lot of sense. Let’s go back to our example outline.

  1. Naval operations, 1950-1955
    1. Operations against the Darul Islam insurgency
    2. Operations against the PRRI/Permesta Rebellion
    3. Operations against West Papua
  2. My analysis of the operations
    1. What it tells us about the political conditions
    2. What it tells us about Indonesian maritime strategy

Here, you may be able to see where I am going. I want to show how the conduct of naval operations is a reflection of political conditions, which then reflect maritime strategic thinking at the time. Perhaps you can already draw a conclusion, such as “so, maritime strategy was developed with insurgents in mind and not conventional war”.

Some other tips

Of course, it’s one thing to write an outline; it’s another thing to actually add flesh and meat to the skeleton. But if your outline makes some sense, you will be less distracted while writing. Now that you have an idea on how to organize your ideas, let me end this post with some tips you may find helpful (or not).

Transitions and signposts are your friends. In academic writing, clarity is held in high regard. You need to make clear when you’re transitioning between two ideas or comparing one with another. Use words like “subsequently”, “consequently”, “however”, “in addition”, and etc. liberally.

The length of a paragraph doesn’t matter much. Students often ask, “Should I write in long or short paragraphs?” For an academic paper, it doesn’t matter. The main point is to deliver your main point. If it needs a 500-word paragraph, so be it. But if it can be explained in 250 words, that’s good too.

Write to express, not impress. Don’t use fancy words like “discombobulated melancholy” when you just want to say “sadness”. You’re not doing the reader a favour if you’re using over-the-top, inefficient prose. Besides, the more you hide behind obscure words, the more likely readers are going to suspect you actually know nothing and are hiding behind a wall of obfuscating jargon to obfuscate the fact you know nothing. Of course, in some cases, you will have to use jargon, but don’t go overboard.





So, I think that covers it for this post. If you have additional comments or suggestions, feel free to type them below, and thanks for reading!

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