Writing a journal article

Structure: section and paragraph

A section consists of several paragraphs. The ‘rules’ that apply to structuring sections and paragraphs are pretty similar.

The first sentence and last sentence are disproportionately important. The first sentence needs to be as clear as possible about what the paragraph is about. Avoid first sentences that are just background, or pick up the idea from the previous paragraph. If, for example, your paragraph is about limitations of a particular conceptual model, a good first sentence might be:
“The xxx conceptual model has several inherent limitations.” Or, if your heading already says as much, your first sentence can potentially go one step further, such as: “Inherent limitations of the xxx conceptual model arise from factor X, factor Y, and factor Z.” In both cases, the first sentence makes it very clear what must come next, namely details about the limitations. This helps the reader in several ways. First, she will know what the section will be all about; and second, this helps her decide whether to read the paragraph or skip straight to the next one. The importance of allowing readers to skim-read cannot be overstated. A good document is one that enables us to quickly grasp the content. First sentences of paragraphs help immensely, if they are well written.

The last sentence of a paragraph or section has to fully wrap up the content. Make sure that your thought is not left hanging, only 90 % complete. You need to fully finish your thought so the reader has no doubt about your intended ‘so what’. So, when you think your paragraph is finished, ask yourself: ‘So what?’ If you just need to read out the last sentence again, you included the so-what. If, however, you need to come up with a new, additional sentence, it shows you hadn’t quite finished your thought. This little exercise won’t always work, but it may help you to test yourself whether your take-home message would actually get through to the reader.

Apart from the first and last sentences, many paragraphs list things, explain things, discuss causal relationships, or contrast things. In all cases, simple phrases can help to make the argument clearer. Don’t be afraid of listing things as “First, …” and so on, or starting sentences with “Although …”. Simple words like these at the beginning of sentences can make it much easier for your reader to find the thread of your argument.

See also:

  1. Structure: the sentence
  2. Phrases to use and phrases to avoid
Possible exercises:
  • Both in existing papers, and in your own draft, check the first and last sentences of several paragraphs and sections. Do they introduce the content, and wrap up the content? Or are thoughts left hanging?
  • Can you structure your argument within a paragraph more clearly? For example, by using numbered lists, or simple words that link your sentences causally?

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