What is good academic writing in the social sciences? How to write academic research articles well? We provide the building blocks of good academic writing with examples.
In short, good academic writing builds arcs and achieves flow. How? This is done through point-first paragraphs and logical structures within paragraphs.
Don’t worry — we will define everything and provide examples. First, we explain the building blocks of good academic writing. Then, we present examples.
Let’s start with the building blocks.
Good academic writing: How to think about it
Good academic writing starts with a structure. As we discussed in another post, all academic research articles have a deliberate and purposeful structure. In the book Writing Science, Schimel (2012) presents the structure as an “arc.”
The structure of a paper is an arc.
How does the arc work? The beginning of the paper is the introduction. This is the opening of the paper. It is the start of the arc. The opening presents a puzzle — a knowledge gap. By asking a research question, and through the theory and the data and methods, the paper arcs toward the resolution. Your paper solves the puzzle — it fills the knowledge gap. The resolution is the end of the arc.
Remember that the structure of the paper satisfies expectations – the structure is what the reader (your audience) expects to see. The structure of academic research articles fits into their expectations and thus they are eager to read the article.
The structure contributes to the flow.
What is flow? Flow is a seamless arc from one idea to the next.
Arcs within the paper
There are structures within the main structure of the paper. Each section, and each paragraph, should have the structure that the reader expects.
Within each section are paragraphs. The paragraphs, and sentences within, and the words within, also flow (Schimel 2012).
There are arcs within sections. Within a section, the first paragraph is the introduction to the section. The middle paragraphs explicate (develop) that thought. The last paragraph is the end of that thought. Paragraphs lead one idea to the next.
There are arcs within paragraphs. The paragraph’s first sentence presents what the paragraph is about. It presents a puzzle. The middle of the paragraph solves the puzzle. The end can be part of the resolution, or a nice summary.
Good academic writing uses point-first paragraphs
Point-first paragraphs tell the story of the paragraph. What is a point-first paragraph? A point-first paragraph is one where the first sentence clearly presents the idea of the entire paragraph.
Point-first paragraphs make the flow visible. When done correctly, one can skim the whole paper just by reading the first sentence of each paragraph and get a deeper understanding of what the article is about. (in good academic writing, the details begin in the second sentence of the paragraph)
One point-first paragraph leads to the next, and so on. Last sentences can be nice summaries, but they should also lead to the next paragraph. And so on.
Good academic writing: Examples
We presented the building blocks. Now we need examples of how it works.
Let’s look at this paper: Kalkstein, D. A., Hook, C. J., Hard, B. M., & Walton, G. M. (2022). Social norms govern what behaviors come to mind—And what do not. It was published in a leading social psychology journal, the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.
This article is about how social norms constrain, or “regulate,” thought and behavior. (like a social structure)
The authors need to explain what a social norm is. So, they devote a whole section, called “Social Norms,” to this task. It is an excellent example of arcs and how to use point-first paragraphs to tell the story.
The fragment looks like this:
Let’s take a look at the point-first paragraphs.
P1: “Social norms are consensually held beliefs about what behaviors are common and appropriate in a setting…”
P2: “Social norms are a classic topic of study in the social sciences…”
P3: “Building on this literature, we explore mechanisms, not in terms of why people adhere to social norms, but how norms impact behavior: the basic cognitive processes through which social norms have their influence…”
Each paragraph played a role:
Paragraph One defined the concept. Paragraph Two show that the concept is a common concept and is important. Paragraph Three presented how this study will use the concept.
The section flowed from one paragraph to the next, like a river flows to the sea. That section led, logically, into the next section in which they built their theory: “How Social Norms Shape Cognition and Regulate Behavior.”
From this same paper, let’s look at how they achieve flow within a paragraph. Let’s look at the paragraph from their section, “How Social Norms Can Ease Burdens of Self-Control.”
Here’s the fragment. We will break down the paragraph, sentence by sentence.
Sentence 1: “A strong determinant of whether people reach their goals—to reduce drinking, to quit smoking, to eat healthier, or to stick to a studying plan—is how often and how strongly they experience countervailing temptations (Allen et al., 2008; Duckworth et al., 2016; Milyavskaya & Inzlicht, 2017; Witkiewitz, 2013).”
They introduce the term “temptations.” Temptations are in conflict. There are what they call “countervailing” temptations. We would expect Sentence 2 to advance the idea of conflicting temptations and add more information.
Sentence 2: “When temptations are encountered, they create self-control conflicts that pit the motivation to indulge against the motivation to adhere to higher order goals (Fujita, 2011; Kalkstein & Fujita, 2020; Kalkstein et al., 2018).”
The authors start this sentence by picking up on the idea of temptations in conflict, and then add a detail — temptations are hierarchical (a dangerous hierarchy of temptations!).
So far, the authors present a conflict. The conflict would need to be resolved. What would resolve this conflict?
Sentence 3: “The difficulty of resisting temptations means that an important question for goal pursuit is what factors can prevent temptations from arising in the first place; after all, people have no trouble resisting temptations that never arise.”
Ah! Now we have the start of the resolution. What can prevent temptations from arising? We would hope that Sentence 4 resolves the conflict entirely.
Sentence 4: “Our theory implies that social norms can obviate the need for in-the-moment self-control by transforming a potentially tempting course of action into one unconsidered altogether.”
Sentence 4 resolves the conflict: social norms eliminate the conflict of temptations. How? By regulating whether the individual even considers these temptations at all!
We have a perfect arc within a section and within a single paragraph — from opening, to conflict, to resolution of the conflict. The section flowed and the paragraph flowed.
Good academic writing: what to do
Good academic writing for empirical research articles has a clear and expected structure. The structure is an arc from beginning (introduction) to end (conclusion). Within the structure are other structures, and these structures also arc: sections and paragraphs.
Good academic writing uses point-first paragraphs. The point-first paragraphs make visible the flow of the whole article. When done right, one can skim a whole article by just reading the first sentences! (of course, to deeply understand it, you would have to read the details, which start in the second sentence).
You would hope that the reader — your audience — will read without interruption. That your writing will allow the reader to flow from one sentence to the next, on and on, until they get to the references section.
And then cite your paper for their research. And on and on.
Joshua K. Dubrow is a PhD from The Ohio State University and a Professor of Sociology at the Polish Academy of Sciences.
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