A note on academic writing

I often give the following writing advice to my students. Today, in honor of efficiency, I decided I’d put my advice in a blog post, so I can just link to it in the future.

Unless you’re a great writer (in which case you don’t have to follow any rules), the structure of academic text is the following:

  • First you tell your readers what you’re about to tell them.
  • Then you tell the readers the thing you want to tell them.
  • Finally you tell them what you’ve just told them.

This structure works on a number of levels in a thesis.

On the level of the entire thesis, the introduction tells the reader what’s going to happen in the text and the conclusion summarizes what just happened, while the chapters in between contain the actual work.

But for each chapter, you should also put an introduction and conclusion around the content, and similarly for each section. Even within each subsection, it might be good idea to start with a introductory sentence or two (setting the stage) and wrapping up. You have to stop before it gets too pedantic, but I hope the point gets across. It’s not exactly fractal, but almost.