When you write a research paper, you’re aiming for a brilliant treatise brimming with interesting details – or, failing that, a few pages good enough to finagle a decent grade. Unfortunately, many a student despondently stares at their paper, feeling that all they’ve done is amassed a collection of facts with no over-arching narrative. No one’s going to want to read that, they think, but it’s impossible to tie all these facts together. Right? Wrong! Do you watch TV? Then trust me, you’ve got the knowhow. You just have to apply what you learned from watching Full House re-runs and you’re golden. Easy-peasy.
Think about it. Just like your paper, every TV show has an introduction, action, and a conclusion. Depending on the show, it might fit all three into one episode (your standard five-paragraph essay), or it might spread them out over a season (a paper) or the show’s entire run (that thesis you’re supposed to be working on). Let’s take a look at each part individually.
To tell a story, you need to introduce your characters and your premise before you get to the action. Otherwise, your reader won’t have any idea what’s going on or why they should care. In a TV show, the introduction might be a pilot episode, a five-part serial, or a jaunty theme song telling how the cast was shipwrecked on an uncharted desert isle.
How does that translate to your paper? Quite directly. Every paper should have an introduction detailing what the paper is about and the key points you’ll be highlighting. Think of your thesis statement as that catchy theme song. A lot to explain because you’ve chosen a particularly complicated topic? Pilot episode. Your audience needs a detailed briefing before they can appreciate your work? Multi-parter or, heck, special movie event.
Let’s say you’re writing a basic research paper. Your topic is cheese (your characters), why it’s popular (the plot), and the many different varieties found around the world (setting). Here’s one way you might set the stage:
Cheddar. Gouda. Parmesan. Cheese comes in a seemingly infinite number of varieties, each with its own special taste. Why is cheese so popular? This paper analyzes ten of the most common varieties, representing ten different regions of the world. For each cheese, the flavor, style, and texture is explored in relation to the consuming population.
Now your audience know what you’re talking about and is primed for learning all sort of cheese facts. Your stage is set, and ready for action! …But what kind?
How you handle the middle of your paper, or the “action,” depends once again on what you’re presenting. Are you simply giving a basic overview of different kinds of cheese, or some other collection of facts? That’s like a TV show telling stand-alone stories that don’t need to be viewed in any particular order. Shows like Gilligan’s Island or Cutthroat Kitchen don’t need any build up outside of the introduction. The best way to handle “stand-alone facts” is to present them as just that.
In your introduction, make it clear what you’re doing by explaining your theme and what you’ll be covering (example above). Give each fact collection its own section, preferably with a header if your format allows for one. Within each section, even if it’s just one paragraph, include a mini introduction (“Cheddar cheese is loved by Americans for its ubiquity.”) and conclusion (“Sufficiently edible and ubiquitous, it’s clear why Americans are so enamored of their orange cheese.”).
As for what order you put your sections of facts in, make it something clear and easily understandable to the reader. In this example, you might group by area of origin or type of milk. If you were writing about Disney princesses, you could order them by the year they debuted. And of course, when all else fails you can always use alphabetical order. Clearly ordering your facts makes your presentation choice look deliberate instead of haphazard and slapped together, and in writing, looking like you know what you’re doing is two fifths of the battle.
When you look at your fact collection, do some of your facts reference other facts? For example, Colby-Jack cheese is made by combining Colby cheese with Monterey Jack. It makes the most sense to put any discussion of Colby-Jack after the two cheeses it’s made of. Think of this as your paper having continuity.
A TV series with continuity is still watchable out of order (Friends, Cheers), but some episodes contain callbacks to previous episodes. Sometimes they’re small callbacks, like running jokes (“We were on a break!”), and sometimes they’re much bigger callbacks (any episode that opens with a “Previously, on [show title]” montage).
If any of your facts references another fact, it only makes sense narratively to put that fact after the first one. If they’re closely related, group them closely together. In a very long paper, don’t be afraid to include the academic version of a “previously…” montage and give the reader a direct reference to what you talked about earlier.
Colby cheese, established as a delicious and mild flavor suitable for the table (pg 6), was found to pair exceptionally well with Monterey Jack (pg 8). Today the two are often combined in a marbled cheese called Colby-Jack.
Sometimes which you put first depends on your endgame. Whether you discuss the effects of caffeine before or after explaining caffeine’s molecular composition depends on if your main topic is about using caffeine to keep people awake or how the chemical was discovered to be a stimulant. Since you want to build towards your conclusion, generally the topic closer to the conclusion goes later in the paper. You may recall your English teacher describing this as “rising action,” and yes, it applies to papers just as much as it does script writing.
Exception: If two of your facts rely on each other to understand (curds and whey, perhaps), it’s okay talk about them together. Think of it like a cross-over episode. It’s more natural to combine closely related topics than force them into separate sections awkwardly referencing each other. Rigidly adhering to an unsuitable format is a good way to bore or even aggravate your reader and is not necessary.
“Narrative Arc” Action
If you’ve got a series of things that all happened in order and had progressive effects, such as the spread of cheesemaking across Europe, congrats! You’ve got a narrative arc with each fact leading to the next one you want to talk about. Like Game of Thrones, you really can’t take things out of order without confusing your reader, so it should be relatively easy to spot if you need to re-order your paper. Just let a friend read it and move anything they draw red question marks on.
This is the easiest flow to maintain as long as you don’t get sidetracked (do you really need that section about French cheese proverbs?). No one likes filler episodes.
After you’ve presented your argument (the introduction) and facts (the action), it’s time for the end of your show. Think of your conclusion as being equivalent to a series finale or the bit before the credits. Sum up what you just talked about and, if relevant, state why your presented facts proved your thesis correct.
This is the part that your readers will most remember and count the most for your “ratings,” so consider what you like to see in a series finale. In particular, viewers like to see the action tied up with no loose threads dangling. Don’t let your reader feel unsatisfied because you didn’t address what happened to their favorite character (“What about Camembert?!”) or your conclusion feels like just another episode only with “the end” tacked on to it. (“Then cheese began to be made in Ireland. The end.” But surely something happened after Ireland…?)
Nuts and Bolts
What about structuring individual paragraphs? In shorter works like an essay, you can use connecting words like “another” and “also” and no one will bat an eye. (“Another interesting aspect of Parmesan is its aging time.”) In longer works, you need to get a little more creative and vary your structure to avoid looking repetitive. Fortunately, you should already have some help from whichever main structure you’re using.
Is your action largely stand-alone facts? You can basically write mini essays and string them one after another. Continuity? Mini essays that sometimes reference earlier ones. Use phrases like “as mentioned” and “having established.” (“Having established the importance of rennet, some vegetarian alternatives do exist.”) Narrative arc? Easy-peasy. You can use time-related words and phrases such as “after,” “during,” and “this led to” and tell a (well-cited) story.
Editing for Flow
Once you’ve gotten everything written, a good flow-editing trick is to read through your paper without correcting anything. See where your mind wanders off. What spots seem to be the best stopping points for your brain? If it seems like two things don’t go together to you, they definitely won’t seem to go together to your professor. Mark them and go back and edit after you’re done reading.
Boring spot? Maybe you can change it into a cliffhanger by asking “why?” (“Cheese diversified exponentially with the rise of the Roman Empire. Why?”) Then answer the question in the next paragraph. Or, try giving your paragraph conclusions more emphasis as to why you’re discussing this particular topic.
“Fungus-synthesized rennet was crucial not only to expanding cheese production but also in providing an acceptable food for vegetarians. This was the biggest cheese-related development of the decade while further isolating vegans from the popular dairy product.”
Section seems to come out of nowhere? Analyze if you really need it. What is it contributing to your paper? Is it just an interesting fact you like but doesn’t have much to do with your topic? Cut it. Is it important? Why? If you can answer that question to yourself, you can answer it for your readers. If you can explain it’s importance to your readers, it should no longer seem to be out of left field – unless you’ve put it in the wrong spot continuity or arc wise, in which case, just move it to the right spot.
Words just look like a collection of facts? Go back and tie them together. You need more connectors. Still looks like a collection of facts? Read it out loud to yourself. You’ll probably find yourself naturally adding connecting words once you’re talking, especially if you can find a friend who doesn’t mind listening as you read. (A patient dog will also do in a pinch.) Essays don’t need to sound stiff to be formal. Try mimicking your natural talking style. You can always edit for grammar after you’ve got something that flows well. In order, teachers are looking for good arguments, good citations, and good grammar. Perfect iambic pentameter is not on that list.
So there you go. Just think like a TV writer and you too can write papers that flow! Or, if you aren’t comfortable thinking of yourself as a writer, think like a picky TV viewer. The key is identifying what doesn’t work. Just keep hitting ctrl-z until you find yourself satisfied with your story and you’ll make your professors (and you) very happy.