BROAD ORGANIZATION

Broad Organization

Effective organization of your scientific writing includes presenting the necessary information and presenting it in the sequence and location your audience expects. Effective organization is essential to achieving your writing goals.

We’ll examine broad organization here, which refers to the overall flow of information across main sections of text. On the next page, we’ll explore the fine organization of scientific writing, which refers to the sequence of information within individual sections and paragraphs.

Each scientific writing genre (e.g., journal article, grant proposals, scientific posters) has broad organizational features in common, but also some differences. We’ll focus on the many commonalities here, using one of the most common scientific writing genres, the journal article, as a model. The information, concepts, and tools presented here will go a long way toward helping you to organize your writing for any scientific writing genre. Additional genre-specific information will be explored in the Genres section of Write Like a Scientist.

To better understand how and why we organize writing the way we do, we’ll examine essential concepts first and then apply those concepts to scientific writing. My hope is for you to be able to adapt and apply these powerful concepts to make your own writing choices and write effectively in any genre, scientific or not.

Content & Sequence

All genres or sub-genres of writing have conventional broad organizational structures, whether we consider plays organized into three acts; newspapers organized into the Business, Entertainment, Technology, Opinion, and other sections; or recipes organized into Ingredients and Instructions sections. When we consider the broad organization of a genre, we include both the presence of the expected content, as well as the sequence of that content.

Organizing your writing effectively means keeping your readers’ needs, expectations, and reading habits in mind.

 

When expected content is missing, readers can become (understandably!) frustrated. Consider readers/bakers trying to bake a cake without an ingredient list to read over before heading to the store or pantry, or a visitor to a company’s website searching for a missing “Contact Us” link. Meeting readers’ expectations for content is important to achieving your writing goals.

The sequence of content within the document is also essential. Consider whether putting comics on the front page of the newspaper best achieves the newspaper’s goals or meets their core readers’ goals as well as putting the major headlines there would. Would beginning a play with the third act be as effective?

Sequence of information matters, because there’s often a logical sequence to the content. Order also matters simply because readers expect to find it in a given location, and their ability to find information quickly makes your writing more effective. It surprises many of my students to learn, for example, that scientists rarely read research papers cover-to-cover, front-to-back. Rather, scientists often jump to the desired section of the paper — straight to the Methods, for example, if they are wanting to compare their own methods to those published by other groups, or straight to the Results, if they want to see the data.

Hourglass Concept

It is useful to think about the broad organization of scientific writing, including posters, presentations, and journal articles as following the shape of an hourglass. In this model, the width of the hourglass represents the generality (as opposed to specificity) of information.

Just as the hourglass starts wide on top, narrows in the middle, and then widens again at the bottom, your writing should begin with information that is rather general, gets more specific, and then broadens out again. The general information corresponds with being accessible to a broad audience, while the more specific information targets a smaller, more expert audience.

 

The top “funnel” of the hourglass provides the larger context that invites and motivates your reader learn more. The middle of the hourglass represents more detailed information, such as the specific experimental methods used and quantitative findings. The broad base of the hourglass is used to remind readers why the work is important, such as by summarizing the most important findings or conclusions and/or presenting the larger implications and potential applications of the work.

You can think of the relative broadness or generality of the information of your writing as corresponding closely to the audience for whom the writing will be accessible. (If you haven’t already, consider visiting the Writing Goals page to review how audiences’ needs differ and how your audience should influence your writing.)

At the beginning of most scientific genres, whether the introduction of a paper or the first few slides of a presentation, the information is typically so broad that a general audience would understand what you are saying and appreciate its importance (e.g., why studying medical advances in treating diabetes is important). As the writing continues, the information gets more specific and the language more specialized, thereby targeting a more expert audience. Finally, those expert-level details and scientific jargon are linked to the larger implications of your work or “take-home messages” for the reader, which should resonate with a broader scientific audience.

IMRD Organization

Overview

IMRD stands for Introduction, Methods, Results, Discussion and refers to the sequence of major sections of text within journal articles and scientific reports, including many science lab reports. As shown below, IMRD organization represents a common and concrete application of the hourglass concept.

Introduction sections begin broad and get increasingly specific as they progress, culminating in a specific statement of the goals of the research. Along with the progression of information from general to specific, the audience for the writing progresses from less expert to more expert.

Methods and Results sections are located in the narrow part of the hourglass, indicating they contain rather specific information that provides more expert audiences with the information and details they would want and expect to read.

Discussion sections begin with rather specific discussion of results, but gradually broaden out as the section progresses, including more general statements of the most important findings and conclusions and their potential implications and applications. Because the audience and level of detail changes over the course of Introduction and Discussion sections, these sections can be challenging to write.

The following example uses excerpts from a scientific paper to highlight the correspondence between the hourglass concepts and IMRD organization.

Correspondence between Hourglass Concepts and IMRD Organization

 

How are audience and content linked to the broad organization of scientific writing?

The activity above highlights the relative broadness of the Introduction (e.g., referring to bacteria and glycan structures, in general) compared to the Methods and Results (e.g., referring to E372A mutants and specific concentrations of solutions). Likewise, consider that a much broader audience can appreciate the importance of understanding bacteria in order to improve antibiotic therapies (Introduction) than can appreciate the “imidazole ring of H374.”

Even as Introductions are written for a less expert audience than other sections, you may have still found the Introduction excerpts above difficult to understand. Indeed, in journal articles, a genre used primarily to communicate with other expert scientists, some scientific jargon is used and some degree of scientific background is assumed throughout. Thus, while the hourglass organization provides a way of thinking about the relative shift in targeted audiences over the course of many genres of scientific writing, it doesn’t dictate the absolute audiences that are targeted. For example, the hourglass and IMRD structures would be followed for both a research presentation to undergraduate classmates and for a peer-reviewed journal article, but such a presentation would be pitched at a less expert audience overall than the journal article. Consider reviewing the Write Like a Scientist section on Writing Goals, which explores various approaches for tailoring your writing to reach your audience.

Variation in “IMRD” Section Names

Within the IMRD organizational framework, the names for each section can vary; for example, “Methods” can be called “Experimental” or “Materials and Methods.” The actual organizational structure (not just their names) can also vary somewhat. For example, some journals require authors to combine the results and discussion into a single section (Results & Discussion) and/or use a stand-alone Conclusions section as the base of the hourglass. Despite these variations, the overall hourglass concept and general IMRD form is almost always followed.

Journals typically post an “Info for Authors” or “Guidelines for Authors” document online that describes the exact sections and section names required (and occasionally those that are prohibited) for submitted papers.

 

Here are some examples of IMRD variations required for journal articles for publication in a variety of scientific journals.

Examples of Required Journal Article Sections

Visual organization

Using clear headings and sub-headings for sections within your writing provide visual organization that helps readers to find the desired information quickly. Font size, bolding, italics, as well as line-spacing and capitalization can be used in various combinations to effectively convey the broad organization of the writing.

Examples of Visual Organization Using Formatted Headings

Writing Beyond IMRD

In addition to IMRD — the core of the writing — journal articles and other genres include additional elements. Some elements are more-or-less required for most genres and publishers, including a title, an abstract, a list of keywords, an acknowledgements section, and references. Requirements or, indeed allowances, for other elements vary by journal and (sub)discipline. Additional elements may include, for example, a summary statement, a bulleted list of primary findings, or an “about the authors” paragraph. Writers must be aware of the publishers’ or readers’ expectations for such additional elements, including by studying the Information for Authors documents and other papers published in the same journal.

 

This completes our section on the Broad Organization of your writing. Consider exploring the Fine Organization section of the site next, where you’ll learn about the sequence of content within each section of a paper.

Go to next section: Fine Organization

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