Fine Organization

Just as the broad organization helps readers navigate and find the desired information in a paper, poster, or research article, the fine organization of content within individual paragraphs and sections is important to crafting your scientific story and achieving your writing goals.

Move Structures

In the field of writing analysis, each step the writer takes towards their overall writing goal is termed a move. Each section of a paper or paragraph within a section contains a sequence of moves. Collectively, we can capture the sequence of moves in what is called a move structure. These terms might sound strange at first, but bear with me — the concept of moves proves rather useful!

Thinking about “making moves towards your goal” while you write is an important reminder that every sentence you write should serve a purpose. It is a reminder that effective writers achieve their writing goals through intentional writing choices.

To start understanding moves and move structures, consider a non-scientific example: a cover letter for a job application (adapted from Tatsanajamsuk 2017). This non-scientific example may help you to see how using moves in the expected sequence can help you achieve your writing goal — in this case to land a job interview.

Proposed Move Structure for Job Application Cover Letter

Notice how moves can be broken down further into submoves, and that some moves (or submoves) can be “optional.” In the context of scientific writing, “optional” is typically replaced with “as needed.” In other words, while a particular move may not always be needed to achieve your goals, when it is needed…it is not optional.

Move structures can be represented as lists, as in the example above. Graphical representations of move structures can be used to convey additional information about your writing than lists alone. In particular, graphical move structures often convey the relative length and level of detail required for your writing to achieve each move. A graphical representation of the job application letter move structure we examined above might look like this:

Graphical Move Structure for Job Application Cover Letter

Let’s note several features of this graphical move structure and others we will use on Write Like a Scientist:

Features of graphical move structures

Now that we’ve covered the fundamentals of move structures, let’s apply these tools to scientific writing, and specifically to writing a journal article. We focus on journal articles, because they are among the most common genres used by practicing scientists. Many types of scientific writing that are commonly used by students of science (e.g., lab reports, theses, dissertations) are typically organized and contain similar content to journal articles (even as the writing itself might target a less expert audience). For this reason, the journal article organization is a broadly applicable and readily adapted starting point for most scientific writing.

Fine Organization of a Journal Article

In Broad Organization, we examined the IMRD organizational framework of journal articles and many other genres of scientific writing. Here, we’ll examine the specific content and sequence of content expected in each of these individual sections. In the Write Like a Scientist section on Scientific Language, we’ll refer back to this discussion as we discuss language conventions that typify specific sections and moves.

We’ll discuss the sections not in order from start-to-finish (i.e., IMRD), but in the order most scientists write them (i.e., MRDI). Introductions are often written last, or at least substantially revised as one of the last steps in writing, because until you know what your findings are, it is difficult to know what introductory background readers will need. In contrast, starting your writing with Methods is convenient because you can often write this section even as experiments are ongoing and the results are not yet known. We’ll walk through the Methods in most detail to get you used to “reading” move structures and then move more quickly through the remaining sections.

Methods section

The writing goal for Methods is to describe how a study was conducted in sufficient detail that a fellow expert could replicate the work. This means, for example, that you would need to provide specifics about the particular organism you are studying but few details about how to sterilize your glassware, because that is something an expert would know and not need to be told.

Let’s examine the following graphical move structure (adapted from Robinson et al., 2008), which captures the essential organization of most journal articles Methods sections. We’ll discuss the overall structure, and then dig into the specific content of each move.

Methods Move Structure

Methods sections typically have three moves, one of which (Move 3) is included only “as needed” (note its dashed outline). Indeed, there are many dashed lines within the Methods move structure! While the move structure captures typical moves and their sequence, providing writers with a guide, the abundance of dashed lines indicates that the writer still has many decisions to make.

Let’s note two additional aspects of the overall move structure:

  1. All of the Methods moves are about the same width (with some narrowing from step 1A-1C), indicating about the same level of detail and same audience throughout.
  2. None of the boxes contain “extra” height beyond what is needed simply to accommodate the move/step names. This indicates that none of the moves inherently require more or less text than others and that the length of text for each move/step is overwhelmingly determined by the specifics of the study.

Order of Methods Moves. Examining the overall content of the Methods section, we note that the order of the moves reflects the typical chronology of actual research (i.e., you describe your field site and materials before your procedures, because you would normally choose your field site and order your materials before using them for procedures). Data analysis is last, because this step assumes you have already conducted procedures and data to analyze. Furthermore, if your procedure only involved calculations, you probably won’t have conventional “describe materials” and “describe procedures” moves, but might replace them with a description of the mathematical model and/or equations you used.

Ordering sub-move “repeats”. When you have multiple methods to describe, the order in which you present multiple procedures (note the repeat sequence of Move 2A-2B) should be logical. Often the order is chronological (e.g., what was done to the samples in the order that it was performed) or from most critical to least critical (e.g., from the procedures that generated the bulk of the data or information to those that provided less essential complementary information). The order in which methods are presented should more-or-less match the order in which you present results, so thinking about how best to present your findings to convey a compelling scientific story will help you organize your Methods.

Methods (sub)moves are generally arranged in chronological order … with an emphasis on “logical.” Order them in a way that will make sense to your readers and help you to convey a compelling scientific story.


Methods sub-headings. Just as headings are used to clearly delineate the broad organization of a paper, sub-headings are commonly used to delineate (sub)moves. Here are some literature examples of the sequence of Methods sub-headings, and their corresponding moves.

Methods Sub-heading Often Correspond to Moves

Move 1: Provide experiment context. You’ll note that dashed lines are used for all the Move 1 sub-moves, but that Move 1 as a whole is required (solid line). This indicates that none of the individual sub-moves are required for all studies, but all studies require at least one of the sub-moves; afterall, if you don’t have an experimental design, don’t have a field or sampling site to report, and didn’t use any materials or samples…it’s not clear that you actually did any research about which to write!

  • Move 1A (Describe Overall Experimental Design) is common in studies that integrate complementary information from multiple sites, methods, or disciplines. It provides readers with the basic understanding of the types of information you collected and how it fits together to address your study objectives. You’ll note that this sub-move is contained in a box that is a bit wider than the sub-moves that follow, indicating that it contains slightly more general information the subsequent sub-moves.
  • Move 1B (Describe Field or Sampling Site) is often used in field-based studies where the location of field or sampling sites (which can be outdoor or indoor) is essential to replicating the study or to evaluating and interpreting the results. In addition to text descriptions, this sub-move often includes maps, diagrams, or photos to relay information about the site, including locations of important features and sampling points, plots, or transects. An alternative use of this sub-move is in laboratory-based studies to describe customized experimental setups (e.g., a laser table) or instrumentation (home-built spectrometer). Instrument diagrams are commonly included with the goal of providing readers with enough information to replicate the study or to fully understand the nature of the customization. This highlights that move structures should serve as guides and reminders of important information, but should be considered broadly and adapted in the context of the great variety of scientific studies conducted.
  • Move 1C (Describe Materials Used) is essentially a version of the materials list you might have written in your lab notebook or in the standard operating procedure you are following. Unlike what may be in your notebook, however, it is written out using complete sentences. Remember that you should provide enough information for an expert to repeat your project; this means that it would be important to report the buffer you used (e.g., 0.2 M sodium hydrogen phosphate solution (pH 6.4)), but not how you prepared that solution. An expert would know (or could figure out) to prepare the solution on their own. Because chemical purity and biological activity (e.g., of enzymes or antibodies) can vary and impact the results, it is conventional to report purity and brand names. For situations where results are particularly sensitive to biological activity or chemical purity, it is not uncommon to report batch numbers.

Move 2: Describe Experimental Methods. This move is used to describe how the materials described in Move 1 were utilized as part of experimental procedures and instrumental techniques to make measurements or otherwise obtain the study results.

  • Move 2A (Experimental Procedures) might include how samples were collected or preserved, how compounds were synthesized, modeling input parameters, quality assurance/quality control (QA/QC) procedures, and anything else that was actively performed to obtain the results of your project.
  • Move 2B (Describe Instruments) is only required if sophisticated pieces of instrumentation were used (note dashed outline). Here, (expensive) instrumental techniques generally refers to pieces of instrumentation for which numerous variables and conditions can influence the results and must be reported in detail. This generally includes the great variety of instruments used to conduct spectroscopy and mass spectrometry, but would exclude simpler laboratory equipment, such as pH meters, centrifuges, soil augers, balances, and the like. Smaller pieces of equipment would simply be mentioned, as needed, within the procedures section.

It can be challenging to decide the level of detail to include for Methods Moves 1 and 2. We mentioned early to consider whether an expert would need to receive that information in order to replicate the study. Another way to think about whether to include information or not is whether those details influence the results. This consideration came into play when we discussed reporting purity of the chemicals and batch number of a biologically active material. This same consideration is why we report lots of instrumental details for complex pieces of equipment — those variables often determine the quality (e.g., accuracy, precision, resolution, sensitivity) of the measurement.

If information about materials or methods influences the magnitude or quality of the data, then it is important to report.

Move 3: Describe Data- &/or Statistical Analysis. In this move, you should describe any statistical or otherwise mathematical manipulations you performed in the course of your work.

For studies utilizing multiple methods, each with unique data analysis or statistical approaches, the move structure is sometimes modified. Rather than repeat the Move 2A-2B (procedure-instrumentation) sequence for each method, followed by a single “lumped” Move 3 (data analysis) section, the data analysis information for each method is reported separately and immediately following the procedure-instrument  description. This results in 2A-2B-3 serving as the repeated sequence, as shown in the modified Methods move structure here (adapted from Robinson et al., 2008):

Modified Methods Move Structure

How do Methods sub-headings correspond to the underlying move structure?

How are Methods moves reflected in scientific writing?

How is Methods information sequenced and follow the move structure?

Results section

(adapted from Robinson et al., 2008)

Graphical Move Structure for Journal Article Results Section

Discussion section

(adapted from Robinson et al., 2008)

Graphical Move Structure for Journal Article Discussion Section

Whereas Results sections convey empirical findings of experiments or computational work, including qualitative and quantitative findings, only in Discussion sections are such empirical observations explained, interpreted, and/or compared to literature findings (i.e., those published earlier).

Results convey “just the facts”, whereas Discussions convey “what the facts mean,” in the view of the authors.

Introduction section

(adapted from Robinson et al., 2008)

Graphical Move Structure for Journal Article Introduction

Other sections

(adapted from Robinson et al., 2008)

Graphical Move Structure for Abstract

Robinson, M.S.; Stoller, F.L. Costanza-Robinson, M.S.; Jones, J.K. Write Like a Chemist: A Guide and Resource. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008.