AcWriMo: Story Arcs and Flow

By now you’re probably realising the importance of thinking about the reader’s needs.  Just as the perfect party host makes sure that the guests’ needs are fully catered for in a seamless flow of hospitality, so a skilled author makes sure that the reader’s path from the beginning to the end of the article is effortless, informative and coherent. So, how can you do this?

First, be clear about the story that you wish to tell the reader in the paper.  Remember that a paper is not a thesis; a paper will probably focus on just one (or two) elements of your research, whereas a thesis will tell the full research story.  This means that you need to be clear which part(s) of the full story you are focussing on in the paper and, therefore, what the reader needs to know in order to understand that part of the story only.  For example, when you present a review of the literature (or state-of-the-art), be clear as to which part of the literature is relevant for the paper you are writing. Equally, when you write the Discussion section of your paper, make sure that the literature you refer back to has actually been mentioned in your literature review.  Again, in your Methods section, remember the focus of the paper, and refer only to the methods appropriate for that particular focus.  If you can remain fully aware of the specific focus of the paper as you write it, you will then produce a clear story for the reader and a strong stand-alone paper worthy of publication.

Once you’re confident that the paper contains all the ingredients necessary for a convincing story, focus on the flow of the story.  To do this consider logical paragraphing and linking.

Logical paragraphing and linking  

Is the connection between one paragraph and the next clear to the reader?    One way to ensure this is to use one or two words from the topic sentence of the first paragraph in the topic sentence of the next.  Here are some examples of topic sentences to paragraphs:

Paragraph 1:     The existing literature on online shopping indicates a number of trends in the retail industry in developed countries such as the UK, Canada and Australia.  These include …

Paragraph 2:     Despite the abundance of data on online shopping trends in these developed countries, there remains relatively little information about trends in developing countries including Haiti and the Philippines. For example, ….

Paragraph 3:     The absence of data for these developing countries can be attributed to various factors.  Firstly, …..

In the topic sentences above, certain words are repeated to help the reader to see the connection between paragraphs. (The full paragraphs have not been included, but you should assume that each topic sentence is at the top of a paragraph.) These words act as keywords for this particular section.  At the same time, each topic sentence conveys something new. For example, in paragraph 2, the new element that is not included in paragraph 1 is developing countries.  This new element is then repeated in paragraph 3, which, in turn, introduces the next new element – various factors.   The other element to notice is the use of linking (words underlined). The links here help the reader to see how the sentence that follows the topic sentence develops the point made in the topic sentence.

We use linking words and phrases (also known as transitional phrases) all the time when we speak. Here is a useful list of them: Transitional phrases. Note that science and engineering disciplines tend not to use as many links as humanities and social science disciplines.  If you’re a scientist or an engineer and you’d like to know which ones to use, check out this book by Hilary Glasman-Deal: Hilary Glasman-Deal, H: Science Research Writing (pages 94-101).  If you are signed into the library you should be able to get a full text copy, just click the link.