There are two different types of academic papers you may have to deal with during your studies: research and topic papers. The difference is that being given the task to write a research paper, you will have to choose a topic and then are left alone to do your research, whereas when writing a topic paper the subject is given to you and is oftentimes linked to the contents of a course to serve as the primary source of information for you. But whatever you have to deal with, there are some things that remain universal — the first being: you just start with what you’ve got.
How to structure an academic paper
When you’re going to think about the structure of an academic paper you’re creating, concentrate primarily on the things that you already know. If you take them all, you will be able to answer the most important questions: What is it all about? What are the most important terms linked to this subject? What are the most important aspects and/or positions in the academic discourse concerning your topic, and who are the most important scientific representatives of these different positions? What is your opinion on the matter? Do you agree with any of the positions forming the academic discourse — and if so, why? Do you think that something is missing or are there aspects to this topic that have been neglected so far?
Find your answers to these questions and write them down.
The general structure of an academic paper is not especially different from any other non-fictional text: it has an introduction, a body and wraps up with a conclusion.
The introduction is primarily meant to explain specific research interests, the significance of the topic, the way it is treated in your paper and to formulate a thesis (if one is needed). The argumentation starts here on a general level and becomes more and more specific.
The main part of the text is meant to explain the most important terms (if necessary), give an overview concerning the academic discourse, characterize the topic or give a qualified statement concerning its significance.
So if there are terms that need to be discussed, that should serve as a good start. By ensuring that your readers are aware of what is meant when you use jargon or highly specialized language, you can get to the heart of the matter and begin to portray different theories or positions essential to the academic discourse.
If you have to characterize and evaluate the topic, start from a general point of view and get more specific, by taking the point of view of different target groups, for example.
The final chapter is meant to come to a conclusion based on all the arguments and information given; it also may include a suggestion for further scientific research.
When you create the structure, be creative. Let yourself be inspired by other texts but follow your own logic because every person has different associations, values as well as different expertise. That’s why you cannot just copy somebody else’s work: you are not able to think his or her thoughts. So if the structure does not follow your personal thought patterns it will be hard for you to work with it.
Please note that to build a structure you will have to form a hierarchy of information; you are free to have as many sub-chapters as you want to, but you must have at least two on every hierarchic level of your structure. You cannot do 2.1 and then 2.1.1, there must also be at least 2.2.2.
Finally, be aware that you should use the same form of sentence for all the headlines of your different chapters; you cannot mix questions and statements. There also must be a text assigned to every headline, even if it is just one sentence.