Academic writing: Context is everything

May 8, 2019

Here's a structure that works for almost any piece of academic writing:

  1. First, describe a situation.
  2. Next, describe a problem or question that arises from that situation.
  3. Now describe how other people have approached that problem or question.
  4. Explain a need to approach it in a different way or expand upon what's been done.
  5. Say what you aim to do...

Each of these steps sets up a context for the next, so the flow of information naturally makes sense. There is no need to signpost* what you're going to do, because the reader can follow you easily.

Here's an example;

  • Worldwide, the number of PhD students is increasing
  • However, there is also evidence of disproportionate levels of stress among PhD students.
  • While there have been a limited number of studies to date which have highlighted the scale of the problem, and individual institutions have made efforts to provide better support, there has been little research into the effectiveness of different interventions
  • This research will...

This example combines points 3 and 4 into a single sentence, but the flow of information is the same. Each step sets up the context for the next.

Once you have this structure, you can add extra detail to support the main points, or you can keep it concise. Or you can treat some of the points briefly and go into much more detail on others. As long as the basic structure is there, the reader will be able to follow you.

So, for example, you can write 500 words about the increasing number of PhD students worldwide, adding statistics for different countries or an explanation of why the numbers are increasing.

  • Over the last 10 years, there has been a huge increase in the number of students enrolling in doctoral degree programmes worldwide. Recent statistics from the UN estimate that...
  • While the increase in the numbers of doctoral students is seen globally, it is even more marked in developing nations such as...
  • This is in part due to the a concerted effort at government level to ...
  • Although increasing engagement in doctoral research has a number of benefits, recent evidence has shown evidence of disproportionate levels of stress among PhD students

Even though we're adding extra information, we don't need to alter the overall structure. This makes it much easier to edit your writing than if you just write with no structure at all.

Context in literature reviews

You can use this structure not only for the introduction to a thesis or paper, but to individual chapters or sections as well.

For example, in a literature review, you can place individual papers within a broader context.

  • Situation: A long standing problem in the field has been...
  • Traditionally, this has been approached by...
  • However, there's a problem with this approach...
  • To address this, Smith proposed...
  • This has caused...

What most writers do is focus on Smith's paper and introduce it by starting with the authors name, then what they did, then why it matters. But if you set up the context first, the reader has a reason to be interested in what Smith did and they immediately understand the significance of the work.

You can then say how it influenced the field, or how others built on Smith's work, or how it created other problems. You've set up a new context now, describing other work as a response to Smith...

Context is everything. It's the glue that holds the information together. And it's probably the most important academic writing skill you can learn.

*Outside academia, no professional writer signposts what they are going to do. You never see a newspaper article or non-fiction book say, "this chapter consists of 4 parts; the first will..." or, "this article covered the latest developments in..." If a piece is well written, most signposting is unnecessary. If it's badly written, signposting doesn't help.

See also:

Signposting your writing

How to write a compelling literature review

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