I’ve written over twenty books, and my texts have over 150 positive citations; despite this fact, I’m not able to write down an outline before I start writing. An outline is something that is used fairly often for writing and can be useful for some people – you create a certain structure, write down a short sketch of what’s important for each point, and then get to work. If you’re happy with outlines, then you definitely don’t have to change anything, but if you’re not, there’s no reason to despair. Writing is an individual process.
The most important thing about a scientific text is that it’s coherent and transparent in its methods. This means that all of its parts should link up to one another, which is sometimes difficult. In an outline or thought map, we see that we’re supposed to write about the bombardment of Brno, which we can handle easily, but at the same time we might forget that this topic is also important to us because it also deals with the ejection of Germans from the Czech lands. This division of the text into individual parts, which don’t hold together very well, is one of the greatest dangers of a scientific text.
This is perhaps the most challenging when you’ve got a year-end paper divided into a theoretical and empirical section. In an ideal world, you’d probably start by preparing the theoretical section, use that to carry out your research, then look at your research and modify your theoretical section to contain everything you really needed for your research. Then you might dive into processing and interpreting your data.
An ideal scheme for writing a research text. Source: KISK.
But things don’t work like this – usually we need to prepare scientifically and then carry out our research. And we don’t usually have much extra time. Despite this fact, it’s good if you’re able to link both sections. For example, when interpreting data, you can compare your results with what you’ve expected based on theory – for example that people in socially excluded localities don’t vote often or there are few liberal-right voters among them. This connection actually gives your research eyes – you can see whether what you’ve found corresponds to a theory and previous research (which is good), or whether your research sample is behaving peculiarly (which is great). You can’t make a decision like this without looking into the theory.
If we stick with this simple division, you’ll have very much literature (and references to it) in your theoretical section, but also in the research section, where you’ll be interpreting what you’ve found. A skill like this divides good written works from the excellent ones.
But, there are more models on how to structure a text. For example, in historiography we often enter information that we’ve found in an archive or in interviews directly into the theoretical framework, resulting in sentences like: “There was a big factory on the edge of town, and it employed hundreds of people… Everyone who worked at the machines passed through this gate, but the management walked through a smaller building to the left of it. The chief would always be standing there reading the newspaper. He’d always watch to see if we’d come on time and were dressed properly – he was a stickler for that.” It’s evident that the text creates a fluent narrative, in which information from literature and the author’s commentary are linked to the narrator’s speech. These texts are fairly difficult to create, but they make for great reading. In addition, they’re about the same thing that we advised about previously, i.e. the text creating a whole that holds together firmly.
A part of a scientific text naturally includes citations and paraphrasing. Direct citations are good for when you want to analyze a certain text or you need to “firmly rely” on someone. In general, they serve as the “spice” for a good text (if you’re using personal testimonies taken from your research, this is of course different – here they actually form the “flesh” of the text). It’s good to spare them and not to quote long passages, but we shouldn’t completely forget about them either. They clearly show that you’ve truly read something and processed it. Direct quotes are usually indicated with quotation marks or italics.
Next we have paraphrasing – this is good for when you want to say that someone has done something in a similar manner and there’s a certain piece of knowledge here that we can rely on. It’s often said that you don’t have to list a source if the information is secondary-school knowledge: if someone asks you at your leaving exams what the capital of Burkina Faso is, which they might if you’re graduating in geography, then you don’t have to cite Ouagadougou in any way. But, if you want to describe how this city’s population grew from less than 33,000 people in 1957 to more than 2.2 million in 2015, you do have to list the source.
As a conclusion – the majority of scientific texts list key words (the most important terms, usually nouns) and have an abstract – a text in which you tell the reader briefly what you’ve done and found. This is usually one or two paragraphs long. By doing this, you’re giving the reader the opportunity to decide whether he or she wants to read your text or not, but it will also give you the space to think about what the most important things are in your text.