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Organizing scholarly manuscripts—briskly and well

Want to publish in better journals and get more grants? Organization is the skeleton of a manuscript, its very structure. Get it right and the manuscript works. Get it wrong and it doesn’t. In this post, the third in a series of five, you will learn how to organize paragraphs around key or topic sentences, list those sentences in a “reverse” outline, and examine the list for clarity and organization. More than 90 scholars who tried these strategies were studied and 95 percent reported that their writing was clearer, better organized, and more compelling (Gray et al., 2018).

Identify—or write—a topic or key sentence for each manuscript and paragraph. A topic sentence may announce only the topic, but a key sentence also announces the point. So a topic sentence might say, “Next, we discuss the nutritional value of apples and oranges.” In contrast, a key sentence would provide the key by telling its point: “Next, we argue that the nutritional value of an apple is superior to that of an orange.” Key sentences are stronger than topic sentences because they unlock the meaning of the manuscript or paragraph by giving the reader a better sense of direction.

Readers expect nonfiction to have one point per manuscript and per paragraph, announced in a key sentence (Baker, 2006, pp. 36–38; Williams & Bizup, 2017, pp. 109–120). Although readers expect keys, writers do not always provide them. Two prominent journal editors (Belcher, 2019, p. 66; Olson, 1997, pp. 59–61) argue that the major reason journal manuscripts are rejected is that they do not have a single topic or key sentence that announces the purpose or point of the manuscript clearly and early. Another leading writing expert (Bean, 2011, p. 325) says that when he is asked to help academics revise their writing, his most frequent comments focus on topic or key sentences of paragraphs. Clearly, your writing will profit when you attend to topic or key sentences. It may sound like it would be slow to do, but it cleans up prose more quickly so it is actually faster.

Place your keys early, whether in the manuscript or the paragraph; after all, we are not writing mysteries (Belcher, 2019, p. 265; Huff, 1999, p. 72). Academic readers want to skim and skip as they read. Therefore, they “want to know from the start that the butler did it” (Ratnoff, 1981, p. 96; Belcher, 2019, p. 265). Academics read journal articles, grant proposals, and even paragraphs looking for the point. Therefore, they are more likely to read more if they understand the point. “Articles that withhold their purpose, import, or conclusions until their end [are muddled]. They must actively avoid being clear so that the mystery is sustained” (Belcher, 2019, p. 265). . . .

Just as you must announce your purpose at the beginnings of articles, this is also true for paragraphs. Announce your point at or near the beginning of the paragraph and then organize the paragraph around the point. Check each paragraph to see if it has a key sentence that announces the topic—and the point—of the paragraph before providing adequate support or evidence for it. In some paragraphs, this may be as simple as identifying the key sentence that you have already written; in others, you may have to write a key sentence and then rewrite the paragraph to support it.

To organize within each paragraph, remember that, in non-fiction, readers expect paragraphs to provide three elements in this order: transition, key or topic sentence, and support or evidence. Follow this order unless you occasionally have a reason for breaking it. Start your paragraphs with a transition, which ties the material from one paragraph to the next, providing coherence. A transition may be as short as a word or a phrase harkening back to the previous paragraph or as long as a sentence or two. After the transition, provide a key or topic sentence. Finally, provide evidence to support that key sentence. By ordering your paragraphs in this way, you will have provided within-paragraph organization.

Key sentences share characteristics with topic sentences. The ideal key sentence occurs early in the paragraph. It announces the point simply and with little detail. A key does not try to prove the point because the rest of the paragraph does that. It is broad enough to cover everything in the paragraph—but no broader. A key sentence uses key words as subjects, rather than using pronouns such as “she,” “they,” or “it.”

Next, try finding a key sentence in a few paragraphs in this post. Read the post paragraph by paragraph backwards, starting with the last paragraph. By reading backwards you will keep the focus on each paragraph, rather than getting distracted by reading the entire manuscript. Begin at the end of this post, and hunt for key sentences until you develop the skill of identifying them.

Now, try finding keys in the most polished part of a manuscript you have written but not yet published. In a well-written paragraph, the key sentence is easy to find. If you can’t find your keys easily, your reader won’t be able to find them at all. In this case, rewrite any given paragraph to include a key and then reorganize the paragraph around it. It is normal to have difficulty finding a key in each paragraph of your own work. In my workshops, participants can’t easily find keys in the writing samples I give them or in their own writing. So practice on relatively easy prose (this post) and then work up to your most polished prose and finally to your own early drafts. Across time, you will learn how to write with keys as the most self-conscious writers do. You want to emulate these fine writers, not the average writer.

You just worked on organization within paragraphs; next, focus on organization between paragraphs. To examine between-paragraph organization, make a list of the key sentences you identified earlier. Making this after-the-fact outline is sometimes called a “reverse” outline because it is written after the paper, not before. Now, make sure that the minor points communicate your main purpose to your audience. Next, ensure that the minor points in each of your paragraphs are organized logically and coherently.

Reverse outlines help your readers and you. They help your readers because they are actually in the manuscript so they show the structure of the paper to your reader, helping the reader skim and skip, which is how academics read. The reverse outline helps you as a writer because you can see the structure of the manuscript without all the distracting detail. This is especially true if you make a list of key sentences instead of merely highlighting the keys in the paragraphs. Writing and reading the outline gives form and structure to your writing and thinking. This method of working with key sentences is very effective, but it can appear to be slow because it may cause you to reorganize. In the end though, it will be faster and you will have a better product because you will achieve greater clarity and organization in your thinking and writing.

To make a list of key sentences and headings, take these actions:

  • Create a new, blank document and place the title and the purpose (key sentence) of the manuscript at the top of the page.
  • Copy and paste into the document the key sentences you identified earlier.
  • Read the list sentence by sentence backwards. As you read, make sure each sentence helps communicate the purpose to the audience.
  • Read the list of key sentences forwards, making sure each sentence is organized logically and coherently. As you read your key sentences, consider the value and placement of each key and its corresponding paragraph. When a key sentence doesn’t add value by helping communicate the main purpose to the audience, drop that sentence and its corresponding paragraph. Similarly, when two key sentences are placed illogically in reverse order, reverse both the key sentences and the paragraphs they come from.
  • Re-read the manuscript forwards, making sure the changes in the whole manuscript are to your liking.

See tomorrow’s post, “Solicit and Use Informal Feedback before Formal Peer Review”, for ideas on how to seek feedback and make the best use of it before you send your manuscript out for formal review.

View the other posts in this series: 

Triple your scholarly productivity by writing daily
Drafting scholarly manuscripts—briskly and well
Solicit and use informal feedback before formal peer review

This blog post was adapted from Gray, T. (2020). Writing your dissertation quickly and well. In K. Townsend, M. N. K. Saunders, R. Loudoun, & E. A. Morrison (Eds.) How to keep your doctorate on track: Insights from students’ and supervisors’ experiences. Cheltenham, U. K.: Edward Elgar. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

The above mentioned chapter is itself a summary of the book, Publish & Flourish: Become a Prolific Scholar (2020), 15th anniversary edition, which can be purchased for $25 at or in Kindle for $9.99 on Amazon.

Also cited:

Baker, S. (2006). The Longman practical stylist. New York, NY: Longman.

Bean, J.C. (2011). Engaging ideas: The professor’s guide to integrating writing, critical thinking, and active learning in the classroom (2nd ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Belcher, W.L. (2009, 2019). Writing Your Journal Article in 12 Weeks: A Guide to Academic Publishing Success. Los Angeles, CA: Sage.

Huff, A. (1999). Writing for scholarly publication. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Olson, G.A. (1997). Publishing scholarship in humanistic disciplines. In J.M. Moxley & T. Taylor (Eds.), Writing and publishing for academic authors (pp. 51–69). Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield.

Ratnoff, O.D. (1981). How to read a paper. In K.S. Warren (Ed.), Coping with the biomedical literature: A primer for the scientist and the clinician (pp. 95–101). New York, NY: Praeger.

Tara Gray serves as the first director of the Teaching Academy at New Mexico State University (NMSU). The Teaching Academy provides professional development aimed at helping educators live extraordinary teaching lives embedded in exceptional careers. Tara has published 50 scholarly works, including four books.  She is the author of Publish & Flourish: Become a Prolific Scholar. She has been honored at New Mexico State and nationally with ten awards for teaching, scholarship or service. She has presented Publish & Flourish workshops to 10,000 participants at more than 120 venues, in 35 states, and in seven countries. Workshop participants report that Dr. Gray is “spirited, entertaining, and informative—she’s anything but gray!”