How do your organize your research and notes prior to writing a paper, and how is that paper itself to be organized?

Regarding the first part of the question above, two sections of this website are specifically dedicated to organizing your research and developing a note-taking system; we recommend you review the information in these sections.

As for the organization of an actual paper, we offer the following guidelines:

Begin a paper with general introductory comments that establish your topic, timeframe, major players, and other relevant basic information. From here (either in the same, or in a second paragraph immediately following) transition into your thesis, which establishes the precise question your paper will engage, and offers a general, preliminary answer. (See Developing a Thesis.)

The main body of your paper should systematically set out to answer, in detail now, the question or issue articulated in the thesis. In order to provide such an answer, you may need to offer significantly more background information than you did in your introduction. Now is the time to establish a broader context. As there may be multiple angles from which you wish to approach the issue identified in your thesis, provide context on each variable you plan to explore in the paper to follow.

Consider the outline we created for our topic of "The Austrian Catholic Church and the Anschluss," to which you will find a link at the bottom of this page. You will notice that, following the introduction/thesis, two full sections of the outlined paper are dedicated to establishing a broader context, each illuminating a different relevant aspect of the larger topic: 1.) establishes the Anschluss itself: what happened, when, who were the various players, what was the timeline of the key events, etc.; 2.) examines a related yet distinct issue of equal relevance to our larger topic: what was the general relationship between Catholicism and fascism, and how did that relationship play out in the specific Austrian scenario of the Anschluss?

It is generally only after having established necessary context that a paper moves into specifics. Indeed, this dynamic of moving from the broad to the specific is one that begins in a paper's opening paragraph (general introductory comments, followed by specific thesis), and continues as the paper establishes a broader context before engaging the specific evidence that will help prove its general claim in the thesis.

In our own paper on "The Austrian Catholic Church and the Anschluss," the specific evidence - although it is repeatedly hinted at, beginning first in the thesis, then again in sections 1 and 2 - really is not presented until section 3 of the paper. Then, however, from section 3 through 6, the specific evidence remains the focus throughout the remaining essay. Nevertheless, even within each of these sections, the pattern of moving from the general to the specific prevails, as it does, finally, in the conclusion, which briefly summarizes the (general) content of the paper, then ends by articulating a (specific) insight based upon the evidence the paper has provided. On this process, see also Formulating a Conclusion.

Ultimately, the pattern of moving from the general to the specific is the best advice we can offer on how to organize a paper. It need not be followed slavishly in every single paragraph, of course, but as a basic organizing principle, it has proven its worth many times.

Below, you will find the link to our outline of "The Austrian Catholic Church and the Anschluss"; we recommend that you also read "Some Thoughts on our Organization," which immediately follow.

To go to the outline, click here.