Know your audience
Know who your audience is and anticipate what they are most interested in knowing. Avoid overwriting; if your paper exceeds 40 pages, it is probably too long. If you plan to submit an article to a journal, adapt your writing to the formality, language, and format of that journal. Although your primary audience is not the study’s participants, think about how they would feel if they read your writing. Describe them using words they would use to describe themselves without romanticizing them.
The title, usually written last, should clearly communicate the topic of the study.
An abstract, also usually written after other sections, provides a short (less than 150 words) synopsis of the study. Include the problem you investigated, a description of participants, the methods, key findings, and conclusions.
In the introduction, review related empirical literature, present the purpose of your study, and explain its contribution to your field. Communicate the focus of your paper on the first page so readers can relate what follows to a bigger picture: “This manuscript reports results of a two-year study on the evolution of study strategies among freshman and sophomore students at the University of Texas at Austin.” One way to emotionally involve readers is to begin with a brief story or example that encapsulates themes from your study.
State the central thesis, theme, or topic in one or two sentences. A thesis is a proposition you assert, often arising from a comparison of your study to past research, which you then support with evidence. A theme is a concept or theory that emerges from your data, while a topic is descriptive and more limited in scope. An example of a topic is, “What makes for an effective lecture?” Don’t provide overly detailed information at the start of the introduction; reserve finer points for later, once general concepts have been introduced. The introduction frequently concludes by outlining the rest of your paper.
In a methods section, include the number of research participants, the number of focus groups or interviews conducted, how and why you chose participants, and how you analyzed the data. From published interview or focus group studies, find the description of a method similar to yours to use as a template. Describe the design and execution of the study in enough detail for a knowledgeable reader to evaluate and replicate it.
In a results section, first present main findings, then cover more peripheral ones. Everything you write should be directly related to your research questions. Support assertions by quoting participants but don’t present large amounts of data without any discussion. Also quote and describe participants who expressed a minority point of view. Place quotes in context by generically describing participants and the question or topic they were responding to. Be sure that your descriptions of participants or their comments do not reveal their identities. If there is any possibility of confusion, identify whose perspective you are writing from—yours or that of a participant. Don’t attribute motives to participants when it is not clear from what they have said. To summarize key results and conceptual relationships, present findings in a table, concept map, or Venn diagram.
In a discussion section, summarize major findings, being careful not to overstate results. Compare the results of your study to those of prior studies and describe how your research helps explain divergent findings, fills in theoretical gaps, or extends what has been found previously. Discuss strengths and limitations of your study and anticipate objections to your conclusions by providing alternative explanations and explaining why you believe your conclusions best fit the data. Discuss the implications of your findings and directions for future research.
List all literature cited in a reference section.
In an appendix, provide a copy of interview or focus group questions and follow-up probes.