Non-linear structures for academic writing

Student writers are often told to make sure their thesis has a ‘beginning, middle, and end’. This is drawn from Aristotle’s Poetics, where he says that a tragedy should progress forward in a linear way:

A story that is whole has a beginning, middle and an end. The beginning is the very thing which does not necessarily follow something else but after which something else naturally follows or happens. The end, in contrast, is the very thing that happens after something else either as a necessary result or, is most common companion, but after which nothing else occurs. A middle is that thing which comes after something else and has something follow it. It is necessary that a well-constructed tale does not begin or just end anywhere but will apply the conditions I have described.

This can be a very clear, logical and effective way to tell a story, and it’s one I use often.

But it isn’t the only way to tell your research story, and sometimes the content you are discussing are incompatible with linear storytelling methods.

So here are some non-linear options that other people have used, for scientific, theoretical or sociological reasons.

Network analysis

Networks are not linear. Networks are nets—they reach out and intersect in all directions. Networks also use ‘graph theory‘ which have nodes (or vertices) and links and lines (or edges). If you want to explore how large groups interact, you can’t just look at a couple of lines and their linear progress, you have to see all the ways that all the nodes and links work together.

Similarly, network-produced knowledge (using AI or machine learning) does not follow logical progressions but rather achieves outcomes through enormous numbers of associations.

Indigenous research methodologies

The Greek philosophers, including Aristotle, were foundational in establishing Western logical structures. But other knowledge traditions can develop in other ways that use models (for example, using two recently published Australian Aboriginal examples) like ‘Song Spirals‘ or ‘Sand Talk‘ which incorporate circular structures.

A ‘circular argument‘ is a problem for Western logic, but a circle or spiral or curve may be a more accurate story-telling technique, especially in cultures that have other models of time.

Mycelial / rhizomatic research

On the one hand, scientifically describing a mycelial mat or rhizome might require non-linear and indeed non-Linnaean descriptions—they spread out more like networks than like paths or trees.

On the other hand, the rhizome has been used as a model in Deleuze and Guattari’s most famous work of theory, A Thousand Plateaus, to describe things organised in flat multiplicities, rather than like a tree (arborescent), vertical, linear, progressing.

Queer theory

Queer theory was developed as an opposition to ‘straightness’, and scholars like Judith Butler see it as a useful strategy only when used in ways that are “collective”, “redeployed, twisted, queered”, flexible and contested. Such strategies might therefore avoid a neat ‘beginning, middle and end’ straight-line logic, and a firmly defined scope.

Quantum mechanics

Quantum mechanics work in ways that completely defy classical logic. Objects are both particles and waves, everything is uncertain, objects can become incomprehensibly entangled or move in non-linear ways. Classical physics can be described using classical logic, quantum events require new ways of laying out what has happened and why.

This is just a surface-level taster overview of some of the non-linear knowledge systems that I have experienced people using in their research. Scientific, theoretical and sociological research might need ways to accurately describe and analyse things that don’t work in straight lines, that don’t have a linear beginning, middle and end.

You don’t have to use the traditional Aristotelian formula for structuring your research story—but it is the most common way to do it, so it’s what people will expect as a default. Doing something unexpected isn’t an issue, you’ll just have to be clear and upfront about what you are doing instead. Use your citations, your methods, key words, and your explanation of how you will structure your writing in the introduction to help the reader expect your non-linear path.

Do you use a non-linear structure for your academic writing? Do you have a favourite that I’ve missed out of this list? Join the conversation over on Twitter.


Thanks to Dr Anne Lawless (@Anntics) for adding to the conversation:

Critical autoethnograpy and biographical ethnography may use nonlinear sense of time and storytelling that unfolds, unwraps, spirals etc. I describe my “career” as crazy paving, nonlinear!


and to Dr Lauren Pikó (@book_learning) who pointed out:

fragments, annotations and collaborative/dialogic writing


and to Dr Jill Firth (@jilfirth) who suggested Classical Chinese philosophy as another non-linear model, e.g. Rošker 2015, p. 305.

Photo by Adrien Olichon on Unsplash


Succeeding in a Research Higher Degree

Doing a Research Higher Degree (like a PhD) is hard, but lots of people have succeeded and you can too. It’s easier if you understand how it works, this blog gives you the insider view.


Related Posts

Structural edits on paper

I just finished the first full draft of the Writing Well and Being Well book, and that means it’s time to go through the structural edits.
This blog post documents how I did it this time.

Read More

Does deadline juice give you wings?

“Deadline juice” is a term I just made up when talking to a student the other day, but it’s pretty apt. It describes the eustress response to an upcoming deadline—a healthy (yes short term appropriate stress responses are healthy!) jolt of adrenaline when your energy is up, your focus is up, your speed is up.

Read More

What is a ‘writing audit’ and when should you do one?

When I was part of the La Trobe RED team, and we were running our Accelerated Completion Programme for late-stage PhD candidates, we got people to do a thing we called a ‘writing audit’, where you counted up what was in all the sections of your PhD, and then worked out what was still missing. It could be scary, or a massive relief, but either way it gave you a sense of where you actually were.

Read More

Get the latest blog posts