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ON WRITING A PAPER

Professor Daniel Drezner
Department of Political Science
University of Chicago
September 1999

 

The following is a quick guide to what I expect from a research paper. Actually, this is what most of your professors will expect from you most of the time. These are only guidelines, and should not be considered absolute gospel. All rules have their exceptions. Still, you should have a reeeaaallly good reason for making an exception.

1) Every paper should have an introduction and a thesis statement. The introduction is usually one or two paragraphs. It should explain what you are going to discuss in the paper (that's called the thesis), why it is important, and how you will prove what your claims. Every introduction should contain a thesis statement. This consists of one or two sentences where you say, explicitly, what the theme or argument of your paper is. If you cannot say this in one or two sentences, it suggests that your thesis is fuzzy and unclear. Make sure you can say your thesis in one or two sentences.

For example: you are going to write a paper explaining United States behavior during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Your introduction might discuss the importance of understanding U.S. behavior during major crises, or U.S. behavior regarding the use of nuclear weapons (In other words you are answering the question: "Why, as the reader, should I care about this?"). You could then mention one or two theories that attempt to address the question. Alternatively, you could state whatever the "conventional wisdom" is about your case, as a set-up for why you think differently. These steps set the stage for the thesis statement.

Your thesis statement could be, "This paper will discuss and evaluate the alternative explanations for U.S. behavior during the Cuban missile crisis. A reviewing of the relevant facts demonstrates that U.S. behavior can be explained by the struggle between different government bureaucracies." Another possible thesis statement would be: "Careful theoretical and empirical analysis will show that realist concerns for power and security dictated U.S. foreign policy during the Cuban missile crisis."

2) After the introduction, there is the main body of the paper. This is where you elaborate on the argument made in the introduction. The relevant facts and theories are discussed, and you explain why you think your thesis is correct. The main body should have a logical flow. First you might want to discuss the history of your topic. Only include what is relevant. Another step will probably be to review what other important theorists believe is true. Only include what is relevant. Do not talk about things which, although interesting, do not have anything to do with your thesis. For example, if you are talking about the Cuban missile crisis, do not delve into U.S. relations with France. That is not important to the paper. On the other hand, do not neglect important information or arguments. It has been argued that the presence of Congressional election six weeks after the Cuban missile crisis began may have affected the behavior of the Kennedy administration. If that is relevant, then mention it, but do not talk too much about it if your thesis is about something else. Every paper must carefully balance between including what is important and excluding interesting but extraneous material.

Have facts to support your argument. However, you cannot just say, "This is a fact." You have to explain where you got it. This means you must use footnotes. A footnote is where you explain where you got this piece of information. For example, if you have a significant quote from Fidel Castro about the crisis and you put it in your paper, you have to footnote your source for the quotation. Footnote form varies with the source. If the source is a book, then the footnote must contain the author, title, year of publication, publisher, and page number. If the source is a newspaper or periodical, then the footnote must include the title of the article, the name of the periodical, the exact date, and the page number. If the source is online, then the footnote needs to include the web site address and the date it was accessed. The idea is that if someone else sees your footnote, they will be able to find the original document to verify the information. There are several different styles. If you need help, consult The Chicago Manual of Style. The important thing is to be consistent; do not cite two different books using two different styles.

You must footnote any non-obvious fact, as well as any quotation. If you quote someone, you must say where you got the quote. Ideas that are not your own must be footnoted.1 If you read a paper that contains a clever argument about domestic politics and nuclear deterrence, and you mention this argument in the paper, then the original article must be cited. Failure to cite documents, books, or people who provided information or ideas to your paper is called plagiarism. A guaranteed way to ruin your reputation is to plagiarize and then get caught. Whether it was intentional or unintentional is irrelevant. Therefore, be careful about documenting ideas and information, and do so as you write your paper, and not after the fact.

How you write the main body is your business. I will give you only two pieces of advice. The first is to use as many relevant facts as possible. If you are writing about the Cuban missile crisis, you might want to support your argument by using evidence from other Cold War crises, if they show a pattern.

The second piece of advice is to include facts or opinions that disagree with your thesis. This sounds odd. But it is better to acknowledge flaws in your argument than to ignore them. After you discuss these viewpoints, defend your argument. If, for example, there is evidence that a Kennedy was concerned about Khrushchev's response more than how the Navy would execute his policies, you should mention this even if you support a bureaucratic politics explanation of U.S. behavior. You can then defend your argument by saying, "While Kennedy was very concerned about the Soviet reaction in discussions, most of his actions were devoted to how the Navy bureaucracy would respond to his commands...." Including criticisms in your paper will strengthen it if you have responses to these criticisms.

3) At the end of the paper, there should be a conclusion. A conclusion is a summary of your argument. It repeats, in a concise way, what you've said in the introduction and main body of the paper. The conclusion should usually be only one or two paragraphs. Again, it only restates what you have said earlier. To make sure you've been writing clearly, compare your introduction (particularly your thesis statement) with your conclusion. If the conclusion says something very different than your conclusion, then something's wrong. For example, if your thesis statement says: "The institutional relationship between executive and legislative branches best explain U.S. behavior during the Cuban missile crisis," but your conclusion says: "The dominant factor was President Kennedy's exaggerated fear of a nuclear holocaust," then clearly you have changed your mind at some point the main body. A paper must be consistent.

So, to review, the introduction tells the reader what you are going to argue (the thesis statement says this explicitly); the main body makes the argument, including all relevant information and theory; the conclusion tells the reader what he has just read, and why it is right.

4) Start with an outline and then write several drafts of the paper. Think of the outline as a road map to your destination, a finished paper. It prevents you from deviating from the main points of your argument. An outline is never cast in stone, but itís a good start to writing a well-organized paper. The outline should look like the following:

 

I. Introduction

    1. How you will open your paper.
    2. Why the subject is important.

II. Thesis Statement: in one or two sentences, what is the theme of this paper?

III. Main Body: one possible way to structure it would be:

    1. History of your subject
    2. Possible explanations of your subject
    3. Your evaluation of these explanations

(Another possibility could be):

    1. Common perceptions of your subject
    2. Why these perceptions are right/wrong
    3. Evidence to support you assertions

IV. Conclusion

A draft is an unfinished version of the paper. The first draft is your first effort. Every paper can be improved. After your first effort, read through it and try to think what's missing, or what is badly phrased. Show it to your friends, and ask for their input. You should have at least one other person read it, to make sure that what you think you said is what other people think you said. Once you have spotted weaknesses, then you can revise and improve the paper with later drafts.

5) After the paper, if necessary, there should be a bibliography. A bibliography lists all of the books, newspapers, journals, and records you have used in the writing of this paper. Only cite sources you've used, and cite every source you have used. Why? Well, first, because it is polite. If I write a book and you use it but do not mention that you used it, then it indicates that my book was irrelevant to your project. This is a lie, and if discovered will embarrass you. Second, because it helps your paper. If you have respectable sources, then readers will think, "Wow, this must be a good paper if it used these sources." Third, because if everyone uses a bibliography, maybe your paper will be in someone else's bibliography in the future.

A citation in a bibliography should contain the author, the title, the date it was published (as exact as possible), and where it was published. Again, there are several choices for style; consult The Chicago Manual of Style for further advice.

6) An important note about spelling, grammar, and the like. Some professors say that the only important thing in a paper is the ideas, and therefore typos, grammatically incorrect sentences, or sloppy style are irrelevant. I am not one of those professors. Each of these flaws in form makes it harder for the reader to grasp the main ideas. They will definitely count in the grade. As for the professors who tell you that these kinds of mistakes do not count, then they are either lying to you, lying to themselves, or displaying a masochistic streak.

7) Some last-minute technical details. First, put page numbers on your paper. This will make it easier for me to write my comments. Second, do not put your name on the header or footer. It should appear only on the front page. This will make grading considerable easier. Third, use reasonable fonts, margins, and spacing. A double-spaced paper with two-inch margin, 14-point New York font will incur the wrath of a professor. So will a single-spaced paper with half-inch margins and 10-point Times font. In general, stick to one-inch margins, one-and-a-half or double-spaced lines, and a 10-12 point font.

Good luck!

1For example, many of the ideas in this essay are from William Strunk, Jr., and E.B. White, The Elements of Style (New York: Basic Books, 1988). 6th Edition. (back)

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