Department of Political Science
Queens College
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Writing Political Science Papers: Some Useful Guidelines 

Peter Liberman, Dept. of Political Science, Queens College

October 2006

 

A good paper informs and persuades; to do this it must be logically organized, clearly argued, and well documented. Good writing is hard work, but following the rules of thumb below will help you to write better papers and to do so more efficiently.

 

Substance

1. Almost all papers in political science involve making an argument. It need not be an extreme or all-or-nothing argument; you should qualify your bottom line as you see fit. Make sure that your claims and support for them are clear in your own mind, and articulate them clearly to the reader. You must provide factual evidence and logical reasons for your claims, rather than simply giving opinions, yours or anybody else’s. Explain why the evidence and reasons you present support your thesis, and do this for your sub-claims as well.

2. If the paper is supposed to answer an assigned question, answer the question. Even if you are uncertain about the answer, it is better to argue that the available information is too thin or too contradictory to justify taking a position than to duck the question altogether.  This is not to say that there is always a single right answer to every political-science question.  But even when intelligent, informed people disagree, they must focus on the question at hand in order to advance the debate.

3. Address counter-arguments and counter-examples.  Put yourself in the shoes of a skeptical reader and ask yourself how they might object to your argument and evidence.  If these objections can be refuted, do so; otherwise qualify your position (e.g., “X is usually true” or “X is more true than Y”). 

4. Provide evidence and logic to support your arguments, rather than “arguments from authority”. An “argument from authority” is a claim that something is true because a particular expert says so. A variation on this is relying on your own undefended opinions: “X is true because I believe X.” How do we know that the expert is right, or if your opinion is well-founded?  Sometimes we have to rely on experts' opinions on esoteric matters, but it is always better to provide supporting evidence and logic yourself.

5. You should always cite the sources of ideas, arguments, or facts to which your paper explicitly refers.  These citations should always include an unambiguous source reference and page number (or numbers), unless you are referring to the general findings of an entire book or article.  Often, a single citation at the end of a paragraph is sufficient, if the material from that paragraph can be traced to a single source.  Do not waste space in the text on article or book titles. Citing your sources demonstrates the work you have put into researching your paper, distinguishes your ideas from those of others, helps readers where to go to find out more about particular points, and strengthens your argument by providing authoritative sources for your factual claims. You should always cite only the sources you consult. Citing the source of your source, as if you had consulted it yourself, is misleading and deceptive, unless you explicitly acknowledge it (e.g., source X, as quoted in source Y, p. Z). For further suggestions on citations, including formatting tips and a discussion of plagiarism, see the Dartmouth website on sources.

6. Avoid plagiarism like the plague. Submitting other people’s ideas or language (i.e., more than a few consecutive words) without appropriate acknowledgement implies they are your own, which is intellectual theft and cheating. You must put in quotes, or in indented single-spaced format, any text found in other sources, and the text must be followed immediately by a citation to the source. Of course, you may not submit all or part of a paper written by someone else as if it were your own work. You also may not turn in a paper for one class that you wrote for another, without the explicit permission of the instructor.

To avoid plagiarism, be careful in your note taking and writing to mark all ideas, detailed facts, and exact wording taken from other sources, so that you can properly cite them in your paper. For a useful discussion of plagiarism, with examples, see Northwestern University’s “How to Avoid Plagiarism” website.

Political Science Dept. policy is that any student found to have plagiarized blatantly will automatically fail the course and the case will be referred to the Dean of Undergraduate Studies. In some cases, plagiarism and other forms of cheating is punishable by dismissal from the college; on college policy, see: http://qcpages.qc.edu/USSC/handbook.html.

7. Assume your reader already has some basic knowledge on the subject, and do not waste space by presenting basic definitions or background details that are not needed to support your argument.

Organization

8. Organize your major points in logical order.  This sounds easier than it is, especially when you don’t see the whole structure of your argument before starting to write.  Papers ten pages or longer should be divided by section headings, which tell the reader where you are going, making the argument easier to understand.  Present major arguments first, followed by supporting or subsidiary ones.  One good organizational structure is to lay out and defend your main position, then turn to alternative explanations or counter-arguments and deal with them in turn.  Preparing an outline first helps.  If you’re like me and you end up thinking of new arguments in the writing process, you will probably have to go back and edit your paper later to give it a logical structure. It is always better to structure your paper around main ideas rather than a sequence of authors or sources, unless you are specifically asked to write a review essay.

9. Every paper must begin with a summary introduction that tells the reader briefly what the paper's main points are.  Tell your reader the question or questions you are going to address, why they are significant, how you are going to answer them, and what your  answer is going to be. I emphasize this last bit because it is too often neglected. Don’t just raise questions or topics and leave the reader in suspense about your conclusions until the end–this makes it harder for readers to digest and evaluate your arguments.  The summary introduction should be the first paragraph of a short (5-10 page) paper; longer and more complex arguments require more detailed summaries.  Because you can't write a summary introduction until you know what the paper is going to say, many people compose it after the outline–or even the body of the paper itself–has been written. 

10. A summary conclusion is also useful, to remind the reader of the main points that have been argued, particularly in longer papers.  It usually helps to keep in mind this old rule-of-thumb: “Tell ‘em what you’re going to tell ‘em, then tell ‘em, then tell ‘em what you just told ‘em.” Conclusions are also a good place to explain the implications of your findings--for governmental policies, theoretical debates, or for future research.

11. Alert your reader along the way to your main points as you are making them.  Rather than letting facts speak for themselves, explain how they advance your overall argument.  It's generally helpful to state the point of each paragraph in the first sentence. 

12. Try to stick to just one point in each paragraph. Don't start in on a totally new point in the middle of a paragraph.  This usually means keep your paragraphs relatively short--paragraphs that go on for a whole page usually can be broken up for greater clarity.

13. Be concise, avoiding digressions, filler, repetition, and redundancy.  Anything that does not contribute towards the argument, or the reader’s understanding of it, dilutes the effectiveness of an essay. Do not include introductory filler (e.g., "People throughout the ages have studied the causes of war") and historical “background” that is not used or needed by your argument. Students often needlessly waste space on factual information and history that does not contribute to their main arguments. Repetition also wastes valuable space and disorganizes a paper. Be sure to read your paper over before it is finally done and drop passages written earlier that have become extraneous as your work has progressed.

14. Avoid long quotations.  It is usually better to paraphrase others' arguments in your own words than reproduce them at length.  A summary usually is more concise, and fits better in the flow of the paper, than the original quotation, written in another context, for another purpose.  (Of course, you must still provide citations to others ideas, even if you have put them in your own words).  Use direct quotations only when you need to appeal to the authority of the author, when the specific language of the author matters, or when the source is primary data.  Don’t quote simply because you think your source said it better than you can, or to save yourself the effort of paraphrasing.

Format and Grammar

15. Avoid convoluted, run-on, pretentious sentences that are hard to understand and could be written much more straightforwardly.  You will be able to say more in less space if you minimize unnecessary prepositional clauses, obvious or meaningless comments (e.g., “It is important to bear in mind that...”), and passive voice constructions (e.g., use “Hillary kicked Bill” rather than “Bill was kicked by Hillary”).

16. Use correct grammar and spelling. This is not an old-fashioned, pedantic requirement. Errors here can muddle the clarity of your argument, and also can lead readers to wonder if you might have been as sloppy in your research and analysis as with your grammar and spelling. With the advent of word-processing spell-check programs, moreover, there is no excuse for bad spelling.

17. Use a simple format.  All papers should be typed, double-spaced, paginated (i.e., use page numbers), and be printed with normal type-fonts and margins. Do not include extra spacing between paragraphs, as this wastes space and suggests to your professor that you are padding the paper to get to the assigned page length. Staple papers together--folders and covers are unnecessary and cumbersome.  Always keep an extra copy of the paper, on disk or paper, in case the professor loses it (we're not called “absent minded” for nothing).

18. Use standard citation formats. When citing in footnotes, use the same format as the first footnote below the first time you cite a source.[1]  For subsequent citations to the same source, use abbreviated citations (see the examples in the footnote to this sentence).[2]  A somewhat easier citation method is to provide a parenthetical reference at the end of a sentence (Snyder 1991, 42).  If you use parenthetical references, though, you must provide complete citations for every work cited in a bibliography at the end of the paper.

Revise Your Paper

19. Re-read and revise your writing. To improve your writing you will want to read it critically, like most people and your professor will. But it is hard to read your own writing objectively, and writers are naturally very attached to words they’ve just put on the page. Taking a break will help you to get a clearer perspective on your own ideas and prose, to read your own draft as critically as if someone else had written it.

Try to finish a first draft at least a few days before the paper is due. After taking a break from it, review the guidelines in this memorandum (the editorial check-list below might be useful), and re-read your draft from beginning to end, marking passages that need to be moved, removed, or improved.

Getting More Help

Some excellent general sources on writing are William Strunk, Jr. and E. B. White, The Elements of Style;  Kate Turabian, A Student’s Guide to Writing College Papers; Richard Lanham, Revising Prose; and William Zinsser, On Writing Well.

For advice on writing research papers and constructing more complex arguments, I strongly recommend Wayne C. Booth, Gregory G. Colomb, and Joseph M. Williams, The Craft of Research (1995). Clear guidelines for punctuation, format, and citations for research papers can be found in Kate Turabian, A Manual for Writers of Term Papers, Theses, and Dissertations (various editions and years). 

Queens College has a Writing Center at 229 Kiely Hall (997-5676; http://qcpages.qc.edu/qcwsw/) that provides workshops on writing and research skills and also provides individual tutoring.  Fellow students can critique each other’s papers in the rough-draft stage, though it is too much to ask–and may violate plagiarism rules, unless expressly suggested by your professor–to ask a fellow student to do more than identify the weak points of a paper or make general suggestions.

 

Editing Abbreviations

 Here are some editing abbreviations that you might see on your graded papers:

 agr(eement)           pronoun does not correspond to referent;

awk                       awkward sentence construction

coll                        colloquial–words or phrases better spoken than on paper

filler                      digression that doesn't advance the argument

frag                       sentence fragment

NSI                       Need Summary Introduction

non seq            non sequitur—“does not follow” from what came before

¶ or para.            paragraph—usually to indicate spot to divide an overlong one

red(undant)          repeats point already made

run on                  sentence is too long, or has too many clauses

source                  citation needed

sp                        spelling

stet                      ignore editor’s correction

unpack                need to break up overlong paragraph into constituent ideas

wordy                 excess verbiage

ww                     wrong word

 

Editorial Check-list (use in revising your own writing):

  1. Makes a clear argument  _____
  2. Answers the question _____
  3. Addresses counter-arguments  _____
  4. Uses argument and evidence rather than opinion and authority  _____
  5. Cites sources of ideas, arguments, and facts_____
  6. Avoids plagiarism ________
  7. Assumes basic knowledge _______
  8. Presents main points in a logical order _____
  9. Has summary introduction _____
  10. Has summary conclusion _____
  11. Calls attention to main points in body ______
  12. Focuses paragraphs on single topics _____
  13. Is concise _____
  14. Avoids long quotations _____

15-17.   Clear and correct sentence structure, grammar, spelling, and format _____

  1. Uses standard citation format
  2. Re-read and revised _____


[1]Theresa Pelton Johnson, “Writing for International Security:  A Contributor’s Guide,” International Security (Fall 1991), p. 171;  William Strunk Jr. and E.B.White, The Elements of Style, 3rd ed. (New York:  MacMillan, 1979).

[2]Johnson, "Writing for International Security," pp. 172-78;  Strunk and White, Elements of Style, p. 48.


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