Department of Political Science, Queens College
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.
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.