Thursday, November 03, 2011

Writing an Academic Paper in 600 Words or Less.

Hi Brain Hats!
A few years ago, a friend of mine asked if I could help his daughter, a freshman, improve her grades and her opinion of school. Bright and very capable, she just didn't understand how to write a paper for a university course. What follows is the email I sent him. Please let me know what you think. Was I way off base? It's certainly possible. I mean, it still reads well to me, but I could be wrong. It wouldn't be the first time today.

Writing an Academic Paper (in 600 words or less)
John NA Brown

The idea of an academic paper is that you want to tell somebody your opinion, and you want them to see where it comes from.  You’re showing them the sources of your information and you’re showing how you put all of those ideas together in order to build the opinion you have now.

It’s like writing out your side of an argument before the other guy even opens his mouth.  He’s all set to argue and you just put out your hand and say: “Here, read this.  I don’t need to say anything.  This sheet of paper can argue better than you can.” Then you hand it to him.  If you’ve written it well, all of your ideas are backed up, and any disagreements you could imagine have already been dealt with, too.

A university professor, or the Teaching Assistant working for them, wants to see a few simple things in a paper.  If you can show them those things, they will believe that you are taking the work seriously and you will probably get a good grade.  Those things are:

a) that you have an opinion (or “thesis”) you are trying to “prove”
you show that by stating your idea right at the start of the paper

b) that you have the right kind of information to back up your opinion
you show that by listing important authors who have talked about this idea before and summarizing or even quoting what they had to say.  You can use the same quotes your prof uses in a lecture, but make sure to cite a written source for it.  Use as many good sources as you can (you can usually base this on the names mentioned in lecture) but as a rule, use books or journals, not websites.

c) that you have thought about what others might criticize
this is that imaginary argument.  What might be weak about your idea, or the ideas of the people you’re quoting?  Somebody, somewhere has criticized these ideas before.  Find out who, summarize their criticism and, if you can, show why it’s wrong.  You can probably find writers who have criticized the critics… there have been a lot of opinions in the history of the written word, and a whole lot of them can be found in Google Scholar.

d) that you have either proven or failed to prove your idea
to me, this is the coolest part.  You stated your case, you showed your reasoning (and that you have some idea about where these ideas come from) and now… well, now you can be either right or wrong.  Really!  If you prove that your original idea is right, and you show it through references and good reasoning – then you win!  And if you prove that your original idea is wrong, and you show THAT through references and good reasoning – then you STILL win!

Academics want a good argument.  Not bickering, mind you, but a good, well thought out, intricately researched, cleverly reasoned argument.  Prove your original idea is right or wrong; a real academic will judge you on the reasoning and research, not on the original idea.