SUGGESTIONS FOR WRITING PAPERS

based on a handout by Professor Suisheng Zhao

Your papers will be evaluated not on what position you take, but on the accuracy and relevance of your data, the clarity of your prose, and quality of the arguments you make to support your views. Your paper should have a point to make, and it should support the point by making an argument. If you are not familiar with what it means to "make an argument," this page is designed to help you. It is meant to be suggestive only; what follows are "hints" on how to make a good argument. They are emphatically not "instructions" on how to write a paper.

1. It is always helpful to remember the five elements of an "ideal" moral judgment: (a) conceptual clarity; (b) accurate information; (c) rationality/logical consistency; (d) impartiality (making morally relevant distinctions between cases); and (e) coolness. You might check through the rough draft of your paper to see if your essay stands up to each of these "tests".

2. One technique I myself have found helpful in writing an argument is to follow the style of a "proof" in geometry. You state your position ("to prove"), define your terms, give your assumptions ("axioms" that stand behind your reasoning), and then proceed to deduce your position from them, giving reasons for each link ("theorem") in your logical chain. In doing so, you should refute counter-arguments to your position. You should also be careful to consider whether your "axioms" are universally accepted or not. Basing your whole argument on a premise that is itself subject to dispute won't produce a very solid argument.

3. Another good technique is to (a) state your position; (b) describe all (or at least some -- there are limits to how much you can cover in one paper!) of the most important arguments against your position; (c) show why these arguments are wrong; and (d) finally, show why arguments supporting your position are not subject to these weaknesses. I suspect that often you will find it easier to state why the other arguments are wrong than to start off by simply declaring why you hold the views you have. (But remember to end up defending your position, too!)

4. In constructing your own arguments, you are expected to draw on the reading assigned in the course as well as on the additional sources you found yourself. This does not mean simply saying "I agree with XXX" and then copying or summarizing XXX's article. It means that you may agree with XXX, and then independently reject arguments against his position. In short, you must make the argument, and not expect your sources to make it for you. You may cite from your sources on occasion, but your paper should not simply be a string of quotations from one or several authors. Please indicate the source of your quotation and of any data. At the end of the paper, your sources must be listed in the appropriate fashion in a bibliography. If you have any doubts about how extensively you should be quoting from the reading, the safest strategy is not to do it: just summarize an author's position in your own words.

5. It is important to consciously distinguish between different kinds of sources:

The material on which you will base your paper will probably consist mostly of secondary sources. Be very careful when using tertiary sources: they may be unreliable. It is probably better to use such sources mostly as pointers to secondary sources that you can then use with a bit more confidence. If you have access to the relevant primary sources, then make sure to make use of them; by looking at the primary sources yourself you have the chance to propose an original interpretation, to correct wrong perceptions, or simply to get a feeling for the flavor and tone of the original texts. You should put a lot of effort into locating the right sources for your paper, using electronic indices, published bibliographies (e.g., Dauben), sourcebooks, and references in articles and books you already have. To write a good paper you must spend enough time in the library.

6. What is plagiarism? Plagiarism occurs when you copy from a reading and don't say so. If you put long paragraphs in quotations and give the author credit (by, say, putting his/her name in your footnote) this is not plagiarism. However, bear in mind that, as noted above, if your paper is one long string of quotations, it suggests that you did the reading but did not do any thinking of your own. This will not be considered plagiarism, but it will also not be considered a very good paper. (Needless to say, copying another student's paper -- traditionally called "cheating" -- is also a case of plagiarism.)

7. Never finish your paper on the day it is due. Instead, print out a final draft a day or two in advance, and let it lie on your desk overnight. Then re-read it (if possible, read it aloud, either to yourself or to a friend). You will almost certainly find things you would like to correct or modify slightly before you turn it in.

8. Grading Policy

This is just intended to give a rough idea of how your paper will be graded. The papers described here are somewhat idealized: in reality, no paper will ever have all or the characteristics described. Use this and the self-evaluation checklist when you proofread your paper.

Good luck on your research.


Fernando Q. GouvÍa ---- fqgouvea@colby.edu
Last modified: Sat Nov 15 11:26:13 1997