How To Do A Paper


How To Do A Paper Essay, Research Paper

The introduction clarifies the nature of your topic; it states your research problem and your strategy for understanding this problem. Your opening ideally puts the reader in the mood for reading the paper; it serves to spark some interest. But mainly it prepares the reader intellectually for your main effort–the body of the paper. The best introductions are often written after the body of the paper is already drafted, so that they can lead to it as effectively as possible. Remember: one way to bomb on a paper is to promise one thing and deliver something else.

…and then you say it…

The body of the paper carries out your strategy or plan for analyzing and interpreting your material. This part of the paper goes into details: it lays out all the necessary information and ideas in a logical order (that is, in the sequence in which the reader needs to know them in order to understand you). The body is organized in terms of answers to questions, cause and effect, comparison and contrast; it supports generalizations with data, or derives generalizations from data.

…and then you tell them what you’ve said.

The conclusion wraps things up. It reminds the reader of the nature and significance of the problem you set out at the beginning, and sums up the meaning and implications of your analysis. It tells the reader what has actually been discovered and what it means. The conclusion concisely restates your intentions and plans, and tells the reader succinctly what happened when you carried out that plan. In other words, it summarizes and synthesizes the progression of your understanding from the opening statement of your problem through the detailed development of the problem in the body of the paper.

Magical and Essential Rule Number 4: Write with your readers in mind. Be clear and explicit so that they can follow your argument. Be concise and yet complete.

You are writing something that will be read and evaluated by someone. Keep in mind that all your readers can know of your thoughts is what you put down on paper. Telepathy is rare even among anthropologists. So be explicit. Don’t refer or allude to ideas or information not contained in your argument, unless you can reasonable expect the readers to be familiar with that material. Make sure that the readers have all the information they need in order to follow you from point A to point B in your discussion. If your roommate doesn’t understand how you argued your way from point A to point B, your TA or professor probably won’t either.

And choose your words with care. You don’t want to obscure your reasoning by putting it into the wrong words. A brilliant logical argument can be lost for want of precise words4.

Your outline will help you make the logical connections in your paper explicit. You may even want to use some subtitles in your paper (one or two per page) which serve up the points made on that page. These subtitles will correspond to your outline–or at least they will if you stick to it. Using subtitles can alert you when you start to stray from your plan. Subtitles also have the advantage of reminding the weary reader (who has just read 137 term papers before starting yours and has 79 yet to go) where he has got to in your argument. (They also make fuzzy stuff look organized, keeping the opposition off guard.) However, if you allude extensively to material not included in your paper, or ideas not explained in your paper, or do not choose your words with some care, then even subtitles won’t save you.

You want to be clear, explicit and complete, but you don’t want to bore your reader (or not very much anyway–not more than is necessary). So don’t belabor the obvious. Put things in your paper because they’re important in terms of your argument, not because you feel you should explain everything–twice. Be as concise as you can, while still being clear, explicit and complete.

So, it is important to be clear and complete, but on the other hand, it is important not to be boring or obvious. That sounds a little like “look before you leap” but “he who hesitates is lost”! And yet these points are not as contradictory as they may seem. It’s a question of balance, which, in writing term papers, as in learning to ride a bicycle (and practically everything else), is only learned through practice–by doing it until you don’t fall down. Too much explanation and qualification of your argument can distract the reader from the essential points you are trying to make. Too little explanation and elaboration makes a paper vague; the reader doesn’t have enough information to judge the essential points of your argument, or see how they are connected–or even, sometimes, see what they are.

When in doubt, it is better to bore than to be vague. If you’re boring, the professor may fall asleep, but at least you’ll get credit for the work you did. If you are vague, on the other hand, you leave the reader with no way of knowing what you meant. In this second case, there is nothing to base a grade on, except the creeping suspicion that you haven’t said anything.

Vagueness is generally pretty boring anyway. It is better to work on being both clear and interesting; with practice and commitment, it is possible to be both.

Magical and Reasonable Rule Number 5: The paper should reflect the theme of the course.

You should be sensitive to the point of view the professor is trying to present and to the scope of the course. A good paper should reflect the theme of the course in some way, even if you do not agree with the professor’s approach.5 Consult your TA or professor before you invest a lot of time and energy investigating a topic that might not be appropriate.

For example, when you are writing for a class that focuses on some aspect of cultural symbolism, and you find yourself discussing astrology, King Tut, and holistic hang gliding, then you’re stretching the boundaries of the course. You will probably find that you are stretching the boundaries of your GPA too.

More realistically, if your professor has been talking for weeks about political conflict, then a paper in which you marvel at the harmony and smooth integration of culture–and by implication deny the reality or significance of conflict–will probably raise some eyebrows, but not your grade. But a paper about the problems of political leadership in Arab villages in territory occupied by Israel, or about lineage feuding in classical China, would more appropriately reflect the theme of the course

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