Monday, September 16, 2019

How to write academic papers for fun and profit

Back in spring, I chatted briefly with a group of master's students about what I was looking for in their final papers, and how they could go about structuring them (this was in the context of encouraging them to think beyond the length of paper they'd been used to writing -- instead of 3k, 5-6k). It took about 15 minutes and some scribbling on the board, but afterwards one of them thanked me and said no one had ever taught them this before.

Following up on that tweet, I wrote up what I could remember of the advice I'd given.

Then, last week, someone in an FB group for fiction writing that I'm in was struggling with writing a paper for one of her classes, unsure how to get started. This group has 17+k members, and I often end up putting on my "professional academic" hat and giving people advice on picking classes, applying to uni, talking to their profs, etc., and this post was no different. The topic was an argumentative paper on quality management in insurance companies with special regard for business customers -- a topic I know nothing about, but you know what? I know what sort of paper I'd want to read on this subject...and the structure it has turned out to be rather similar to what I'd given the philosophy students for their logic papers!

So I thought I'd compile this advice into a blog post. Note that this isn't the only way to write such papers, but it's a way, and it's a good one, and it's one that not only do I encourage my students and other students to use, but I use myself quite often, too.

Advice from twitter:

  • Your intro should include what your problem/puzzle/issue is; what motivated your choice; and what tools you'll use to solve it.
  • You should say what other people have done that's relevant, and why it's inadequate (if it isn't inadequate, then you don't have a puzzle/problem to solve).
  • You should define all your technical apparatus. This can be done in two ways:
    1. Either you introduce the technical apparatus and the motivating examples/material concurrently, in an interleaved fashion.
    2. Or you present all the technical apparatus, and then apply it to your motivating examples/material.
    It's REALLY HARD to know which route is best. I often end up starting with one method, finding it wholly inadequate, switching to the other, hating it, and then switching back.
  • After you've applied your technical appartus, say something about the consequences. What have you gained from doing this? What have you learned? What are the problems? What still needs to be done?
  • And all of that will segue into your conclusion/recap/future work section. I think that's about it.

Advice from FB:

The first thing you need is what question you're trying to answer, and what your answer is: Everything else gets built around that. I often recommend to my students to work backwards: What do you want your reader to come away with at the end? Set up your entire paper to drive that point home:

  • Motivate the question -- which is this a question worth answering? Why this question rather than another question?
  • Contextualise the question -- what has already been said to answer this question? Why are these previous answers inadequate? How will your answer differ?
  • Motivate the answer -- what will count as a good answer? How will you discriminate good answers from bad answers? (This will, of course, be connected to the previous, in that you want answers that do things that previous answers haven't done).
  • Answer the question.
  • Explain how your answer answers the question and why it is a good answer.
  • Remind your reader what the question and answer were, and conclude.

Aim for 1000 words for the first two, maybe 1500 for the third, 2000 for the fourth, and another ~2.5k for the fifth and sixth -- that's 7000 words and should be about 20 pages.

There you go! Have fun. Oh, wait, you want to know how to make money from all of this? Ahahahahahahah....

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