Six Essentials for Effective Papers
Many students struggle with writing an effective academic paper. Writing for a scholarly audience has its own distinctive style, tone, and demands. Understanding what these are is essential to producing a paper that will meet with the expectations of your professor. I’ve found there are six main areas in which students typically encounter difficulties. Here’s what to do to avoid these pitfalls.
1. Have a clear, succinct, and specific thesis statement. All good essays have a thesis statement that clearly and succinctly summarizes the overarching point of the paper in the introduction. This statement provides the central basis for all else that follows, providing structure and coherence to the analysis. And having an analysis embedded in your thesis is also key. A research essay should be making an argumentative point about something. It should not be a simple narrative of events; rather, it should be seeking to persuade and inform readers about why something happened (or happens) in a particular way. For further assistance in developing your introduction and thesis, see Introductions and Thesis Statements by LEO (Literacy Education Online).
2. Use specific evidence to support your thesis statement. Whatever general proposition you may have about your topic, you will need to provide evidence to support it. Such evidence will often come in the form of quotes, anecdotes, case studies, analogies, or statistics. Indeed, it is usually a good idea to use some combination of the above, so as to vary the types of evidence provided and avoid an over-reliance on one form or another. Too heavy a reliance on case studies and anecdotal stories may leave the reader wondering about how generalizable the argument may be. Conversely, too many general statistics can leave the reader wondering about the specifics of how and why things actually work in practice. Where possible, one good approach can be to offer a few specific examples to support your point, followed by some statistical data to show how “widespread” the phenomena in question may be. In a political science essay, for example, you might offer some quotes from convention delegates saying why they supported a particular candidate, followed by polling results providing evidence that many other delegates felt the same way. Although it’s not always possible to find this combination, it gives you an idea of how specific and general evidence can be combined to create a fuller and more compelling argument.
3. Integrate quotes sparingly and effectively. To have the desired impact, quotes need to be used sparingly and be integrated into your text in an effective way. Too many quotes tend to give the paper a “cut-and-paste” feel, suggesting that the writer merely grabbed bits of other peoples’ work and stung them together rather than taking concepts, knowledge, and ideas from multiple works and integrating them into an original analysis.
– Quotes should also never be simply dropped into a text out of nowhere, with no introduction, context, or discussion. All quotes should be introduced so as to let the reader know “who” is being quoted and to integrate the quote itself into the flow of your text.
– Quotes should also be discussed and analyzed, explaining “what the quote illustrates” or “how it supports the argument” in cases where these things may not be immediately obvious to the reader.
– LEO (Literacy Education Online) provides more assistance in integrating quotes effectively.
Remember too that quotes are not your only source of evidence. You can also use statistics, anecdotes, deductive or inductive reasoning, survey results, or a myriad of other forms of evidence to support your argument. Indeed, employing a good mix of evidence from a good mix of sources is often key to producing a good essay.
4. Remember that Presentation Counts. Proofread and pay attention to details. Avoid creating a bad impression by paying attention to presentation. In practical terms, this means ensuring that you have a title page that includes your name, student number, assignment number, assignment title, course number, and date submitted on it. It also means ensuring that you follow the proper format for your citations and bibliography, and proofread your paper carefully or – better yet – have a friend or family member give it an independent read to help weed out needless errors in spelling, punctuation, and so on (which may come off as “careless errors” to your professor, tired as he or she may be after marking countless other papers).
5. Use quality sources. In most cases, this does not include sites such as Wikipedia. In the academic world, research sources typically includes academic books (published by university presses), scholarly articles (published in peer-reviewed journals), or Web sources published by a governmental department, research organization, or another credible source.
Although Wikipedia can be useful as a starting place for general information, there are two main reasons why you should not cite it as a source:
(1) As a general reference source, it tends to provide only a basic overview of its topics. What you need is a more in-depth knowledge that can only be developed by digging into more detailed sources.
(2) Part of what you want from your references is for them to lend additional credibility to your arguments. Wikipedia will not do so because: (a) it is an unsigned general reference source rather than a targeted commentary produced by a recognized expert in the field who has attached their names, and reputations, to the source; and (b) it does little to suggest to your professor that you have done in-depth research on the topic (beyond a basic Google search).
For further reading on why not to cite Wikipedia, see Williams College Libraries, “Should I Use or Cite Wikipedia?”
6. End strong with a good conclusion that answers the “So What” question. As you get to the end of your paper, you’ll probably begin to get to a point where you just want to finish up as quickly as possible to move on with other work or life in general. Resist this urge. As is often said, the conclusion is your last chance to make a good impression on your professor. Use that opportunity to give them a reason to think well of the time and effort you’ve invested in your topic. A good way of doing this is to be sure and answer the “so what” question. In other words, why is your research important, or why should we care?
Instead of just re-summarizing your thesis, conclude with saying something about the wider significance of your analysis (a larger issue to which your research relates). For example, how might your insights change the way we understand the topic, and what implications might this have for how we approach it today? The approach you take will depend on your subject, but be sure you don’t miss the opportunity to strengthen and deepen the quality of your analysis. For ideas, see How to Write a Compelling Conclusion.
With these principles in mind, you should be well on your way. Producing an effective research paper is hard work, but it can have its own rewards in gaining and in-depth understanding of a particular topic and getting specific and insightful feedback from experts who have dedicated their lives to a given field of study. Happy writing!
Tim Krywulak holds a PhD in History from Carleton University, and has taught history at Carleton University and Royal Military College of Canada.