Constructing an Argument
When asked to give advice about writing political science papers, Professor Ellen Andersen explained that most papers written for political sciences classes are arguments. “However,” she said, “do not write a persuasive essay about your opinion on the subject. Instead, take evidence and use it to support an academic argument. Use this academic argument to show your learning. Do not decide on an argument you want to make and then make it, regardless of what the evidence says. Be sure to engage with the other side of the debate honestly. Rather than dismissing it, think about it. That is how real growth happens.” For most assignments, you can follow a very basic format for an academic argument. Begin the process by finding trustworthy information. Then explore your material and orgranize your thoughts in a manner that works best for you. You can then start to construct your thesis statement.
The basic format of a political science essay
- The Introduction should articulate a clear argument and outline the paper’s structure explicitly. It can be a couple of sentences or a couple of paragraphs, or even a couple of pages for a really long paper. Make sure that your thesis responds to all aspects of the assignment.
- To show how your argument builds on previous research on your topic, include a literature review. You can do this as part of your introduction, in a section immediately following your introduction, or within each of your body sections, whichever seems most appropriate for your paper.
- Body Sections
- You can have as many body sections as you need.
- Body sections just mean you’re making a point about one aspect of your topic. They can have just one paragraph or as many as you need to make your point. For example, if you’re talking about the process of a bill becoming a law, you’re going to have subtopics within those over-arching sections, like what happens in the House, what happens in the Senate, and then what happens when they both finally agree on a version of the bill-and that's okay. Just be aware of staying on-topic and transitioning smoothly from one to the next.
- How to set up your body paragraphs
- Small thesis: what is this paragraph about? It should be your starter sentence, and also tie neatly into the last sentence (flow is important)!
- Evidence and analysis. The important thing to remember here is that you're not going “Quote 1,” “Quote 2,” “Quote 3,” and then analysis of quote 2, analysis of quote 3. You should be giving your evidence and analyzing it as you go; tell us what it means that the House is mad about an amendment the Senate added to a bill before you assault us with a quote about how the President feels.
- Summarizing/transition sentence. Finish up what you're saying, and then in the same sentence or another sentence, explain the train of thought that leads to your next point/paragraph.
- Your conclusion should tie back to your thesis, but do not just restate your thesis.
- Before writing your conclusion, take this opportunity to review your essay. Does your essay follow your thesis statement? Have you created an argument and provided evidence that supports this thesis? If yes, then go on to write your conclusion. If no, consider changing your thesis (and revising as appropriate).
- Be careful that the restatement of the thesis doesn't seem like you're copying and pasting your thesis statement from the introduction. Your conclusion needs to be the summation of your entire essay; it’s your chance to state your point strongly and tie up any loose ends.
- Do not introduce new figures or statistics or evidence to prove your point. You should be done with introducing information. Now you're telling us what it means, why it's significant on a broader scale or in a bigger picture, and why we should care.
- Your conclusion should tie back to your thesis, but do not just restate your thesis.
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Outlining, Grouping, Mind mapping, Free writing… Organize your thoughts!
Conceptual and factual knowledge is essential in a political science paper–interesting metaphors, grand generalizations, and a lot of “BS” will not lead to a smart paper (and will be quickly recognized by your professor). The key is to develop a solid argument with supportive evidence. It is also essential that you understand your argument in order to convincingly and eloquently present it to the reader–if you're not sure, the reader won’t be either!
There are many different ways to go about organizing a paper. To perfect that crucial organization element, consider using one of the four common approaches illustrated below. Each example is for an essay exploring connections between political power and power over the media.
- Make an outline! Outlines can tell you how organized your paper is, where there are holes in your argument that require more research, or where information may need to be cut.
See Detailed Outline.
- If you don't like the strict formatting of an outline, try organizing your thoughts through bulleted lists.
See Bulleted List
- If you like diagrams, consider drawing a mind map or web that shows the connections between your ideas.
See Mind Map/Web
- If you're more of a puzzler, try writing your information on separate note cards and then rearranging them to physically build a picture of your argument. This can also be done electronically by typing up all of your information and then rearranging it on a computer.
See Notecard Puzzle
- If you don't yet know what sections to break your paper into, try starting with a free write that focuses on the prompt. You can see what ideas you have and start to find some connections between them.
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Write a Thesis Statement!
A thesis is…
- …an arguable statement that will serve as a condensed version of the argument that you make in the paper.
- …not a factual statement about your topic.
- …your opportunity to make an assertive claim that you will then back up using your collected evidence in your body paragraphs. In essence, it will provide a “roadmap” for the rest of the paper.
- …not necessarily just one sentence.
How do I construct my thesis statement?
- After having organized all of the information that you consider pertinent to the prompt, you will have likely noticed some form of argument that all your information is building to. Investigate this further and determine if there is some sort of claim that your evidence naturally points to.
- If you did not see a natural argument emerging, dig further, rearrange your information to see if something else emerges, or consider doing more research that would provide you with more information on the topic.
- Pull out the key ideas from the argument that you begin to see forming and write down what you think you could argue. Remember that a thesis can be rewritten many, many times and what you write down first is in no way set in stone. In fact, you should spend some time rewriting and reevaluating your thesis in order to see if the claim you are making is really what you want to say.
- You may feel more comfortable writing out your claims and information first and then seeing where the essay takes you. In this case, it may work better for you to come up with a simple thesis first, without tinkering heavily with the meaning or the wording. However, it is important to return to your preliminary thesis after having written the entire paper in order to refine it and ensure its essence is still true to the paper.
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Finding Trustworthy Information
Evidence and information combine to form the backbone of a Political Science essay, as these crucial pieces support your thesis and all of the claims you make therein. When your paper uses accurate and carefully selected facts, your argument becomes harder to debunk and proves to your professor that you understand the material as well as the research process. Sadly, certain people stand to gain from pushing false information on the generally uninformed and careless public. The following suggestions should help you find objective and truthful evidence in your research process.
- Start looking for information early - when you have an idea of your topic
- Looking for evidence at the last minute can lead to decreased standards and pulling questionable facts from untrustworthy sources
- Use the librarys available resources - particularly the online databases - rather than Google
- These databases contain vast amounts of published information, usually written by experts in the field
- Be on the lookout for signs of deceit in a source, such as
- Making things sound scarier or worse than they actually are
- Presenting ideas/data that seem too good to be true
- Results that have not been replicated, or seem like standalone occurrences
- The group that publishes/conducts a study benefiting greatly from the results (potential bias/impartiality)
- For example, if the NRA funded a study showing how gun ownership is tied to economic prosperity, they would gain members and donations thus, we should make sure theyre being impartial in their research methods
- Analyze evidence skeptically, but not cynically
- Look thoroughly at evidence from research sources and only use that piece of information if everything seems to check out and doesnt leave you feeling unsure - implement a healthy skepticism while looking at facts
- Avoid becoming a cynic who rejects every piece of information without considering it
- This makes you just as gullible as someone who accepts everything they read, as people can play upon your inclination to reject facts to spin your understanding of issues in their favor
- The key distinction is that a skeptic will realize a piece of information is trustworthy, while a cynic will never believe anything, regardless of its veracity
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Below is an essay that I wrote for my undergraduate class last semester, providing them with my (doubtless idiosyncratic) ideas about how to write good political science essays. It’s also available under a CC license in PDF format, as well as MultiMarkdown (its native format), LaTeX and RTF in case someone wants to play around with it. Feel free to suggest improvements, point out grammatical errors or typos etc in comments, or indeed to comment generally on good and lousy writing in undergraduate papers.
UPDATE: Some small improvements made
Good Writing in Political Science: An Undergraduate Student’s Short Illustrated Primer1
By Henry Farrell
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 United States License.
Leo Tolstoy famously observed that “happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” 2 Tolstoy, happily for all of us, was not a teaching political scientist. Had he been, he might have observed that undergraduate political science papers are subject to a different logic. Really good papers are unique – each has its own particular thesis, style of argumentation, body of empirical evidence and set of conclusions. Really bad papers, in contrast, tend toward a dismal uniformity. They draw on the same evidence (garbled versions of what the professor has presented in class), are organized according to similar principles of incoherence, and all wend their eventual ways towards banal conclusions that strenuously avoid making any claims or positive arguments whatsoever.
This short set of guidelines cannot make you into a really good essayist. For that you need time, practice, and native genius. What it can do, however, is help you avoid some of the most common pitfalls of undergraduate essay writers. You can surely avoid being a very bad essayist, and you can very likely become a better essayist than you are already. What follows is a short set of suggestions, accompanied, where available, with cautionary examples drawn from online essay mills.
Read the Requirements for the Assignment
This suggestion may be taken as insulting because it is so obvious; still, it is commonly ignored in practice. The professor usually drops some very strong hints about what she is looking for when she assigns a piece of writing. It is best to pay attention to those hints. For example, if you are asked to write a term paper on a problem of international cooperation, you should ensure that your term paper explicitly focuses on a topic that (a) involves cooperation, (b) has, at the least, some international aspect, and© is potentially problematic.
Sometimes, assignments are ambiguous. Professors too may err. The assignment may be inexactly worded or involve contradictory requirements. In these cases it is obviously best to ask the professor what she is looking for (it is often better to ask via email, to ensure that you have a written explanation of what the professor wants that you can refer to later). Where this is not possible (e.g. if you are trying to write an exam answer), you may want to be quite clear in saying how you are interpreting the question. For example, you might want to start by saying “In this answer, I interpret the phrase ‘international cooperation’ to mean …” If your interpretation is a reasonable one, this places the onus on the professor to either read the essay according to your interpretation or to justify (at least to herself) why not.
Avoid Data Dumps
Poor essays very often ignore the question asked in a quite specific way. The student spots some topic in the assignment that seems familiar, and immediately sets about writing an essay which tells the professor everything they know about that topic, in no particular order. For obvious reasons, such essays rarely receive high grades. Universities encourage (or, at least, they should encourage) students in the social sciences and liberal humanities to criticize, to analyze, and, ideally, to think. Mere demonstration that one possesses a disorganized body of knowledge on a topic, and is prepared to inflict this jumble upon the professor in printed or (worse) handwritten form, suggests that this encouragement has fallen on untilled ground.
Cut to the Chase
Undergraduate essays frequently begin with an extended session of throat-clearing irrelevances and vague generalities. They talk about everything except the question that has been asked. Take this example (drawn from a free term paper).
The onset of computers on the general population has given a boost to the Economy in the world’s market. People who weren’t much aware of the world became drawn to computers, which in turn brought about the Internet, connecting the world all over. The Internet has played a major role in the lives of people all over the world. Now, it is not limited to just important organizations or governments. Everyone who owns a computer is logged on to the Internet; and this has made the world seem smaller. No one has to wait for the postman to deliver the mail, but instead one can just connect to the Internet and right away, you got mail.
This, like many other essays that I have corrected on the political consequences of the Internet (I sometimes teach a course on this topic) begins with a paragraph that has nothing whatsoever to say about the politics of the Internet. Instead, the paper’s author sees the word ‘Internet’ and grabs desperately for banalities that he associates with this word.
Alternatively, students sometimes state and re-state the question in a manner intended to suggest that they understand it, without ever providing anything so provocative as an actual answer.
Should the internet be censored ? The internet is a wonderful place for entertainment and education, but, like all places used by millions of people, it has some pecularities that lead to a lot of talking and arguing over, should the internet be censored? Most of people who use the internet are furious about the censorship on the internet. The issue of whether is it necessary to censor the internet is being argued all over the world.
This essay starts off well. It sets out a short, pithy question that the reader might hope will be answered in the paper. But then it goes horribly, horribly wrong. The second sentence restates the first, garnished with a couple of irrelevant commonplaces. The third sentence suggests that there is controversy surrounding the topic of Internet censorship (a safe guess, given that the writer has been asked to write a paper about this controversy). The fourth sentence repeats the third. And so on. The writer evidently knows little or nothing about the essay topic, and is trying to conceal that fact. Unfortunately, he or she is failing.
These are the beginning sections of very bad essays. Most undergraduate essays are not nearly as bad as that. Still, many essays do begin with weak and meandering introductions that do not address the topic of their paper. This is a shame. It is important that you get the introduction right. This is your best opportunity to grab the reader’s attention and to persuade her that you have something interesting to say. Don’t waste it.
By the time the reader has finished reading the first two sentences, she should know which question the essay addresses. By the time the reader has finished reading the first five or six, she should have a pretty good idea of how the author is going to tackle the question. The following provides one example of a punchy beginning (nb: this is not taken from an essay mill):
Should the Internet be censored? While many Americans would say no, there is in fact a very good case for limited Internet censorship. Pedophiles can use the Internet to find each other and to swap child pornography. Terrorists can use the Internet to propagandize for their beliefs, and to recruit for their causes. Neo-Nazis and others can spread disinformation to the gullible, and persuade them that the Holocaust never occurred. In this essay, I argue that some kinds of Internet speech (child pornography, terrorist recruitment and hate speech) should be banned. I acknowledge that this may hurt legitimate forms of free speech if they become confused with the harmful kinds, but show that the beneficial consequences of banning bad speech outweigh the harmful consequences of accidentally banning (some) good speech.
This is, in my opinion, a good opening paragraph (since I wrote it myself as an illustration, it is perhaps unsurprising that I like it). It immediately states the question that the essay will try to answer. Shortly afterwards, it provides the reader with the proposed answer, and briefly describes the kind of evidence that it will use to support this answer. The introduction also acknowledges that there is a strong opposing case (that banning ‘harmful’ speech will hurt other kinds of speech), and promises that it will try to answer that case. The essay will not necessarily convince its readers (it takes a quite controversial stand), but it does signal to the reader that it has a clear question, a clear answer to that question, and a willingness to address the best arguments against the case it is making. That is all that any professor may reasonably ask for; not that she agree with the writer’s argument and conclusions, but that she recognizes them as well written, well structured, and well supported by the evidence.
Organize, Organize, Organize
Many student papers are badly organized. They wander from point to point. They tack an introduction and conclusion onto a main body that does not have any internal system of order. Or they do not have a distinguishable introduction, body, and conclusion at all.
Some excellent essayists can get away with apparently disorganized writing. It is usually a very bad idea to try to emulate them. Very often, apparently disorganized work is in fact highly organized. The author has merely kicked away the essay’s supports and scaffolding (e.g. an explicit introductory section and so on) as soon as it was strong enough to stand on its own. Sometimes, apparent disorganization is instead the product of a highly subtle mind, or of an elliptical writing style that approaches its topics indirectly rather than directly. Unless you are very confident indeed (and have evidence in the form of past work, print publications etc to justify this confidence) I strongly recommend that you avoid overly clever and non-linear approaches to writing. They require a lot of practice (usually at the more traditional sorts of writing) before they can be carried off well, and when they are carried off badly, they are very bad indeed. Genius may do as it will; mere intelligence and talent should be appropriately modest in their ambitions.
Thus, the need for structure. You should structure your essay at three levels.
This is the broad structure of the essay itself. Unless you feel very comfortable that you are an excellent writer, it is usually best to stick to the traditional frame of an introductory section, a main body, and a conclusion. The introduction tells the reader what you are going to say. The main body tells the reader what you are saying. The conclusions tell the reader what she has just read (perhaps adding some thoughts as to its broader implications if you are feeling adventurous).
This not only helps the reader understand your argument, but disciplines your thought and prose. It forces you to begin your essay with a clear, concise account of your major claims. When you write the main section of the essay (or re-write it, as needs be) the introduction will provide you with a roadmap of what you need to do. Your conclusions, in contrast, should draw the threads together, showing how the facts and arguments you have laid out in the main body actually speak to the broad themes discussed in the introduction, and drawing the threads of your narrative together into a proper whole. Of course, for this to work it is necessary that the main body of your essay actually speak to the arguments laid out in your introduction, that your conclusions relate to the main body, and so on.
This is perhaps the most commonly neglected element of structured writing. It concerns the paragraphs into which your prose is organized. Each paragraph should focus on one main point. The point of each paragraph should build on that in the previous paragraph, and create the foundations of the next. Each paragraph should be a necessary part of the overall structure of your essay.
I find that a useful mental exercise is to boil down the arguments of each paragraph, one after the other, into single sentences. Then, put all these sentences together into a consecutive narrative, looking to see whether each sentence can be made to flow naturally from the sentence previous to it, and into the sentence following. This will highlight any major structural problems. If you are not able to boil down each of the paragraphs into a single sentence summary (however simplistic), then the offending paragraphs most likely need to be rewritten more clearly. If there are gaps or non-sequiturs when you put the one sentence summaries together, then the meso-structure of your essay needs to be re-organized, by cutting and pasting paragraphs, or by introducing new paragraphs to fill the gaps, or deleting old paragraphs that detract from the flow of your argument.
What is true of the paragraph is also true of the sentence. Each individual sentence should flow in a logical and obvious way from the sentence before, and into the sentence after. Consider the following paragraph, taken from a term paper on global warming which is available for free online.
Weather these days has become very unpredictable. The increase in the world’s temperatures, believed to be caused in part by the greenhouse effect which is known as global warming has and will have a serious effect on the future. Global warming creates massive concerns for the entire earth. If the heat continues to increase several species may struggle to survive. There are numerous political, environmental, economic, and social issues when it comes to global warming. Global warming is an inevitable issue and by no stretch of the imagination can be slowed down easily. There is an inconceivable amount of causes that connect to global warming.
This is quite wretched writing. The first sentence is a vague generality that does not mean very much. The second sentence does not flow in any obvious way from the first. What does the greenhouse effect have to do with unpredictable weather? No explanation is provided for the reader. The third sentence merely repeats the argument of the second, with greater rhetorical alarm. The fourth does a little better, but loses force because it is so badly written (the claim that ‘several species’ may struggle to survive suggests that only five or six species are in danger, which sits awkwardly with the previous sentence’s suggestion that global warming causes “massive concerns” for the entire earth). The fifth sentence seems to build a new set of claims, and should be at the beginning of a new paragraph. However, it never goes anywhere. Instead, the sixth sentence warns that global warming is “an inevitable issue” (whatever that means), while the seventh sentence wrings its hands in despair over yet another new claim – that there is an “inconceivable amount” (sic) of causes “that connect” to global warming. These sentences are not only bad in themselves – they are not connected in any logical or orderly way. The result is that they do not add up to a coherent argument.
Exercises in Style
Political science is not a discipline notable for lovely prose. The best historians often write beautifully; the best political scientists rarely do. Good political science writing does not require striking metaphors or clever verbal constructions (while these are not precisely discouraged, they are not commonly regarded as necessary). Instead, it requires simple, direct writing, which communicates its arguments and evidence as clearly and unambiguously as possible.
The implications for prose style are straightforward.
First, use direct language when at all possible. This not only reads better; it communicates clearly who is responsible for what. For example, the sentence
The Iranian government censors newspapers and political websites.
not only reads much better than
Newspapers and political websites are subject to a censorship regime in Iran.
but it conveys more information in fewer words. It tells the reader who is responsible for censoring information (the government). The alternative version provides less information (the reader may guess that the government is responsible for censorship, but she cannot be sure). It also sounds cumbersome and laborious. Students sometimes use indirect constructions or the passive voice rather than direct language and active verbs because they think this will make their writing more sophisticated and ‘academic.’ They are wrong. Even worse, they sometimes prefer indirect language because they believe that it allows them get away with knowing less, by fudging their argument so that it can be interpreted in more than one way. Neither are good reasons. Indirect language often sounds weak, uncertain, and bureaucratic, and experienced readers will recognize when it is being used to bamboozle them. Sometimes, passive and indirect writing is appropriate, but it should be used with caution. It is usually better for students to err
Second, prefer simple words to complex words, and plain language to jargon. Sometimes it will be impossible to avoid jargon or obscure terms. However, it will usually be possible to use simple terms to convey your meaning. When you can do so, do so. Plain language makes life easier for the reader. It also makes it harder for the writer to get away with nonsense. If you use flowery language, you can sometimes persuade yourself that you understand topics and debates which you really do not. If you use plain language you will be forced to confront your areas of weak understanding and to rectify them.
Third, prefer straightforward sentence structures to complex ones. Again, simple sentences usually read better. Some writers (the historian Edward Gibbon is a fine example) can use complex sentence structure to convey irony and secondary meaning. You – unless you have grown up conversant with a prose tradition like Gibbon’s, in which case you have no need whatsoever to read primers like this – probably cannot. You should typically prefer simple sentences with the bare minimum of sub-clauses needed to convey your argument. Formless and incoherent sentences usually suggest formless and incoherent thought, and indeed they may plausibly cause intellectual incoherence. If you reduce your language down to plain, simple sentences with clear structure then you will again be less likely to hide any lack of understanding from the reader and yourself.
Writing good political science essays is not as hard as it seems. It does not require verbal creativity so much as an ordered and disciplined mind. Most obviously and simply, you should read and understand the essay assignment. You should begin by grabbing the attention of the reader with a clear statement of the question that you wish to answer, and how you wish to answer it. You should ensure that your essay is structured and well organized, so that each part does its part, and fits together well with the other parts. Finally, you should ensure that your prose style does not get in the way of clear thinking and clear exposition. If you adhere to these simple rules, you are not guaranteed to write a good essay. No set of mechanical rules can provide such a guarantee. You will, however, avoid the basic mistakes that have plagued 80% of the bad political science essays that I have read over my nine years of teaching.