Literary and Cultural Studies:Writing academic texts

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The process of writing research papers can be divided in three phases:

Phase 1: Research – Finding Your Topic

  • Start from an observation or a question that you found remarkable in some manner. (Try to grasp what it is that strikes you about this phenomenon.)
  • Check the state of research: Has this been asked or observed before (long ago, only recently)? Do critics agree or are there controversies? For this purpose, you need to use bibliographic tools (such as the MLA bibliography), and to read and excerpt the materials that make reference to your topic.
  • Return to the primary material you plan to analyse, picking out passages and aspects that are particularly relevant to your topic.

Phase 2: Structure – Planning Your Paper and Formulating your Thesis

Once you have looked at the state of research and examined your materials, review the results: How do the various results of your research fit together? Are they sufficient to account for your initial question in a satisfactory way? If so, good. If not, even better. In either case, you can now go about presenting your evidence and your evaluation of it to an academic audience.

  • Define your goal (i.e. formulate your thesis): Make up your mind about what precisely you want to demonstrate concerning the topic you have chosen. Try to state this as completely, precisely and concisely as possible. (This usually takes several attempts, and is done parallel to the two following steps.)
  • Choose a structure that leads to your goal: Arrange the results of your research (both primary and secondary materials) in such a way that all the relevant materials, information and arguments are presented in such an order that they lead to the goal that you have set yourself. In order to reach a particular result, it is usually necessary to take several steps of analysis and reflection.
  • Make the structure of your argument explicit: The structure of your outline (i.e. the headings in the table of contents) should match the line of argument you have chosen, and should provide the reader with a ‘map’ of the steps of analysis and reflection that he or she is invited to take.

Phase 3: Writing and Revising your Paper

Once you have arranged the results of your research in such a way that they lead towards demonstrating the proposition you have formulated, you are ready to start writing. Term papers usually are written in this order:

  • The introduction: state what you are going to examine and what you are hoping to show, how you are going to proceed (between which alternative methods did you choose) and give reasons for both (why is the topic relevant to an academic debate? why do you choose to treat the topic in the way you have chosen?).

NOTE: In your response to the questions what?, how? and why? take into account the current state of research (which you have established in phase 1 and 2). If an extensive report on research should be necessary, you may give this an extra chapter heading after the introduction.

  • The chapters that make up your main part (i.e. the headings in the table of contents) should match the line of argument you have chosen, and should provide the reader with a ‘map’ of the steps of analysis and reflection that he or she is invited to take.
  • The conclusion does not introduce any new analytical steps. You should summarise at a higher level of abstraction, the results of the analytical steps you have taken. Then address the question of what follows from your analysis. What questions remain unsolved? What new questions have become visible in the course of your analysis? What direction could the debate take at this juncture?
  • Revision. Having written a first draft of your text, check your text and your argument for cohesion, and especially revise the introduction, if necessary.

Final Steps

Settle for a Title

If you have not decided on your title before, this is the time to do it. Titles usually consist of two parts. The subtitle should indicate the material(s) and topic(s) dealt with. The main title should indicate the special perspective you wish to establish on the material(s) and topic(s) (one example from the bibliography above: main title: The Unwritten War, subtitle: American Writers and the Civil War).

Check for Formal Correctness

Reread for typing errors, spelling, grammar and syntax, incomplete sentences, style, formatting specifications. Make sure the chapter headings in the table of contents and the headings used in the paper are the same. Make sure that all the sources you are quoting are listed in the bibliography, and that the bibliography does not contain any entries that are not referred to in the paper. Make sure that you have documented all sources for ideas or statements that you take over from other sources (avoid the appearance of plagiarism).

Further Questions?

Here are some further considerations about aspects of the research, structuring and writing process. If you feel you could do with further guidance, you may try thinking about these points.

Joining a Discussion / Joining a Conversation

Before you start and while you are writing you may find it helpful to think of your paper as a contribution to a conversation or a discussion. Before you make a contribution to a conversation, you will want to be aware of the issues that have been talked about and of the things that have been said before.

  • You will not generally make statements simply ‘because they are true’ (even if they are true). If you refer to something that has been said before, you will tend to indicate somehow that you are aware of this.
  • Neither will you just say once more what someone has just said before you. If you introduce information, you will tend to make clear, why you are mentioning this.
  • In any case, you will generally check that your contribution is relevant to this conversation. You will also make clear what your own position is in the conversation: Is your purpose to agree with previous speakers and support what they have said? Is it to contradict them? Is it to add a different angle or to start a new topic?

There are differences, of course: In everyday conversations you will check the relevance of your contribution more or less intuitively. In written academic work, this process must be made explicit as part of your contribution, and it usually takes a good deal longer. As you are doing your research and finding your topic, structuring your ideas and your argument, and finally writing and revising your paper, it may help you to bear this in mind.

Providing a Map and Putting up Signposts

As you are writing, make sure you signpost your paper: Where will you be taking the reader, by what means and by what route are you going to do this, and why should a reader want to go there with you? Make sure that you have addressed these questions in your introduction. Give your readers a map, and set up signposts at appropriate places (e.g. at the beginning and / or end of chapters) in order to prevent them from getting lost, and make sure that at the end they know where you have taken them and why they should want to be there.

Relating to the Work of other Critics and Scholars

  • If other scholars have already dealt with this topic, ask: Do they agree with each other? Is there a current controversy? Were there controversies in the past? What were the points that were debated, what arguments were used (what kind of references were made to the primary materials you have analysed)? Was there a shift in opinion?
  • If few or no other scholars have dealt with this topic (made this observation, raised this question): why have they overlooked it? Is it simply too obvious, too easy to answer? Have they focused on something else instead (on what, and why)? What has prevented them from making this observation (or raising this question)? What would be gained by raising this question? Were they right or wrong to ignore this question (Perhaps it is too obvious or trivial? Perhaps they were prevented from perceiving its relevance by some kind of unjustified bias?)

Defining Your Own Position

Your line of argument will depend on where you stand in relation to this state of research. Is your goal to compare and evaluate critically the (different) existing research positions and measure them by the degree of insight and relevance they have for the question that you have chosen? Is your goal to add new perspective to the research?

Once you have looked at the state of research and the primary material as it relates to the topic that interests you, you can formulate a proposition that you will seek to substantiate. Here are a few typical lines of argument that may help you decide, which argument should guide your structure:

  • One typical line of argument: Scholars have always agreed that this phenomenon should be described as [x], but I disagree. The reasons [if any] they have given, are the following… The reasons why I disagree are the following.
  • Another typical line of argument: Scholars have never been able to agree about whether we should describe this phenomenon as [a] or as [b]. Those who favour [a] argue that …, those who favour [b] argue that …, a critical evaluation of their arguments shows that … [a is right / b is right / both are partly right and partly wrong / both are wrong and c is right]…
  • A third typical line of argument: Scholars have never noticed [a]. They have been talking about [b] and [c], however. In my judgment, the following reason(s) may be responsible for the fact that they have done so. I will now try to show why they were right [wrong] to ignore [a], for the following reasons…