A Guide For Writing Research Papers, Essays, and Theses
Communication, Culture & Technology Program
The Proven Method for Writing Interpretive, Analytical, and Argumentative Papers
About this Guide
Each written genre in our culture has specific formal conventions that need to be followed so that readers understand the form of writing being used. This guide presents the top-level structures that must be completed for you to succeed in presenting any professional genre of writing based on argument and information. These rules and conventions hold true whether you are writing a short researched essay (5-10 pages), a seminar paper (~ 25 pages), a thesis or dissertation, a journal article, or whole book.
The only point of writing is to convey an intended effect on our readers or audience, and thus minimizing unintended effects. The time-tested way to do this is knowing the rules of the genre you are using, which are generally shared by your readers who begin reading your essay, article, or paper. You have to meet the expectations of the genre so that your ideas can come through convincingly and persuasively.
The first unintended effect that you want to minimize is a reader thinking that you don't know what you are doing, or that you are incompetent in the form of writing that your essay or article is intended to be received as participating in.
The effect of scholarly, researched, and professional writing depends on the credibility and authority of the person writing. We communicate this credibility and authority at first mainly by following the protocols of the form of writing that will be received by others. This is especially true if you are just beginning in a field, and no one knows who you are, or someone is reading something by you for the first time.
After following the structure and format of the essay or article form, we also must follow the essential protocol for showing how we are entering an intellectual or professional discussion already established and in progress. That is, we must show how we are engaging in a dialogue on a topic or problem in a research community or community of practice, and how we want to make a contribution to this dialogue. Following these protocols of the form enhances the perception of your competence and credibility by showing that you know what you are doing.
The way you use the conventions and protocols of the researched essay itself has rhetorical power. Rhetorical theory shows us the two sides of the communication act: from the point of view of writers themselves, it provides a model to be filled in and a set of discovery techniques (heuristics) for organizing the writing and finding what needs to be said. It gives you the tools to establish your credibility and authority and to speak persuasively about your topic. For readers in your intellectual or professional community, the structure provides the cues and underlying form for stating your ideas and engaging in the community's work.
It's also important to read good examples of the form you are writing. Find articles in journals or professional magazines that in your discipline of writing and use them as models.
Genres that Don't Follow This Structure
The Top-level View of the Structure
Introduce and position your main point(s).
Show how your work participates in an ongoing dialogue or debate about the topic:
Position your argument, research, and analysis in the context of the field.
Use well-documented examples, cases, evidence in the main body of the paper.
Make a conclusion that shows the significance of your work and answers the "so what?" question.
A Top-Level Mental Map
As you develop your writing project, map out in your mind the following structure. At the core, it's a logical and rhetorical beginning, middle, and end.
1. The Introduction
Here's where you set up your main point and state why it is important in the context of the discipline and research question you are treating. The introductory paragraphs must contain an assertion, your point about something, not a description of facts. (See below on developing your thesis).
In some fields, the main point or thesis is expected to be explicitly presented as a hypothesis to be tested and evaluated with interpretation of research data, or a motivating research question that includes a brief summary of approaches and methods.
Whatever the specific presentation method, the introduction must state your main point and how you will support it.
2. Entering the dialogue on the topic: the state of the question or literature review
You are making a case for your approach and/or significance new information, research, and/or data in the context of an intellectual discussion already in progress. What is this context? Depending on the type of paper or project you are writing, this section is known as the "state of the question"or "literature review." Showing where your approach is positioned in the context of work already done is essential to establishing your credibility as a writer on your topic. Document with footnotes or works cited what the relevant context is, including factual and interpretive or theoretical contexts. A formal "literature review" section should cover relevant prior research, data, or arguments and can be mapped out with appropriate headings in your paper. Whether your writing project calls for a shorter "state of the question" (with references) or a formal "literature review" section, the rhetorical function is the same. Here you plant your stake and show that your work takes a position in the context of prior and contemporary work. You are now contributing to a dialogue.
3. The main section of your argument
The main body of your paper or article is built around the data, information, examples, or works you are interpreting. Each paragraph supports the main point and supporting claims made in your introduction. Some papers work best by building your analysis around case studies, examples, and/or explicit references to the material you are interpreting. Document all sources in footnotes and/or a Works Cited or Works Consulted bibliography at the end.
This is often the section neglected or thrown away by many--especially novice--writers. A conclusion is an essential part of the logical and rhetorical structure of your writing. Here you answer the all-important "so what" question. You can expand on your main point, show how your approach contributes to the ongoing intellectual dialogue on your topic, and/or show how it leads to further thought, questions, and additional needed research. (See below on the conclusion).
Rhetoric is a learned technique for making an intended effect on an audience or reader
Building credibility and authority Rhetorical Principles Still Hold for Cross-Media and Digital Information Sources
Rhetoric is a learned technique for making an intended effect on an audience or reader. Writers, of course, want to maximize intended effects and minimize unintended ones. The way to do this is to use structures and procedures for organizing ideas shared with your audience or community of readers. This is the heart and soul of the art of rhetoric.
Semiotics shows us that the meaning and social significance of expressions circulate beyond a writer's or producer's intentions, and that meaning or value is ultimately determined by an audience’s reception of a discourse as it resonates in a larger context of messages, genres, styles, and prior discourses. Writers work by inhabiting this collective social space and using shared expectations about language, discourse, and genres of writing. This is why learning the structure and rules of the genre are essential to making a positive impression on your readers.
In an essay, research paper, or thesis, a major effect we want to convey is our authority and credibility for the community of readers we participate in. We do this partly by following the form, and also by our supporting research, references, documentation, bibliography. If you show you've done your homework, you begin from a position of credibility and confidence: you show you are entering into a conversation and debate with others who know the field.
Today we write with cross-media and digital sources that need to be cited and documented. The more information sources you can document, the greater your credibility in entering the discussion or debate surrounding your topic.
Use the Shared Expectations for the Form of Writing You are Doing
Write to be read by using the structure understood by your readers
Meet the expectations of your readers for this genre of writing
Develop your own authoritative voice
Some of the rules for the "essay/thesis" genre of writing are part of our cultural expectations for any kind of discourse or communicative act: a coherent discourse has a beginning (intro, setting up the idea), middle (the argument itself with examples, support of claims, support of prior research, and/or close analysis of material) , and an end (a conclusion that ties up the argument and/or suggests broader implications or wider significance of the middle.)
So, to be a good writer of a researched or interpretive paper, or any other genre, you need to keep these rules foremost in mind:
Write to be read, not to "express yourself" or "get
your ideas out."
Meet your reader's/audience's expectations for the genre you are
Develop your "voice" as reliable and authoritative.
Finding your main point, your thesis, your argumentative edge
Use heuristic tools (discovery techniques) for writing
A discovery technique for a way to state your main point.
The Process of Writing:
Writing Comes from Reading, then Beginning with Trial Ideas of Your
2. Finding what drives your argument: your thesis (main point)
The goal of interpretive, analytical, and argumentative writing is explanation, interpretation, and/or evaluation. To accomplish this logically and rhetorically, you need a thought engine, a motivating idea, a major point--in short, what is known as a thesis. After getting down some notes and ideas from reading over the materials you will write about, you may find that your earlier hunch or idea works and you can develop it into the driving point of your writing. The thesis in the introductory paragraphs (no more than 2 or 3) is what a reader encounters first, but it may only be clarified for you as the writer after a lot of reworking and rewriting. Develop your main point and begin thinking about ways to talk about it, explain it, support it, argue for or against it (using evidence from your notes). Experiment with a trial thesis: a statement of the main idea or point of your essay. A thesis is an assertion: try to set forth, in one clear statement, what you want to say. Your thesis should reflect what drives your whole project.
Again, you may be expected to frame this main point as a research hypothesis to be evaluated through your interpretable findings, information, or data. In any presentation format, you must have a main point that drives the whole argument.
3. The Rhetorical and Logical Necessity of the Thesis
How the thesis works for you, the writer: the thesis clarifies and focuses what is to be said (it helps the writer discover what can be said about the subject). How the thesis works for your reader(s): the thesis signals what the paper or article is about, what point the writer will try to make. A general rule to memorize: I don't have an essay/paper/article/book until I have a thesis. Your thesis may only emerge after doing some extended writing and note taking on the subject you want to discuss. For this reason, you should plan to write your introductory paragraph last or after doing a rough draft. The introduction is vital for the success of your essay; revise it several times. The important thing is to remember that you need to develop a thesis or main point, and this can happen by working out several trial theses as you look over the notes you take down as you begin writing.
Try using this aid to focus your ideas for a thesis: "The purpose of this [paper | project] is to [choose a verb: point out, show, explain, demonstrate] that ______________________." Fill in the blank: what you put there will be a thesis. When you have a clear statement in the blank place-holder, you can cut away the introductory phrase if you wish and just go with your clear assertion.
The thesis must be in the form of a declarative statement, not a description of the way things are (which anyone could do).
How to Develop your Opening Paragraph(s)
Your Introduction Appears First to a Reader,
but write and revise it Last when you have a clear idea of your main point.
STEP TWO: THE WRITING
1.The Opening Paragraph and The Introduction (Write this Last)
In your Introduction, lead in to your specific subject. You can't talk about everything under the sun that's relevant. After an introductory sentence or two, get right to the point: no BS, no padding. Your main point or thesis should be stated last in your introductory paragraph. Remember: a thesis is a statement about something. It can be a claim, an assertion, an idea you want to demonstrate, an interpretation or point of view you can back up with examples and evidence. It tells your readers where the essay is going, what it is about. You must meet this reader's expectation in the intro: if you don't, your discourse will fail as an instance of its genre, and you will not have the effect you intend to have on your readers.
How to Develop the Main Section of your Argument
Using Your Sources: Importance of Documentation and Interpreting Source Validity
Build your authoritative voice around the way you handle sources and references.
2. Middle Paragraphs, Main Body (Explanation, Interpretation, Evidence, Examples)
This is the main body of the essay, where the work of the essay is done. In the main section of your paper you show that your main point or thesis is valid and can be documented with specific evidence from other sources. Establish your authority and credibility by showing that you know the issues and the background from the relevant literature or sources of information on your topic. Use references to recognized, authoritative sources, whether from print sources, film or video, or the Web. Document the sources to enhance your credibility. Write paragraphs that center around specific details you want to talk about, using examples and evidence.
Learn to use and manage accepted hierarchies of information authority. Show your own care and judgment when documenting sources from the Web. Interpret the validity and authority of the source, and provide a context for its value. A blog comment, a professional journal article, a news article from The New York Times, a recognized Web journal, and data from a professionally accepted database are all different kinds and levels of information. Your job is to evaluate and interpret all relevant sources and use them to support your own authority.
Finally: Avoid unsupported generalizations like a virus! Don't write in generalities: make specific points and find good supporting evidence or examples to quote or cite.
Answer the "so what?" question
In case you haven't noticed already, your thesis has been the conclusion all along--the main point you can show is true or worth considering based on sources or evidence that you interpret for your readers.
mindlessly repeat what you've said in your Intro or anywhere else.
Show what logically follows from the Middle part of your essay.
The Middle should show that your main point or thesis is valid,
and in the Conclusion you draw a conclusion from the Middle. Your
thesis is your conclusion, so here's where you bring it home.
Document your sources in the bibliography or references format of your field
Document your sources in a Works Cited or Works Consulted bibliography at the end of your paper.
Each discipline has a standard format for this section of the paper. Use one and be consistent.
I strongly recommend using Zotero for managing your references and formatting notes and bibliography. I couldn't write without it!
For Bibliography and Reference Guides: