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THOUGHTS TOWARD WRITING JUST ABOUT ANY ACADEMIC PAPER1


VERSION OF 2015 03 24 ALLAN MEGILL megill@virginia.edu

ABOVE ALL, AN ACADEMIC PAPER REQUIRES A QUESTION. IT SHOULD BE A


GOOD QUESTION. IT SHOULD NORMALLY BE AN ANSWERABLE QUESTION.
une oeuvre, cest une question bien pose. Franois Furet
The question should be appropriate to the field in which you are writing. A good question will
likely be simple. Dont attempt, in the question, to prove how much you already know. Make
sure that you have available to you, or can readily obtain, material that will make it possible for
you to answer the question, or at least move closer to answering it. An academic paper normally
requires evidence and argument in support of the claims the author makes in it. Dont assume
that people will believe you just because you said it.

THE PROCESS OF FINDING A QUESTION


Without being too self-critical or taking too much time, you should sit down (or stand up) and
formulate anywhere from five to ten questions that you have some interest in, and which,
through research, you might be able to clarify, or even answer. Write the questions down.
Eliminate the worst, least feasible questions, until you arrive at anywhere from two to four
questions that you might want to work with. Write the questions down.
Spending a bit more time at this stage of the process, write up, in no more than two single-spaced
pages (probably less) a justification and plan of attack indicating how you might approach the
task of addressing two, three, or all of those questions. Ideally, you should submit this short
document to an informed critic. If you are writing the paper for a class, that person would
probably be the professor who teaches the class. (NOTE: Just because someone knows or seems
to know a little more than you do does not in itself make that person an informed critic.)
The next stage is to write up a Paper Prospectus. For a very short paper, the Prospectus will
likely be extremely short: a sentence or two at most. But let us assume that the paper is much
longerperhaps the length of a senior thesis (normally 60-120 pages in many Distinguished
Majors Programs).

I adapt this document from a longer document dealing with the Program in Political and Social Thought senior
thesis requirement.

FORMAT OF A SENIOR-THESIS OR LONG-PAPER PROSPECTUS


A Thesis Prospectus requires: 1) a title. 2) a brief statement of the animating question of the
thesis.
3) a brief statement of the rationale (justification) and projected aim of the research.
4) a brief layout of a proposed argument of the thesis. The proposed argument is likely to be
tentative, and may even be undecided between two opposing positions (with the hypothesis
implicitly, if not explicitly, being put up against its opposite, the null hypothesis).
The proposed argument section should not be confused with a thesis statement, about which
some people hear in secondary school. We assume in a scholarly investigation (as distinguished
from polemic or propaganda) that the answer is not known in advance (otherwise, no scholarly
investigation would be needed).
The laying out of a proposed argument is important, because otherwise there is a tendency for
undergraduate theses to drift toward becoming, in large chunks, mere summaries of vaguely
relevant material. Of course, there will be a need to convey information to the reader, but the
conveying of information needs to be subordinated to the carrying out of an argument.
5) Next comes a chapterization of the anticipated thesis, giving a view as to how the student
anticipates organizing the thesis from page 1 through to the end. There will be separate headings
for the Introduction, Chapter 1, Chapter 2, Chapter 3, Chapter 4, and Conclusion. (Normally a
thesis will not have more than four chapters and it may well have fewer. More isnt necessarily
better.) These segments need to be laid out in such a way that the reader of the proposal will have
a feel for what the possible argument connecting these segments will be. In this way, there will
be a plausible flow from Introduction to Conclusion.
Further Advice concerning chapterization:
Each anticipated chapter will be given a descriptive title. Each of the elements from the
Introduction through to the last chapter will include three to five sentences in which the thesiswriter indicates what the chapter will be describing and what the anticipated argument or
narrative or logical flow of the chapter will be. The Conclusion section will also include
several sentences, but because the research has not yet been carried out these sentences will not
present a set of claims. Rather, they will highlight, perhaps in an interrogatory mode, the as yet
unresolved issues that the thesis will be addressing.
The entire sequence needs to be conceptually and argumentatively coherent (it should tell a
plausible story, in a broad sense of story). The reader of the Prospectus should at no point be
puzzled as to how each statement connects with what precedes and what follows it. At the same
time, the story/argument should acknowledge that the truth is not yet known, given that the
research has not yet been done.