Writing Hints

Professor Dan Lindley

448 Decio, 631-3226, dlindley@nd.edu

March 5, 2004, v. 2.1

GOOD Papers vs. BAD Papers

Good papers have clear summary introductions, are well written and error-free, have clear arguments supported by the course theories/models/concepts, use specific references to history and other factual evidence to support the argument, argue against themselves, and have footnotes to identify what sources were used where. These papers are academically persuasive.

Poor papers are marked by higher levels of writing errors (including foggy, vague, and colloquial writing), no summary introductory paragraph, no clear argument, insufficient specific references to history or course concepts, and no footnotes. There are many reasons not to be persuaded by these papers.

Bottom line: be persuasive. That means having an IR-related argument to be persuasive about, having deductive/conceptual/theoretical support for your argument, and having real-world/historical evidence to support your argument.

Lindley's Writing Tips

If you start your paper by being foggy and unclear, then it is highly likely that the rest of the paper will meander and that your arguments and evidence will be poorly connected. Remedy: put a clear argument and roadmap up front! (it is required; see checklist)

Reading your paper out loud is a good way to catch awkward and unclear writing. You may not be writing what you intend.

Have the courage to listen to your inner voice that tells you when you are not being clear and that something needs to be cut or re-written. Yes, it is an effort to change what is already written. But good writing is hard work for almost everyone. Your inner editor will get better over time. You will become more willing and able to self-criticize and edit.

Have the courage to make an argument when you are not sure you have all the facts and you are not entirely sure if you are using the concepts/theories/models correctly. You will never have all the facts, and it takes practice to use the course materials correctly. We recognize your constraints. In the face of doubt, take command of your paper and do the best you can.

Ask Professor Lindley and your TA for help. Show us outlines and rough drafts.

Ask your friends to read your work. Your true friends will give you time; your honest friends will give you useful criticism.

Writing Tips borrowed from Stephen Van Evera

Stephen Van Evera // MIT political science department Version 1.5, February 27, 1997


I often offer the following suggestions to undergraduates writing class papers.


The following general format is often appropriate: "tell them what you're going to tell

them; then tell them; then tell them what you told them."


Begin your paper with a short summary introduction. This summary introduction should

answer up to five (5) questions:

1.What question or questions do you address?

2.Why do these questions arise? From what literature or real-world events? Offer

background that clarifies your questions and puts them in context.

3.What answer or answers do you offer? Summarize your bottom line in a few


4.How will you reach your answers? Say a few words about your sources and


5.What comes next? Provide a roadmap to the rest of the paper: "Section I

explains how I began my life of crime; Section II details my early arrests; Section

III describes my trip to death row; Section IV offers general theoretical

conclusions and policy implications." Something of that sort.

#1 ("What is your question?"), #2 ("Why does this question arise?"), and #3 ("What is

your answer?") are essential: make sure you cover them. #4-#5 are optional.

Summary introductions of this sort help readers grasp your argument. They also help

you diagnose problems with your paper. A summary introduction can be hard to write.

A possible reason: gaps or contradictions in your arguments or evidence, which

summary exposes. Solution: rethink and reorganize your paper.

[NOTE for PROFESSOR LINDLEY's classes: items 1 and 3 are essential; they are your argument. Number 5 is required as per the checklist.  Doing a good job with point 2 will make the reader want to read more]


Authors often recapitulate their argument in their conclusion. However, a good

summary introduction often makes a full summary conclusion redundant. If so,

recapitulate quickly and then use your conclusion to explore the implications of your

argument. What policy prescriptions follow from your analysis? What general

arguments does it call into question, and which does it reinforce? What further research

projects does it suggest?


Four injunctions on argumentation should be kept in mind.

1.Use empirical evidence--facts, numbers, history--to support your argument.

Purely deductive argument is sometimes appropriate, but argument backed by

evidence is always more persuasive.

2.Clearly frame the general point(s) that your evidence supports. Don't ask facts to

speak for themselves.

To sum points #1 and #2: offer evidence to support your arguments and state

the arguments your evidence supports

3."Argue against yourself." After laying out your argument, acknowledge questions

or objections that a skeptical reader might raise, and briefly address them. This

shows readers that you were thoughtful, thorough, and paid due regard to

possible objections or alternate interpretations.

Often, of course, the skeptic would have a good point, and you should grant it.

Don't claim too much for your theories or evidence!

4.Use footnotes to document all sources and statements of fact. On footnote and

citation format, consult and obey Kate L. Turabian, A Manual for Writers of

Term Papers, Theses, and Dissertations, 6th ed., rev. by John Grossman and

Alice Bennett (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996), in paperback. You

should own a copy.


Good writing is essential to clear thinking and effective communication. So bear the

following points in mind:

1. Your paper should make a single point or a handful of related points, and should

follow a simple organization. Avoid cluttering it with extra points. If you

developed an argument that later became ancillary as you rethought your paper,

drop the argument from the paper. This is painful ("I sweated hours on that

idea!") but extraneous arguments drain power from your main argument.

2. Break your paper into sections and subsections. More sections is better than

fewer. Sections help readers see the structure of your argument

Label sections with vivid section headings that convey the main message of the


3. I recommend the following structure for sections/subsections:

a. Your argument;

b. Your supporting evidence;

c. Counter-arguments, qualifications, and limiting conditions of your argument.

4. Start each section with several sentences summarizing the argument presented in

the section. You may cut these summaries from your final draft if they seem

redundant with your summary introduction, but you should include them in your

first drafts to see how they look. Writing such summaries is also a good way to

force yourself to decide what you are and are not doing in each section, and to

force yourself to confront contradictions or shortcomings in your argument.

Often these section summaries are best written after you write the section, but

don't forget to add them at some point.

5. Start each paragraph with a topic sentence that distills the point of the

paragraph.1 Later sentences should offer supporting material that explains or

elaborates the point of the topic sentence. Qualifications or refutation to

counter-arguments should then follow. In short, paragraphs should have the

same structure as whole sections.

A reader should be able to grasp the thrust of your argument by reading only the

first sentence of every paragraph.

6. Write short, declarative sentences. Avoid the passive voice. (Passive voice: "the

kulaks were murdered"--but who did it? Active voice: "Stalin murdered the


7. Write from an outline. Outlines are major aids to coherence and readability.(1)


Ask a friend or two to give your paper a look before you turn it in; and return the favor

for them when they have a paper underway. Two heads are better than one, and giving

and receiving comments are important skills.


Take care to turn in a neat, clean paper. Run your spellchecker. A messy-looking

paper suggests a messy mind.


Re-read articles you or others admire, and imitate their better aspects.

1. For more advice on writing see William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White, The Elements of Style, 3rd. ed. (NY: Macmillan, 1979); and Teresa Pelton Johnson, "Writing for International Security: A Contributor's Guide," International Security, Vol. 16, No. 2 (Fall 1991), pp. 171-180. If you are doing a research paper, you might also consult Kate L. Turabian, A Student's Guide to Writing College Papers, 3rd ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1976) for more clues on how to do research.