Getting Ahead: Paper-Writing Tips for New Students

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or students entering university this coming fall, or those returning with the drive to improve their grades, writing a strong well-structured essay is key to succeeding in any political science-related discipline. The gap between what is taught in high school, and what is expected in university classes can be quite significant. To facilitate the transition, I’ve collected a series of paper-writing tools and tips, provided by recent graduates who had to learn the hard way.

The Process

While different people might have diverging paper-writing habits and timelines, the process itself tends to be quite standard.

Building familiarity with the topic: Once the course instructor posts the essay questions, the first step is to familiarize yourself with the topic -or the range of topics- surrounding them. Look up a variety of articles, books, primary sources to stimulate your brain, and get ideas about where the paper could go.

Tip: Wikipedia can be quite useful at this stage, although you should never reference it in the final submission, under any circumstances.

Establishing the thesis and the main axes: These elements are the foundation of any paper, if they are absent, the paper will have no clear direction. The thesis is your answer to the essay question, usually provided in the form of a single sentence statement.

All arguments that follow will have to support your thesis; if not, they are off-topic. A good thesis shouldn’t be too broad or too narrow: If it’s too broad, you risk being superficial, with a multitude of poorly developed arguments. If it’s too narrow, you risk going into unnecessary details, without completely answering the essay question. The thesis must always be clearly stated at the end of the introduction.

The axes are the primary arguments you put forward to support your thesis. University students are usually expected to have two or three axes, which will form the sections of the paper. Longer research papers, however, may require more than three, particularly if you are comparing different subjects. Axis are often stated after the thesis, and later as subtitles for each section.

To make the topic and structure of your paper clear and explicit, the following formula is commonly utilized at the end of an introduction: ‘Essay question’ (rephrased). This paper will argue that (Thesis). I will begin by (axes 1), afterwards (axes 2), and finally (axes 3). Of course, there are innumerable ways to phrase this.

Second round of research: The first reading session is instrumental to establish the thesis and axes. Once that is done, students must go back and supplement their knowledge, this time with more focused research. It’s important to find material that allows you to answer the thesis and that fits into one of the axes.

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During this phase, it’s not uncommon to alter some of the axes -sometimes even the thesis- to fit newly acquired information. Tip: Possible sources include: article databases (ProQuest, EBSCO, JSTOR, etc), academic books (often found online for free through your university library), scholarly journals (The Economist, Foreign Policy, Foreign Affairs, etc.), and Think Tank websites (Brookings, Chatham House, CSIS, Atlantic Council, etc.).

Structuring the paper: This phase is ideally done at the same time as the research. You should never start writing a paper until you have a clear structure. The way to go about this is variable: Some students will have highly detailed plans, while others will set the basics and figure out the rest while writing. Make sure all your arguments have some basis in academic literature or data- if not, they are invalid.

Tip: Beware of the ‘literature review trap’. A literature review is a survey of major scholarly arguments regarding a certain topic. A good paper presents original arguments that complement a literature review; both are necessary.

Writing and reviewing: All the previous prep work will allow you to write a well-researched, well-structured essay. Usually, the better the prep, the easier the writing. Ideally, don’t submit the first draft you complete, and make sure you go through it a few times: check flow, grammar, spelling, citations, etc. Allow others to read your paper, as they might find mistakes that you overlooked. Many universities offer services where grad students go over papers and offer tips. If you finish the paper relatively early, some TAs, even professors, might be willing to go over your paper and offer constructive criticism.

Miscellaneous Tips to Keep in Mind

You don’t need too many sources. The acceptable range is 1 to 3 per page, depending on their nature. For example, if you’re only using books, you can get away with one per page, but three per page would be too many. There is no strict rule: if you’re unsure, it never hurts to ask.

Follow the standard submission format: unless stated otherwise, all papers must be submitted double-spaced, with 1-inch margins, and size 12 Times New Roman font. Include a cover page (with title, name, student number, etc) and page numbers.

Beware of citations: Citation formats can be highly variable depending on the university, professor, discipline, etc. That being said there are certain things to keep in mind: Always include page number, don’t include large block quotations, and only use quotations when necessary. Also, don’t forget the bibliography at the end of the paper. Go to workshops: Most universities have essay-writing workshops and citation software training for incoming students at the beginning of semester.

About Mohy-Dean Tabbara

Mohy-Dean Tabbara is a recent graduate from McGill University with a BA (Honours) in political science and a minor in economics. He has previous experience working as a Research Intern at Carnegie Endowment's Middle East Center in Beirut (Lebanon), as well as working as an editor at McGill's Journal of Political Studies. Mohy's interests include security sector reform, institution building, and democratization theory, particularly in the context of the Middle East and North Africa.