Paper Advice

The following suggestions are all based on students' position papers written in past classes. They reflect the most important weaknesses found repeatedly in these papers and their recommendations suggest the characteristics that distinguish strong papers from weak ones.

Remember, focus your attention on the issue you are analyzing, not on the policy position you are recommending.   The main objective is to analyze a social issue, not to advocate the moral superiority of a policy position nor to create an elaborate plan.

Avoid defending positions on moral grounds; instead formulate a position based on empirical evidence, social theories, and how the public feels about the issue . You are not trying to represent your ideas about what would be good in the world, and you are not giving a speech. You are explaining to the candidate how and why the available evidence and theories about the issue make the recommended position seem a plausible resolution of the social controversy. Assess the moral issues, distinguish them from the empirical issues, and provide evidence on people's attitudes about the moral issues. Do not try to argue that one moral position is "better" than others or justify your position by appealing to values (except for the candidate's stated goals of reducing social disputes and increasing the equal treatment of all)

Get to the heart of the matter. What matters? Why? Keep reminding yourself what the goals of the paper are and what are the most important points of your argument. Make these the backbone of your presentation.  Do not wander off on peripheral subjects.

Always address the principle causal issues related to the controversy . With the abortion question, for example, what determines the abortion rate, why is abortion a controversial issue, what controls people's opinions, what decides laws and other government responses to the issue, what are the likely effects of alternate strategies, and so forth. Look at the opposing positions, identify subsidiary issues best avoided, consider public opinion, examining the type of people on each side, and consider the lessons available from historical and international experiences.

Assess who holds the values and positions in contention. For example, with the abortion issue, who supports each side? What proportion of Americans support each side of the issue or each major policy alternative? Do people's responses to special contingencies suggest that simple data on those for and against an issue might be misleading? Does information on the kinds of people for and against specific policies reveal anything important? How will the public feel about the positions you recommend for the candidate and who will support and oppose the positions. Never state claims about people's beliefs for which you cannot supply evidence (such as stating that "most Americans believe in the capitalist system").

Carefully analyze what kinds of people, groups, organizations, or other entities have a stake in the outcomes. Who is directly effected by the problem at issue? How will their stake be affected by the alternative policies in contention?

Avoid sweeping and unsubstantiated claims about what is true in the world. Simply declaring that Microsoft succeeded because they had smarter and harder-working people, that white Southerners are more racist, or that women are more concerned than men about children reveals much more about your fantasy life than about how the world works. While it is true that political candidates use such sweeping statements as part of the rhetoric through which they try to sway people, your job is to take a much more reasoned, analytical approach. Just because some people have said that free competition is an American value, it is not necessarily true. One strategy is to identify every claim that you make that is important to your argument, then ask yourselves what basis do you have for assuming it is true and by what means might others challenge it.

Support the claims you make by reference to empirical evidence. And be careful to avoid making claims or arguments that contradict readily available empirical evidence. Do not neglect cross-national comparisons. Be particularly careful to avoid grand, sweeping declarations for which you have no evidence or which have no clear meaning (for example, the claims that "Microsoft is a company that exemplifies America" or "Americans are opposed to government regulation in general" or "...a large percentage of Americans support Microsoft and its products").

Clearly state the specific position you are recommending and explain why that position is preferable for the candidate. In particular, why is this policy more likely to resolve the issue or get the candidate elected?

Consider the arguments that can be offered in support of the positions you oppose and criticisms that can be cast against the position you recommend. You are preparing the candidate to defend herself. What should she expect opponents to argue and how can she use the available evidence to overcome those arguments?

Pay attention to the mechanics of a good paper. Organize, organize, organize. Always think in terms of an argument. You are recommending a position that you contend meets the candidate's ground rules, that is defensible against opposing positions on the basis of the evidence available from research on the topic currently, historically, and cross-nationally, and that will, at the very least, receive enough support that it will not ruin the candidate's election chances. Make your argument clearly, simply, directly, and completely. Do not forget to check spelling, grammar, and punctuation. (Note, the printed copies of the papers should be double spaced and include page numbers.)

Also, be careful about the way you use concepts. Words should be woven together like fine silk, not thrown into a pile like old rocks. When you refer to entities like consumers, a free market, the government, or Americans, try to be sure you are clear what you mean and aim to make it equally clear to your readers. Remember, clarity means that every reasonable reader will understand what you are saying and they will all interpret it in the same way. If someone keeps faltering and rereading while trying to read your writing quickly, the writing is not good enough. If you ask five people to read a passage and then to say in their own words what they believe the passage means, they should agree with each other and you.

Examine the role moral claims play in the dispute, but do not give into the temptation to assess the relative virtue of those moral claims. Do not focus on which moral position is better; instead stress who holds which moral position, how they use moral claims, and the way that different moral positions relate to the competing arguments about the way things work in the world.

When you identify an empirical issue--as when people dispute what is true about the state of the world or the effects of some possible intervention--explore this disagreement's role in the conflict. You want to clarify why it matters, why people disagree and what causes them to disagree, what is the apparent distribution of support for the competing interpretations, what evidence gives support to each side and what evidence raises doubts about each side, and what conclusions would an impartial person derive from this information.

Remember that all evidence is not created equal. The results of scholarly research rates high; research commissioned by reputable sources such as the Washington Post or a government agency is worth considering; journalistic efforts by the best periodicals can be illuminating but are not generally considered strong evidence; reporting in less reputable periodicals and the self-promoting arguments of combatants can be interesting but have little value as evidence. The same logic applies to all material available over the internet. When in doubt, ask the instructors.

Edit carefully so that your overall presentation is effective and that you avoid saying things that make no sense. Consider, for example, a paper that opened with this sentence: "Morals play a large role in American Society; unfortunately, Microsoft did not partake in this section of the American society." This sentence leaves the reader scratching her or his head in confusion. It is difficult to sustain an argument if you say something incomprehensible or silly.

Prepare your citations with strict adherence to one of the standard approaches . See the links about writing on our web site for rules and examples of citations, both for print publications and for internet sources. Note that you must always include the standard print publication citation for any material in print that is obtained over the internet.


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