Department of Political Science, Queens College

Writing Political Science Papers: Some Useful Guidelines
Peter Liberman, Dept. of Political Science, Queens College, October 2006

A good paper informs and persuades; to do this it must be logically organized, clearly argued, and well documented. Good writing is hard work, but following the rules of thumb below will help you to write better papers and to do so more efficiently.

8. Organize your major points in logical order.  This sounds easier than it is, especially when you don’t see the whole structure of your argument before starting to write.  Papers ten pages or longer should be divided by section headings, which tell the reader where you are going, making the argument easier to understand.  Present major arguments first, followed by supporting or subsidiary ones.  One good organizational structure is to lay out and defend your main position, then turn to alternative explanations or counter-arguments and deal with them in turn.  Preparing an outline first helps.  If you’re like me and you end up thinking of new arguments in the writing process, you will probably have to go back and edit your paper later to give it a logical structure. It is always better to structure your paper around main ideas rather than a sequence of authors or sources, unless you are specifically asked to write a review essay.

9. Every paper must begin with a summary introduction that tells the reader briefly what the paper's main points are.  Tell your reader the question or questions you are going to address, why they are significant, how you are going to answer them, and what your  answer is going to be. I emphasize this last bit because it is too often neglected. Don’t just raise questions or topics and leave the reader in suspense about your conclusions until the end–this makes it harder for readers to digest and evaluate your arguments.  The summary introduction should be the first paragraph of a short (5-10 page) paper; longer and more complex arguments require more detailed summaries.  Because you can't write a summary introduction until you know what the paper is going to say, many people compose it after the outline–or even the body of the paper itself–has been written.

10. A summary conclusion is also useful, to remind the reader of the main points that have been argued, particularly in longer papers.  It usually helps to keep in mind this old rule-of-thumb: “Tell ‘em what you’re going to tell ‘em, then tell ‘em, then tell ‘em what you just told ‘em.” Conclusions are also a good place to explain the implications of your findings--for governmental policies, theoretical debates, or for future research.

11. Alert your reader along the way to your main points as you are making them.  Rather than letting facts speak for themselves, explain how they advance your overall argument.  It's generally helpful to state the point of each paragraph in the first sentence.

12. Try to stick to just one point in each paragraph. Don't start in on a totally new point in the middle of a paragraph.  This usually means keep your paragraphs relatively short--paragraphs that go on for a whole page usually can be broken up for greater clarity.

13. Be concise, avoiding digressions, filler, repetition, and redundancy.  Anything that does not contribute towards the argument, or the reader’s understanding of it, dilutes the effectiveness of an essay. Do not include introductory filler (e.g., "People throughout the ages have studied the causes of war") and historical “background” that is not used or needed by your argument. Students often needlessly waste space on factual information and history that does not contribute to their main arguments. Repetition also wastes valuable space and disorganizes a paper. Be sure to read your paper over before it is finally done and drop passages written earlier that have become extraneous as your work has progressed.

14. Avoid long quotations.  It is usually better to paraphrase others' arguments in your own words than reproduce them at length.  A summary usually is more concise, and fits better in the flow of the paper, than the original quotation, written in another context, for another purpose.  (Of course, you must still provide citations to others ideas, even if you have put them in your own words).  Use direct quotations only when you need to appeal to the authority of the author, when the specific language of the author matters, or when the source is primary data.  Don’t quote simply because you think your source said it better than you can, or to save yourself the effort of paraphrasing.