Precision in Academic Writing (notes for a future handout)

The following started out as routine e-mail feedback on a freshman essay, but I thought it came out well enough that I might want to use it again.  I don’t want this to get buried in my existing handout on thesis statements, so I figured I’d just post the good bits here.

A good academic thesis is precise — it makes a specific claim, backed up by concrete, verifiable evidence.

As you begin the writing process, you may have no idea what your own attitude towards your topic is.  Or, you may have a strong emotional reaction to a subject.  Either way, your thesis will grow stronger as you supply concrete details that move it away from the general and towards the specific.

Sample Thesis: “Money as encouragement for good grades, many teachers believe it can be useful.”

Let’s start by revising so that the thesis makes a claim about the topic (the value of rewards in education).  At present, the thesis simply claims that “some teachers” happen to hold an opinion about the topic of money rewards.

Slight Improvement: “Many teachers believe financial rewards can be a useful educational tactic.”

It’s not clear from this statement what claim your paper is about to defend.  Either of the two following revisions would be clearer.

  • “Although many people believe X, recent studies show Y is a better solution than X.”
  • “Recent studies have confirmed the practice of doing X is more effective than Y.”

Of course, you’d have to follow up with specific reference to the “recent studies” that you mention. (Note — a news article or random website that refers to the “recent studies” is a very weak citation; most professors will expect you to be able to refer to the specific academic publication, government report, or other authoritative source.)

Some People Say…

Of particular note is the vague reference to what “many teachers believe.”  In casual conversation, or during a classroom discussion, it’s fine to use a general phrase like this to introduce ideas that you know you’ve heard somewhere before,

But in academic writing, a phrase such as “some people say” is far too vague.  Your instructor will expect you name the specific teachers, to quote their exact words (if you interviewed them yourself), or cite the page numbers of their published opinions (in academic journals, or possibly news interviews or statements they have posted on their own websites).

Introduce the opinions of credible authorities by naming names and citing a good source. Instead of saying “many teachers believe it can be useful,” actually state two or three good things about the thing you want to support (or list bad things about the thing you are opposing)..

Compare:  Which gives you a better idea of what the author is saying?

A)     “Many people believe that video games are worthwhile, but there are problems with too much gaming.”

B)      “While the claims that video games teach hand-eye coordination are sometimes overblown (Smith 123; Perkins 234), multi-player games teach teamwork and leadership skills (Brown 213), and simulation games exercise the kind of problem-solving skills employers say they want in their new hires (Speer and Lee 23).  Nevertheless, the most hardcore gamers (defined by Jones and Green as playing more than 20 hours per week) run a greater risk of being overweight (Lincoln 232), spending less time outdoors (Johnson 12) and exhibiting anti-social behavior (Young 130).  For these reasons, the Johnson County School Board’s May 2009 decision to put a gaming lounge in the library lobby is not a responsible use of taxpayer dollars.”

If your thesis looks like A), try to make it look more like B.

Weaknesses of the “some people believe” approach… what’s the real problem?  Are these unnamed people wrong to believe this?  Are they not really credible authorities, so the problem is that these people aren’t the most reliable source of information?  Do “they” have an ulterior motive that would keep them from giving sound, trustworthy advice?  Is their value system actually flawed (like someone who wants to let his pit bull roam through a daycare center’s backyard), or are we talking about perfectly respectable but conflicting value systems (early risers who complain about parties at midnight, or late risers who complain about lawnmowers at dawn?)

Revise for Detail

“Although some people believe X, they don’t realize the problems X really causes.”

“Although [detail P] and [detail Q] may at first make option X seem attractive, a closer examination of X reveals that [detail L], [detail M] and [detail N] all expose X as a faulty solution.

You might be asking yourself, “Where do I get all those details to add to my paper?”

If so, you might still be thinking of research as something that you do at a fairly late stage.  If you first write out your paper as an opinion piece, and only start “looking for quotes” after you’ve already written out your conclusion,  you’ll only be skimming for details that already support what you’ve written.  Human nature will cause you to ignore those details that challenge your opinions.

Embrace the thought-altering possibilities of a fact or claim that doesn’t already fit your world view.  Your instructor is less interested in seeing you supply facts that back up the opinions you already have, and far more interested in seeing how you form new opinions about issues that you would never have thought about before, had it not been for the new stuff you learned while you were doing your research.

When you can spell out the complex relationship between specific details that youv’e learned, you’re probably ready to start churning out the paragraphs.

“Although details P and Q challenges claim X, supporting details A, B, and C make a stronger case in favor of X.”

This is just one possible way to organize a paper — it’s not the only way.

If you’re still at the vague “some people say” or “there are pros and cons to topic X” phase, then a little more research is still in order.

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