Ideally, a paper is like a Mozart symphony. Everything fits together perfectly, and the removal of a single note, or a single sentence, would destroy the whole. In a paper, the overall objectives must be clear, the design coherent, and the individual themes linked to each other and to the whole. Paragraphs must form coherent units, linked to other paragraphs and to the big picture by well-defined topic sentences and by transitional clauses and sentences. Above all, the logic of your argument, from your largest point to the smallest detail, must be expressed with clarity and precision.
The evidence you marshall to support your position are the building blocks of your argument. The nature of the evidence will vary according to the nature of the topic and argument. In a paper focusing on a single text, for example, the evidence will often be the text itself. Papers dealing with broad social phenomena may draw upon statistical studies for evidence, while a paper on political history may rely on a single documents reconstructing policies, motives, and objectives. While primary evidence is strongest, it is often the case that you must rely upon the authority of secondary sources, a reliance that ideally is not based on blind trust of authority but rather a critical reading of secondary scholarship.
Context is essential to any paper. You must provide your readers not only with background information necessary to introduce your topic and question, but also with material that is essential to an understanding of individual points in your argument. Your evidence and your points may be perfectly sound, but without the appropriate context, they will be lost on your readers. Context is thus crucial for establishing the logic of your argument.
The idea of a topic with multiple interpretations often conjures up images of competing schools of thought and of subjects that are strikingly "controversial" or that have pro-con, black-white interpretations. It is true that there are competing schools of thought in almost every discipline, and some subjects are controversial. But most are not. To interpret is to explain meaning and significance; typically developing an interpretation means imposing order, clarifying distinctions, and defining concepts, not engaging two diametrically opposed views. In most cases, arguments are not cast in terms of black and white, but rather subtle shades of gray. The counter-arguments are typically not comprehensive alternatives to your whole argument, but small counterpoints to individual points. And often it is authors of themselves who create counter-arguments and produce counter- evidence. As you develop your argument, you become aware of, and make note of, alternative ways of making sense of the evidence or problem immediately at hand.
That a particular question is open to different interpretations does not carry with it the implication that one argument is as good as an other. The overriding consideration is whether the argument is effective. Two authors, for example, may address the same question and arrive at the same answer, and yet one author's interpretation is argued effectively while the other's is not. Similarly, two authors may address the same question and arrive at radically different interpretations, and yet both interpretations may be argued effectively.
The function of a conclusion is to bring together the various strands of your argument, but effective conclusions do not simply summarize points that have been previously made. Conclusions should return the reader to the guiding question and objectives of the paper and bring matters to a resolution. Often, authors save for the conclusions special insights or perspectives related to their question and thesis, especially of the kind that do not call for exacting proof.
The number of sources you use will depend entirely on your topic, question, and approach. There is no set formula. If you concentrate on a single text, for example, the number of sources you use beyond that text may be relatively small. Other topics necessarily demand a breadth of reading. Often you will simply use chapters or portions of books or journal articles. You should read the materially carefully and thoughtfully, but recognize that you may save time by using table of contents and indices wisely. You may use textbooks, encyclopedias, and dictionaries for reference, but it is expected that the bulk of your argument will be based on either primary sources or scholarly articles and books.
(1) The first is rather traditional. Select a general area or topic that interests you, read more about it, and then gradually develop a well-defined topic and question. The scope of the topic may remain quite broad, or it may become narrowly focused, to the point even of being based on primary sources. Again the availability of appropriate sources is of critical importance. Often, you will be faced with a number of viable options. Those interested in the witch hunts of Early Modern Europe, for example, will find several studies that offer comprehensive interpretations of the big picture--the rise, proliferation, and decline of the hunts. While a topic of such breadth is possible, further reading may suggest to you more focused, thematic topics dealing with the witch-hunts such as the relationship between women victims of the hunts and early modern perceptions of women or the debate among early modern intellectuals about the reality of witchcraft.
(2) The second is to focus on a single text (or perhaps two or three). When you pose questions of the text, you may concentrate primarily on questions whose answers are found either within the text itself or, alternatively, in the relationship between the text and context. Thus, a paper on John Locke's Second Treatise of Government, for example, could focus solely on questions derived from Locke's argument as developed in the text. Or it could explore the relationship between Locke's theory and previous theories against which Locke is responding (a key part of the intellectual context) or between Locke's theory and the political events of Locke's time (the political context).
If you choose to focus on a single text, you first need to master the text, developing a solid understanding of its purpose, structure, logic, and themes. You should also need to read secondary interpretations of the text, and you should at least familiarize yourself with the historical context using secondary sources since and understanding of context may hel you frame "internal" questions. If your are concentrating on the relationship between text and context, you will need to undertake a more systematic and comprehensive review of secondary literature examining the author's audience and purpose and the wider historical context.
Effective writing takes work. You will always be rethinking, remodelling, and rewriting, and you will constantly need to find new sources and undertake more research. As your argument takes shape, however, your work becomes more focused. You may need to conduct more research, but you know exactly what kind of evidence or context you need. You may need to rework or clarify a section of your argument, but you can isolate the paragraph or sentences that need to be reworked.
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