Monthly Archives: May 2022

Papers and Studies

A paper presents the results of study. Indeed, it often presents the results of a study, i.e., a particular attempt to answer a particular question. This goes for whether you’re a first-year university student who is taking a class and been given a prompt for a midterm paper or a full professor who has completed a five-year research project. Even if the only “study” you are presenting is your attempt to keep up with the required reading for the course, your paper will present what you have learned and, even if you have been struggling with the question for decades, the purpose of your study was to learn something. A paper presents what you have learned through study.

But it does not present this learning in order to teach it to the reader. This is easy for students to understand since they are not expecting their examiners to learn anything from what they have written. They are expecting to be judged according to whether they’ve learned something that their teachers already knew. Even if they have the somewhat healthier attitude that I recommend, namely, that they address their reader as a peer and are imagining the reader as a student in their cohort, they are going to be imagining a reader who has already learned the same things. Scholars, likewise, don’t present their results assuming that their readers (also peers) will simply believe (and ultimately know) what they learned. In all cases, there is something much more important going on between the writer and the reader, something more critical.

A paper exposes the writer’s ideas to the criticism of their peers. The paper tells the reader what motivated the study, how it was framed, what methods were used, what was found, and what the writer thinks the implications of these findings are for theory or practice. At each point, the peer is qualified to tell the writer that they are wrong. The research question may not be interesting. The theory may not be compelling. The methods may not be credible. The results may not be valid (even given the method). And the implications that the writer draws may be unreasonable. By writing the paper, a scholar or student exposes their work to criticism on all these fronts. That’s why it’s so important to choose (to imagine) a reader that deserves some respect.

A peer is someone who studies things that are similar to the things you study and studies them in similar ways. They are motivated by similar questions, focused by similar theories, guided by similar methods, analyze similar objects, and are led to similar implications. Being a peer means that you are like them in these ways; it may even mean that you like them. But you definitely respect their competence to critique your work, their ability to notice things that could have been done better or even shouldn’t have been done in the first place. Your aim in writing the paper is, first and foremost, to let them check your work in this way. If they come away with some new insight into matters that interest them — if they learn something from you that they did not already know — all the better. But it’s their critical eye you’re looking for.

This means that each paragraph must be written to make its central idea as vulnerable as possible to criticism. You are telling your reader something you think is true (ideally, something you actually know) and presenting your best reasons to think so in the clearest possible terms. You do this with a sensitivity for the difficulty the reader will have with your idea. Will a competent peer need help believing, understanding, or agreeing with your claim? They will be critical of the support, elaboration, or defense you provide accordingly. And in each case, you’re simply and honestly explaining how you learned the truth you are putting before them. You are describing the study that came before the paper.

Theory Papers and Other Variations

I originally proposed my forty-paragraph outline as a guide for writing what I call “the standard social science paper”. This is the kind of paper that presents the result of an empirical study, framed by a familiar theory, guided by an accepted methodology, with identifiable implications. Many such papers make a “theoretical contribution” too, of course, but some papers, often called “theoretical” or “conceptual” papers, make this contribution by purely theoretical means. I want to write a few posts about variations on the standard research paper this summer, starting with this one, which is perhaps the most common.

Theories, Bourdieu tells us, are “programs of perception”. They condition what researchers see when they look at the world. They are also, systems of expectation; they condition what people expect of your object. But in a theoretical paper, there is no specific empirical object. Instead, there is a general class of objects—the kinds of things you are able to see, but have not looked at. Your reader has certain expectations of these objects, is programmed to perceive them in certain ways. You are trying to change those expectations, reprogram them, and you are trying to do so without showing them anything about any particular object. What you are bringing to bear on their expectations is more theory—that is, other expectations, other parts of their program.

Normally, those who hold a particular theory have a kind of knee-jerk version of it in mind. When you mention a social practice, they’ll immediately theorize it in a certain way, and this will reduce the complexity of their image of the object. In an empirical paper, you use your data to push against this simplified image. That’s how you “artfully disappoint your reader’s expectations of the object” as I usually say. But in a purely theoretical paper, you are trying to reconfigure your reader’s expectations by activating other expectations. This may be accomplished by drawing in other theorists that the reader is, if perhaps only vaguely, aware of but does not use in the initial conceptualization of a practice. You here argue that these other theorists should affect our expectations of the object in question, that they should have a stronger influence on us. If your argument holds, the reader’s expectations will change without being confronted by any new empirical data.

Alternatively, you can offer a closer reading of the theory in question. You can show that our expectations of our object have been formed by superficial or careless readings of the major theorist in the field. Since your readers presumably respect the work of this theorist, this may go some way towards changing their expectations.

What I will be offering here is not a normative guideline for what a theory paper should accomplish, of course, nor how exactly to accomplish it. I’ll leave that to the major theorists, especially those who serve as the editors of the journals that publish such papers. Instead, I will propose a way of organizing twenty hours work such that, at the end of it, you have produced the first draft of a 40-paragraph theory paper. This draft can then be edited into shape for publication. In outline, it will look as follows:

1. Introduction (3 paragraphs)
2. Historical Background (5)
3. State of the Art (5)
4. Critical Occasion (5)
5. Conceptual Analysis (3 x 5)
6. Discussion (5)
7. Conclusion (2)

Remember that each paragraph should make a single, easily identifiable claim and either support, elaborate, or defend it. It should consist of at least six sentences and at most 200 words. It should be written in exactly 27 minutes.

The introduction will consist of three paragraphs. The first paragraph will be devoted to a history of your field up to the present. The scope of this history will depend on your judgment. Whether your history starts in ancient Athens, in eighteenth-century England, or in Paris of 1968 depends on the contribution you want to make. The second paragraph will be devoted to the present state of the theory. What is the reigning consensus or standing controversy that defines your field of research? Obviously, this should be the state you want transform in some interesting way, either by settling a dispute or unsettling an agreement.

The third paragraph should announce your contribution. “In this paper, I will argue that…” Notice that “supporting or elaborating” this claim, which is about your paper not your theory, does not yet require you to argue your position. You only have to describe a paper that would make such a contribution. And that means you will essentially be outlining your paper. Now, you have already introduced the historical background in paragraph 1, which will have space to talk about in part two of the paper, so you don’t have say anything more here. Also, in the second paragraph you have introduced the current state of the theory, which you will elaborate in greater detail the third part of the paper. What is left is to say something about how the theoretical problem you are interested in arose and why you are the right person to deal with it, to outline your analysis a little more, and to tell us why it is important, i.e., to summarize your discussion. That is, the introduction ends with an outline of parts 4, 5 and 6 of the paper.

Part 4 takes the place of the methods section of a standard empirical paper. In a sense, you are still saying what you did, but it is perhaps more accurate to say that you are explaining what happened to you to force you into a theoretical reflection. It may simply be a development within your field (someone else’s or your own empirical results, published elsewhere) or it may be an “event” like the publication of a correspondence or a translation of a previously untranslated work by a major theorist. World events, too, may be relevant here. After 1989 and 2001 and 2008 there were all kinds of reasons to “rethink” the theories that framed work in a whole range social sciences. Since you’re saying how the problem arose, you will also need to say what materials came into view: what texts have you read and how have you read them?

Part 5 will present your argument in detail. It’s a good idea to divide the argument into sub-theses each of which can be demonstrated separately. Two to four sections of three to six paragraphs gives you some manageable space to work with here.

Finally, part 6 will cash out your analysis in consequences, usually for theory, though sometimes for practice. You might want to emphasize the important political consequences of your line of thinking, but a very common and important class of “theoretical” implications center of questions of method. If you’re right that we have to see the world in a new way (a theory is always a way of seeing the world) then perhaps we will have to do things differently too? You may have shown that capitalism is broken and we a revolution, or at least that our theories of capitalism are in crisis and a paradigm shift is coming, or you may simply have shown that if we really want to know how capitalism works we have to look in unfamiliar places.

(I’ll write a post on methodological papers soon.)

The conclusion should consist of two paragraphs, one of which states your conceptual argument in the strongest, simplest terms you can imagine. You may want to use the sentence that completes the key sentence of paragraph three (i.e., everything after “I will argue that”) as a key sentence here. The last paragraph could suitably extend the history of the field that you presented in paragraph 1 and elaborated in part 2 by imagining a possible future.

Like I say, I don’t pretend to have given you a recipe for a publishable theory paper in your favorite journal. I have only described the task in a way that makes it amenable to “writing process reengineering”. It is a way of spending 20 hours, one moment at a time, dealing with the reader’s problems one at a time.


The enormous tragedy of the dream in the peasant's bent
Ezra Pound

Every now and then, my right arm bothers me and I seek help from a physiotherapist. The last time, I was told that, having been less than disciplined in retraining my arm after I broke it (a decade and a half ago), my brain had rewired itself to avoid the pain, and now I had to train it carefully back to its natural range of motion. At that time, I immediately saw a connection to writing style, which is sometimes contorted by our desire to avoid the real difficulty we are facing. We develop a “workaround” that lets us go on without actually saying what we need to say. More recently, I sought out a physiotherapist again and I was sure that the problem would be similar. I was wrong, but the experience was just as instructive.

This time it was simply my posture that was wrong. I had developed a slump, my head bent down, my right shoulder bent forward, and the first order of business was to get me literally straightened out. The physiotherapist diagnosed the pain I was feeling as an inflammation that stemmed from the unnatural, cramped way I was moving my arm, the humerus pinching the muscle under my clavicle (or something like that, which I may be remembering imprecisely). She taped my shoulder back and after half a day I was already feeling much relief as my arm was now forced to move in a natural way.

She told me to stop doing pushups and start “rowing” instead. When I got back to the pushups, she said, I should balance them with rowing exercises (I use an elastic for this). The pain is long gone now, and I also feel much more, well, upright. I have been walking and sitting up straight. And I regularly pull my shoulder blades together. (An embarrassing detail: she asked me to turn around and pull my shoulder blades together. I didn’t know how!)

What does this have to do with writing? Well, I have long argued that in addition to making a particular claim, a paragraph has a rhetorical posture (supporting, elaborating, defending, sometimes motivating). It addresses itself to the reader in a particular way. It comports itself discursively. And, like our bodies, our prose can suffer from poor posture, which becomes painful if we start trying to say things from an inapt position. That pain eventually leads to inactivity (to not writing), which only makes the problem worse, harder to solve.

Just as I had to learn to move my arm in a natural way in order to complete ordinary tasks without pain, we sometimes have to remind ourselves to face our reader squarely. This may involve getting ourselves out of a number of bad habits (we might have made a habit of writing defensively, when we supposed support or elaborate or claims). And that can take some time, doing light, deliberate exercises. That is, we have to take our prose “through the motions” without loading them with a lot of “weight”. And, when using it for “light” chores (like writing an email or a blogpost, we have be mindful of our posture, slow down a little, and do it right.

What I’m trying to say is that if you are worried about your style, or writing has become a pain, give yourself a few minutes every day to write some sentences that are well within your ability to say. Keep the grammar simple and the content familiar. Describe facts that you know well; prescribe actions that you yourself master. Work from the center of your strength and stay within your reach. Remind yourself of the ordinary range of motion of your prose. Every day, add a little more weight, write a few more sentences. It will be good for your posture, your style.

1000 Weeks

I’m reading Oliver Burkeman’s Four Thousand Weeks these days. It’s not quite what I had expected, but it’s a perfectly enjoyable read, if you like that sort of thing. In any case, I think I’m too invested in the issues to give it a fair reading, so this post is by no means a review. You can consult Mathew McFarlane’s “I read it so you don’t have to” post at Marker to get a sense of whether you should, or Joe Moran’s friendly but cautious review in the Guardian. I’m on a slightly different errand in this post.

Burkeman and I are of like mind in at least one very important respect. He wants you to “embrace your finitude”. I’ve long been arguing that you should “appreciate your finitude” (in fact, I hasten to add that I’ve been saying this for over ten years.) As far as I can tell, Burkeman’s aim is mainly to “liberate” us from the idea that we have to get any number of things done before we run out of weeks to do them in. According to his unobjectionable math, we each have about 4000 weeks to work with and he thinks micromanaging them and worrying about whether we’ll get to everything is a waste of, well, time. As a philosophy of life, I tend to agree, but I think I was expecting something less philosophical and more practical.

After all, I normally tell the scholars I work with to imagine 32 reasonably disciplined weeks per year, 16 in the spring and 16 in the fall, divided by a one-week break into 8-week periods, leaving the summer and winter months more or less open for the usual exuberance and melancholy that these seasons reliably provide. (I give 5 weeks to melancholy and 15 to exuberance as a rough approximation, I should add, but it’s up to you.) Scholars can expect a career to last 30 or 40 years, so lets say about 1000 weeks of disciplined, deliberate work. To me, appreciating this “finitude” does in fact mean managing it quite tightly, and I have some very practical ideas about how to do that.

First, approach each of those 32 weeks as 30 hours of plannable work. Expect to be able to write for at most three hours a day, i.e., 15 hours a week. Learn how to predict how many hours of writing time you will have in every 8-week period before it starts and then try to make that prediction as true as you can. (That means not writing much less than you hope, but also not much more.)

It’s perfectly okay to let Burkeman’s philosophy liberate you from this image of a disciplined, goal-oriented life, enslaved to perpetual planning and endless frustration. But why not find a middle a ground where you can enjoy your freedom 20 weeks of the year, freed from worry about what you’ll “get done” precisely because you can trust the process that will go on during those 32 weeks of discipline.

Like Burkeman, I find Heidegger’s arguments for our finitude quite convincing. Here’s how I put it three years ago, defending the five-paragraph essay as a “place of form” and a “time for writing”:

Like “being good”, writing well means “finding ourselves correctly attuned in the apportionment of the moment” ([William] McNeill [in The Time of Life], p. 89, quoting Heidegger’s course on Aristotle’s Rhetoric). Our students need to learn how to establish a moment of composure and make deliberate use of it. The five-paragraph essay, then, when used properly, provides a great occasion on which to dwell on the essence of composition — to appreciate our finitude.

So my approach to finitude is not to leave it at the insight that life is short. In fact, the opposite is in a sense true. If you could find three hours a day, five days a week, 32 weeks of the year, for 30 years, you would be able to 6 x 5 x 32 x 30 paragraphs throughout your career as a scholar, one moment at a time. That’s over 28,000 paragraphs, or 720 journal articles, worth of prose. If you were hoping to publish 2 papers every year, you’ve got time to write each of them, carefully and deliberately, seven times.

Now, having three hours a day to write a on a regular basis will seem like a ridiculous extravagance to some scholars. But I know some who have found a way to at least approximate that goal for a substantial amount of weeks every semester. And I’m leaving you plenty of weeks for more spontaneous, “liberated” activity, the free exercise of your imagination, not to mention the pursuit of pleasure. As a writing coach, I’m only interested in half your day. And, if you do the math you’ll see that, I’m only proposing that you think this explicitly about the management of one quarter of your life!

I know how it sounds. And I know it’s not for everyone. But maybe it’s worth trying for a few weeks? I’m here to help.

Gaps, Goals, and Questions

If you have followed my advice, the introduction of your draft paper consists of three paragraphs that tell us (1) what kind of world we’re living in, (2) what kind of science you do, and (3) what you have found by doing it. If we don’t also understand why you went looking for it there by such means, then my first suggestion is to make your paragraphs better.

But sometimes even the best prose won’t satisfy an editor’s (or supervisor’s) demands for clarity. You may be asked to make your “research aims” and/or “research question” explicit and to identify your “contributions” to the literature or the “gap” in it that you are proposing to fill. I’ve never been a big fan of these demands (and I’m not alone in this) but they do come up (and sometimes for good reason), so I thought I’d write a few words about how to satisfy them should you run into them.

Like I say, ideally, the solution is already implicit in the three paragraphs you have written. You are just going to make it explicit. Presumably, your paper is based on a study, and that study was trying to answer a question. If you must distinguish between you research “aims” and your your research “question”, it might be worth thinking of the aim as more theoretical and the question as more empirical. What is the general problem you are interested in? Solving it might have been your aim. What is the specific context that you studied? That’s where you’ll be looking for answers to your question.

As a first approximation, try writing a paragraph that will appear between the second and third paragraphs of my standard introduction. That is, it will come after you have (1) evoked a world and (2) invoked a science but before you have (3) proposed a thesis. Paragraph 3 will now become paragraph 4, and in the new third paragraph will bring us from the science, through your research aim and and your research question, to your thesis. You will probably end up with two paragraphs that are in a sense about your “paper”: first (3), it’s problem statement (made by formulating your research aim and your research question) and, second, the study you are presenting (stating it’s thesis and summarizing its method, analysis, and implication, i.e., outlining your paper).

  1. World
  2. Science
  3. Paper
  1. World
  2. Science
  3. Problem (aim/question)
  4. Study (thesis, outline)

And what about the (in)famous “gap” that you might have been asked to identify as part of your literature review? Well, my advice is to make it part of your description of the science you are invoking. Ideally, the lack of prior research on your topic will not be the only thing that defines your field — there will be still be some consensus or controversy to speak of, and you should (in my opinion) presume that your reader will fill in the gap intuitively on the basis of what is already known. That will still put you in a good position to engage with the current commitments of your field.

It may be necessary (that is, your editor or supervisor may require you) to write a whole paragraph delineating this gap in your introduction. You will now have a five-paragraph introduction:

  1. World – the state of the world that interests you
  2. Science – the state of your discipline (consensus, controversy)
  3. Problem – your research aims and research question
  4. Gap – the outlines of the hole in the literature you are filling (contribution)
  5. Study – what your study shows and how it shows it

I personally think this is overly elaborate, and if I were your editor or supervisor I would try to get you do all this, some of it implicitly, in three paragraphs and under 600 words. But if you are being asked to be more explicit, there is a way.

Update on further reading: In the comments, Sébastien reminds me that, in addition to their paper arguing against gap-spotting, Mats Alvesson and Jürgen Sandberg have also written about problem statements and research questions.