The Ideal Paper

Academic writers, whether they are students or scholars, sometimes get distracted by their extrinsic motivations. They write for publication or examination and they imagine their reader in the position of an editor or a teacher and, in any case, as standing in judgment. This is entirely understandable, but it must be emphasized that the purpose of a paper is not to garner favorable reviews or good grades. The purpose of a paper is to expose the writer’s ideas to the criticism of people who are qualified to say that they are wrong. It is only when the paper is read by a peer, and the peer understands what the writer thinks is true, that the purpose of the paper is accomplished.

I sometimes have to remind my authors that I’m not providing them with instructions for how to actually write a paper, or how to write an actual paper. (To tell you the truth, I sometimes have to remind myself of this.) I’m telling them how to write an ideal paper, which is to say, a paper that perfectly exposes the writer’s ideas to the criticism of their peers. This may seem like I’m encouraging their perfectionism, but in fact the opposite is true. I’m trying to remind them that of course they’re not going to write the perfect paper and that at some point they’ll have to submit it anyway. The important thing is to be able to imagine what a paper would, ideally, be doing if it were perfect. Then we can begin to accept the imperfections that our various “realities” impose on us.

The ideal paper occupies less than hour of the reader’s attention. It consists of about forty paragraphs, each of which takes about one minute to read and supports, elaborates, or defends one of the writer’s beliefs. The ideal paper presents a result that challenges the reader’s understanding of either current theory or current practice on the basis of carefully collected data that represents the world in which we live, framed by the writer’s science, which is the same as the reader’s. The result can be summarized in a single sentence that is both theoretically meaningful and empirically significant. It cannot be understood (properly) by someone who is unfamiliar with the relevant theory, and it cannot be known to be true without the analysis of the empirical data that the paper presents. The ideal paper also proposes a series of implications of the tension between theory and practice that the writer has, ideally, discovered. In the closing paragraphs, the paper returns the reader to the world or the science in which they began with fresh eyes.

The ideal paper is visible as an outline in its key sentences, and palpable in the prose of its paragraphs. We can sketch out the argument of a paper by listing the central claim that is established in each paragraph. We will make claims about the world and the science, about the paper the paper itself; we will establish a background and frame our object with theory; we will present a plausible method; we will offer an analysis of the data; we will discuss the implications of the results. We will state, finally, the conclusion, and we will end firmly in the world or the science where we began. Each paragraph will flesh out its particular claim with support, elaboration or defense, depending on whether the reader will find it hard to believe, understand, or agree with. The ideal paper helps the reader overcome forty little difficulties one minute at a time.

The ideal paper is not necessarily publishable and published papers are not usually ideal. Indeed, sometimes we are obligated to publish less than ideal papers simply because it would be wrong to leave our results in the file drawer. Only ambition and vanity prevent us from doing so. Students, of course, are doomed to submit their less than perfect papers continuously during their studies. That’s the whole point. But this does not mean that we should be sitting down to write under the pressure of the “requirements” of a cruel world. Every paragraph can be given conditions that approach the ideal. Every paragraph can be written, as we say these days, “aspirationally”. In reality, we will always fail. But, as Samuel Beckett, of all people, reminds us, if we stick to it, we can fail ever better.

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