The First Two Questions

“Writing a paper is not an inconvenience to deal with but an occasion to rise to.”
Thomas Basbøll

Before Easter, I suggested a list of questions that are worth answering if you’re thinking about writing a paper. Yesterday, I was heartened by the positive reactions to the tweet I have quoted in my epigraph. Today, it occurs to me that a good way of clarifying the occasion in question is to look closely at the first two questions.

  • What is going on in the world that warrants your study?
  • What is the current consensus or controversy about it in your discipline?

Now, if you’re following my advice, you will not just try to think or talk your way out of them. You will sit down (or stand, if you prefer) and compose two coherent prose paragraphs that answers them, consisting of at least six sentences and at most two-hundred words each. The first will evoke the world that your research explores and the second will invoke the science that studies it. You will devote about half an hour (or, if you’re hard core, exactly 27 minutes) to the composition of each paragraph. You will imagine these paragraphs as occupying the first two minutes of your reader’s attention. The next paragraph, which I will talk about in another post, will describe your paper, stating its conclusion, declaring its method, summarizing its analysis, and announcing its implications. That’s a lot to get done in under two-hundred words and one minute of your reader’s attention. So those first two paragraphs have to get you into a good position to pull it off.

I’m assuming we’re talking about an empirical paper. That is, you have studied an “object” of some kind and discovered some interesting “facts” about it. Now, this object is situated in a broader setting, which, at its most general, is simply “the world”. In that first paragraph, you are describing the environment in which your object lives and, importantly, in which its existence means something. You are implicitly telling your reader why your study is important; if the world that this first paragraph evokes is interesting to your reader then so, in some sense, will your object. The second paragraph will then frame this world with a scientific theory, and a theory is always a way of looking at the objects together, the way a particular community looks at things in the world “objectively,” whether they agree or disagree. Importantly, this theory is presumably familiar to the reader. Readers who do not recognize the consensus or controversy you here introduce are not the intended readers of your paper. They are not your “peers”. The paragraph should be written as a reminder to the reader of the current state of the conversation in your discipline on the state of the world described in your first paragraph.

One way to see what these paragraphs are supposed to do is to imagine stating your research question immediately afterward. That question should now make perfect sense. (Your next paragraph, like I say, will answer it.) It should ask something interesting of an object that belongs in the world, using the conceptual apparatus of your discipline. In fact, you should be able to imagine that a peer could design a study much like yours to answer it. That is, you have given yourself the occasion that writing a paper is meant to rise to.

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