The Paper

Particular author guidelines notwithstanding, a standard social science paper is 8000 words long. If we assume 200 words to the paragraph, that gives us 40 paragraphs. These are, of course, very rough rules of thumb. Most paragraphs will be under 200 words (e.g., 40 x 150 words = 6000 words) and many journals will count references and figures in those 8000 words. But a standard paper in the social sciences will normally say roughly 40 things and support, elaborate or defend them, which means that, in a certain sense, you have to know 40 things to write a paper in the social sciences. The sooner you decide what those 40 things are, the easier your writing will be. If you write your paragraphs in formal “writing moments”, you can expect to write a paper in about 20 hours.

A well-written journal article will present a single, easily identifiable claim. It will provide an argument, not just for the truth of that claim, but for its relevance for a particular line of inquiry. It will also situate both the claim and the line of inquiry in a world of shared concern that goes beyond the narrow, scholarly interests of both the writer and the reader. Within those narrow limits, however, it will respect the field’s theoretical and methodological commitments. Before it is over, it will offer a simple one-paragraph statement of the argument for the central claim of the paper that assumes that the very knowledgeable and highly intelligent reader has understood the rest of it.

Where in the world is your object? What do we expect to see when we find it? What did you do to look at it and why did you do it that way? What did you see when you found it? Where does that leave us? 

To this end, a standard empirical paper in the social sciences can be divided into seven sections, with a certain amount of paragraphs each. For example:

  1. Introduction (3 paragraphs)
  2. Background (5)
  3. Theory (5)
  4. Method (5)
  5. Analysis (15)
  6. Discussion (5)
  7. Conclusion (2)

These are of course rules of thumb, not to be followed slavishly. But they should give you some sense of the finitude of the problem of writing a research paper. The essence of planning is to appreciate your finitude.

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