General Hints on Writing Papers on the Cold War (or any other topic)
1. Develop your argument.
Don’t just plunge in. Unpack the question you want to address.
- Ask yourself what the point of your argument really is.
- Make sure that you define the main point of the paper and then address it.
- Your argument is posing some issue that turns on the meaning of particular words or on the evidence that can be presented on either side. Define this point as sharply as you can.
2. Plan your approach.
Once you identify the point that you want to get across, brainstorm the arguments that might be made. There will be more than one, on more than one side of the issue.
- Choose the case you want to make and then outline the specifics of your argument.
- Your argument, like the main point you have focused on, will turn on the definitions of terms, the evidence that can be cited, and the logic that strings your case together. Make sure that you cover all these points in your paper.
3. Argue your point.
Never write passively. Never just repeat material you have heard or read in class or in the text.
- To be effective, you need to argue to make your case. You also need to argue against the opposing case(s).
- In making your case, you have to construct an argument from some set of assumptions, evidence, and reasoning. Often the best way to do this is to rebut the case that can be made on the other side(s) of the issue.
- One makes one’s own case by knocking down the opposing arguments.
4. Document what you say.
All arguments are essentially personal. They arise from how you see the issues that have been presented in the question.
- Much hinges on how terms are defined, and this can come down to value judgments.
- Whatever case you argue, its credibility depends critically on documenting it from the films, facts and readings you have encountered in your research.
- You have to make a connection between your personal view and reality, and for this illustrations and citations are essential.
- Never just passively repeat course material, but also never just present an opinion without support.
5. Know your stuff.
There’s no substitute for knowing your material before you come to write about it.
- Clear writing is inseparably connected to clear thinking, and one can only think clearly about what one knows well.
- There is no substitute for having done the readings in the course well, preferably by reducing the most important points to notes. This is the only way to have all the materials you need at your fingertips.
- One reason many people can write best about themselves is that this is the subject we all know most about.
6. Write logically.
Writing is never simply writing. It is always going somewhere. It is making a case.
- Remember the logical structure in the outline you have made for your paper, and carry it through the actual writing.
- Deal with each major point in at least a paragraph.
- Do not meander as you write and come to a conclusion only at the end.
- Do your thinking at the outlining state, and then write out the finished argument.
7. Frontload your writing.
Put the point up front–at the beginning of the paper as a whole, and then at the beginning of each sentence and paragraph.
- Start off with an introduction that states your main contention. Then argue it with a series of paragraphs, each for one stage in the argument. Within each paragraph, put the main point in the first sentence, then elaborate and support it in the rest of the paragraph.
- Put the main subject and verb up front in each sentence. If you write this way it will be easier to keep the logical structure of what you are writing in mind.
8. Write like you speak.
Many people feel that they have to adopt an artificial, convoluted style when they set pen to paper. They are often much more direct and forceful when they speak.
- Write like you speak. Imagine you have only 30 seconds to make your point, and say it.
- Keep it simple. Write mainly using simple nouns and verbs, and avoid unnecessary adjectives and adverbs.
- Less is usually more.
- Do not mimic how other authors, students, or professors would say it. Dare to say it as you would, and you will usually say it more clearly.
- The complexity in your argument, if it is necessary, should lie in the argument itself, in the reasoning and evidence you present, and not in the language.
Rewriting is essential for clarity. Logical or evidence problems that did not appear at the outline stage often surface during the actual writing, requiring restructuring.
- Editing will make your language sharper.
- Strive constantly for simplicity, brevity, and force.
- With each edit, the argument you are making should come out more and more clearly.
(adapted from Professor Lawrence M. Mead)