Like any discourse community, political scientists have their own rules and norms. Much of this description will not seem anathema to other forms of writing, but some guidelines are somewhat unique to the kind of writing that students in Politics classes need to do. Keep in mind that, even within the department, different professors have different expectations. Admittedly, most of the guidelines laid out below are taken from David Elliott of the Politics Department, though many of his suggestions, guidelines, and strategies would be acceptable to most, if not all, political scientists.
Developing a Thesis
Like in many disciplines, the thesis for a politics paper must both respond to and invite a debate. Ask the following questions of a thesis to see if it meets expectations:
Does it respond to the prompt?
Could someone disagree with the writer’s thesis?
Does the thesis draw on, and derive a generalization from, a broad array of facts?
While the second question is perhaps the most important, and like each of the other two, must be answered affirmatively for the thesis to pass muster, the third is essential as well. The argument must be based on the facts presented in class readings, but a litany of facts alone will not suffice. After doing the reading, the student must glean a one or two sentence generalization from those facts, creating a model in which each of those facts fit. This is arguably the most difficult part of writing the paper.
For example, consider the response to the prompt: “Describe the changes in U.S. foreign policy following September 11, 2001.” There are many appropriate theses that can respond to the prompt, including the following: “The morning of September 11th has been viewed by many as a great turning point for U.S. foreign policy, a day that shaped our guiding principles just as it clarified the type of challenges we faced. Yet in reality, these trends did not begin that fateful autumn morning when nearly three thousand Americans lost their lives—they merely accelerated. The United States had already come a long way from the collapse of the Soviet Union, when the world entered what Charles Krauthamer accurately termed the “Unipolar Moment,” a moment of unprecedented American power.”
After stating the thesis in the introductory section, some background is most likely required. While some professors may say that no background is desired, some context must be laid before an argument can be effectively developed. To continue with the example above, a discussion of Bush I and Clinton’s foreign policy is necessary before one can argue that Bush II’s foreign policy was an acceleration of, rather than a departure from, the policies that came before. Such context should follow the thesis-containing introduction and precede the argument.
The argument itself can be structured any variety of ways, but a solely chronological approach for time-sensitive arguments rarely suffices. Such an argument often traps students into producing a summary of, rather than an argument employing, relevant information from the readings. Arguments that are broken down into thematic chunks, while more difficult to effectively organize, are preferable.
It is important to differentiate the student’s ideas from those he is citing. Whenever someone else’s opinion is referenced, preface that opinion with “John Smith states” or “Jane Doe writes,” etc. For arguments made by the author that are stated in response to other facts or opinions, use phrases like “It is clear that…,” or “It seems more likely that…,” in order to make clear that the student is speaking without employing the first person. Also, be mindful of the professor’s expectations with regards to quotations—some prefer approximately 10% of the text to be quoted, others say that students may not include any quotations. It is essential that the student be aware of this, as well as the means by which quoting can be avoided in favor of paraphrasing.
Write the Introduction Last
It is extremely possible, if not likely, that the thesis will change after the entire draft has been written. Over the course of writing a long draft, facts come up that cause the student to tweak his model, and this recursive process is essential for the entire paper to remain coherent. Only after writing the concluding section should the student return to the beginning of the paper to write the introduction and thesis statement in a way that mirrors the conclusion.