What Professors Expect from Your Papers
29 JULY 2006
Students often imagine that professors have widely varying expectations for
their work and that students must adjust how they write to suit the individual
preferences of their instructors. In fact, this is not the case. To be sure,
different assignments require different sorts of writing. But, in general, all
first-rate work shares certain basic qualities which every professor immediately
would recognize and reward:
- Thoughtfulness (you must have something worthwhile to say)
- Clarity of expression (you must say it well)
The bigger question is how to do this. The answer is not as mysterious as
you might imagine.
- No matter what the specific assignment, the quality of your work (and
so, your grade) depends most of all on how deeply, carefully, and thoroughly
you have thought about the topic at hand. Thinking is a skill, one that
takes time to develop--doing so is one of the major goals of a liberal arts
- With rare exceptions, merely restating in your own words what you have
read does not constitute "thinking deeply," and so is not sufficient
to earn a "good grade." Understanding what you have read is important,
of course, and is often the first step in writing a good paper. But the
real "test" is what you can do with what you have read.
- Fundamentally, you need to analyze, discuss, interpret or otherwise raise
questions about the material you have read. There are innumerable ways in
which this can be done. The following are a few examples.
- "Playing Jeopardy"—You can explore the "unstated
questions" which underlie the material. Ask yourself: "if
this (idea, position, argument) is the answer, what is the question?"
Often the author does not explicitly state the question which gives
rise to the specific point of view that he or she espouses. Finding
that question, and articulating it, involves reading between the lines.
This is one kind of analysis and demonstrates that you can move past
merely summarizing the author's views.
- Following the "Road Not Taken" (with apologies to Robert
Frost)—You can consider the alternative views to the one which
the author espouses. Every assertion implies a denial, to take one point
of view is implicitly to reject other ways of considering the issue
at hand. You can think through the alternatives and begin to ask yourself:
"why has the author come to this conclusion rather than any of
the others that he or she might have adopted?" Often this helps
to bring the author's ideas into "relief," since you begin
to see them against a background of assumptions and possibilities.
- "Backward and Forward"—Every idea, position or point
of view comes from somewhere and leads somewhere. Again, an author might
not make explicit the presuppositions or the implications of his or
her argument. But you can do so. This will entail asking either "what
must first be true if the author's point is valid?" (presuppositions)
or "if the author's point is valid, what would follow from this?"
(implications). Following the logic of the author's argument an additional
step or two in either direction is one way to probe or analyze the material
you are writing about.
- In all, thinking invariably involves asking questions of some sort. The
challenge is to find the questions which lead in directions that are "illuminating,"
that is, that enable us to see dimensions of the topic which were not immediately
apparent. Of course, sometimes a line of questioning that appears promising
turns out to lead to a "dead end." This is invariably a frustrating
experience. But, with practice, you will learn to judge more readily how
to think "thoughtfully," i.e. how to determine which avenues of
investigation will likely be fruitful.
- Clarity of Expression:
- Once you have something to say, an "insight" into the material,
you need to figure out how to communicate it to someone else. You may
be tempted to simply record on paper the steps you followed in reaching
your conclusion. This, however, is seldom the most effective way to communicate,
since in all likelihood you encountered some "obstacles' or "dead
ends" in your reasoning process which do not need to be recounted.
A better strategy is to articulate the question(s) that you have pursued
and then jump straight to the conclusion you reached. Then you can present
the evidence that supports your conclusion.
- However you choose to organize your exposition, you must choose your
words and put them together carefully to express precisely what you are
thinking. This too is a difficult skill to acquire, and another major
goal of a liberal arts education.
- A "well-written" paper has certain qualities, among them:
- unbroken, clear flow of ideas--Each thought is explicitly connected
to the one which follows. There are no "gaps" in logic,
no places where the reader is left wondering why you started a paragraph,
for example, talking about one thing, but ended talking about something
ostensibly unrelated. Provide explicit transitions from one thought
to the next. In a really tightly structured paper, it is possible
to read the topic sentence (usually the first sentence) of each paragraph
in sequence and follow the author's train of thought from start to
- precision in usage-- Use the words that convey precisely what you
intend. If you write in generalities, your reader will only have a
general idea of what you are saying. Avoid circumlocutions and wordy
phrases; choose words that are concrete and specific. If you are groping
for a word that captures just what you mean, refer to a thesaurus.
Be as concise as possible without compromising fullness of expression.
- correct English grammar and punctuation--In spoken English we take
lots of shortcuts and use idioms which are not acceptable in formal,
academic prose. This is not merely a matter of "being correct"--
often what you are saying becomes quite unintelligible when it is
put in an ungrammatical way. It is obviously impossible here to review
all the relevant rules, but you should own a good grammar handbook
or manual of style and refer to it often. It is particularly important
to use punctuation correctly. There are rules about when to use commas,
semicolons, etc. Learn them and you will discover just how much these
little marks help determine the sense of a string of words.
- proofread for spelling and typographical errors--Written work that
includes obvious mistakes reflects sloppiness. You are all capable
of speaking and writing English correctly. (With the benefit of some
assistance, this should also be true for those of you whose native
language is not English.) If you have any question about how to spell
something, look it up.
Written work that embodies these qualities will be well-received, regardless
of which professor is reading it, for the simple reason that it communicates
Remember: unclear writing is frequently a sign of muddled thinking (and the
converse is true as well). If you are having a hard time expressing your thoughts,
take a step back to reconsider just what it is you are trying to say. Often
outlining or diagramming your paper before you begin to write is a useful tool
for organizing your thoughts.
Writing well takes time. There is no substitute for finishing a draft of your
paper, putting it aside for several hours (or longer), and returning to it with
a fresh perspective. Invariably, mistakes and ambiguities that you had not noticed
when you were in the midst of your first draft will become evident on a second
look. In addition, it is often valuable to have another student read your work
carefully, pointing out what requires further elaboration and what may be superfluous
(professors routinely do this with other professors).
It is your responsibility to gain the skills necessary for clear thinking and
writing, if you do not already possess them. If you know that you have trouble
in one of the areas discussed above, come in and talk with me about it before
you hand in your paper. That way I can work with you to hone your thinking and