Advice from Political Science ProfessorsWriter's Web
Compiled by Dave Roberts, UR Writing Consultant (’07);
Rick Mayes, Ph.D.; Jennifer Erkulwater, Ph.D.; Ellis West, Ph.D.; Daniel Palazzolo, Ph.D. provided information for this segment of Writing in the Disciplines
(printable version here)

4.1 Common Pitfalls for Students

The topics, ideas, and concepts addressed in Political Science classes are challenging; your professors’ expectations for clearly and persuasively expressing your thoughts on these subjects are similarly demanding. Below are listed several common errors students make in composing Political Science papers as well as ways to address these errors.

4.1.1 Logical Fallacies and Errors in Reasoning

Cogent reasoning is perhaps among the most important elements to a strong paper. Should you make many unsupported assertions or display fallacious reasoning in your writing, your grade will suffer greatly. Still, fallacious reasoning is one of the most common problems faculty members identify in student writing. The Writing Center has a series on logical reasoning and cogent ways to support an argument.

4.1.2 Neglecting your Intended Audience

Showing sensitivity toward the audience of your paper is also an oft-overlooked feature in student writing. Without conscience thought about the reader of the paper, students are liable to include excessive (or insufficient) background information, mistake information that needs to be cited for common knowledge, and other serious errors that distract from the purpose of the paper.

So who exactly is this audience to whom you are writing? Most students will quickly point to the professor – and rightly so. It is, after all, the professor who will assign a grade to the paper after reading it. But the professor-as-audience description all too often puts student writers into an excessively results-oriented mindset. And while results are important, good results stem from good writing processes. And improving writing processes requires thinking about your audience as more than simply the professor.

This is admittedly artificial – no one else will actually read your paper other than the professor. Still, selecting this fictitious audience and writing for it can be beneficial: displaying sensitivity toward the audience allows writers to select what background information is necessary to include and how to put the subject into context.

Writing for your audience involved different strategies for different audiences – consider writing an op-ed piece for The Collegian versus presenting a thesis for publication. Truly “considering your audience” is sometimes more about a deliberative pre-writing thought session than any particular trait of writing in a paper.

4.1.3 One-Sided Arguments and Unsupported Assertions

Because so much writing in Political Science is persuasive in one way or another, writers must preserve and guard their capacity to persuade their audiences. Central to this capacity is credibility or believability. If your audience believes that an agenda, pre-conceived view, or ideology is interfering with your interpretation of facts, data, or other information, then all of your arguments – cogent or otherwise – become suspicious and less persuasive.

In order to persuade an audience, a writer often must not only convey supporting facts, but must do so in a way that shows the writer to be dispassionate, willing to consider likely counterarguments, and willing to qualify assertions based upon limited information.

Even when an objection to the writer’s point of view is not cogent, the author may lose significant persuasive authority with the reader by ignoring it. If the counterargument is wrong, after all, it should not be too difficult to address. Integrating a response to a counterargument is simple enough, usually at the beginning of a new paragraph:

“Although some believe that this fact does not imply that [the author’s position] is correct, their view fails to consider [relevant evidence]. For example, Dworkin (1998) argues that [Dworkin’s argument]. However, his position is flawed because [author’s response].”

Always reread your papers to make sure that you have supported the argument you said you would with empirical evidence and reasoned logic. Your arguments should be based on more than just your own personal opinion, observations, or experience.

Reread your paper as if you were it own greatest skeptic. Try to poke holes in your own arguments, and where you find weaknesses, address them – don’t just ignore them.

4.1.4 Overly Broad Claims

Writers can also do much to preserve their credibility by not over-extending themselves. A good paper answers a specific question or questions and is conscious of its scope. With the question and scope of the answer in mind, the author then confines assertions in the paper. This can break down, however, resulting in reduced credibility for the author. Joe Essid, the director of the Writing Center, writes that this is “Perhaps the biggest mistake that you could make in writing for me.”

Introductions and conclusions – because they are often more “general” than the substance of the paper – are areas where these overly broad claims can easily creep in to otherwise good papers. In introductions, students sometimes recite a “well-known” piece of conventional wisdom. Often, this is an oversimplified statement and detracts from the direction in which the author wishes to take the reader. In conclusions, writers may be tempted to overgeneralize their research finding and claim to have settled an important question when, in fact, the claim relies on assumptions the writer did not examine as part of the paper.

Checking claims is thus an essential part of the revising process. One must ask what details support which claim which support what conclusion. Also, they must ask before they make a general claim:

“What other information is necessary to sustain this claim?” and “What assumptions does this claim make?”

Presenting a “strong position” without making qualifications or concessions to opponents is sometimes thought of as an element of good writing; this could not be further from the truth. While presenting a clear position that is well-supported is important, failing to make appropriate concessions simply makes the writer appear stubborn or close-minded – anything but persuasive.

4.1.5 Wordiness and Lack of Concision

Excessive wordiness and awkward phrasing often go hand in hand. Sentences that are choked with too many words are generally imprecise statements that are difficult to understand. You have a limited amount of space in which to convey a certain depth of analysis; therefore, you should strive to make sure that each word, each phrase, and each sentence conveys something important as succinctly and directly as it can. Any phrase that could be shortened, should be shortened. Any word, phrase, or sentence that does not advance your argument in some way should be struck.

Wrong: “Economic-based affirmative action is a plan that has generated a lot of controversy as many people have protested one aspect or another of the plan.”

Right: “Economic-based affirmative action is controversial.”

Here, the first sentence is internally redundant. By definition, a plan that is controversial has people protest one aspect or another of it; therefore, there is no need to say both phrases – one is sufficient to convey the meaning.

When striving for conciseness, keep your sentences, whenever possible, phrased in the active voice. There are times when the passive voice is preferable or unavoidable, but almost always, the active voice is clearer, more direct, and easier to understand.

Wrong: “It is clear that SAT scores are used by college administrators to judge a student’s learning capacity.”

Right: “College administrators clearly use SAT scores to judge a student’s learning capacity.”

4.1.6 Poor Previewing

In literature, you might try to build suspense by holding back on your punchline until the very end. Even in basic logical terms, a conclusion follows from premises. Many students are thus led to wait until the end of a paragraph or even an entire paper to answer the question they (should) raise in the introduction. However, this is not an effective strategy for writing in the social sciences. It only confuses and frustrates your reader (which in this case is also the person grading the paper). Therefore…

Make sure that the reader can identify the argument (not simply the position or conclusion) of your paper is after reading the introductory paragraph (which in the case of short papers should the first paragraph). This means that introductory paragraphs that reveal the structure of the paper but not its argument are not sufficient.

Wrong: “In this paper, I will argue for the Provost’s proposal. I will first explain the importance of diversity and then discuss the funding of the current economic affirmative action plan.”

Right: “I support the Provost’s proposal. While I and many university constituents might be uncomfortable with how the plan is funded, because diversity is such an important educational goal, I believe that the benefits of the plan far outweigh its financial and political costs.”

In the same vein, for each and every paragraph, make sure that the reader can tell what your paragraph’s main argument is after reading just the first sentence or two.

This means that you should avoid weak and ineffective topic sentences. The topic sentence should state the assertion you will defend in the paragraph that follows. It should not be a statement of facts or a general throw-away line.

Wrong: “Only nine percent of the UR student body comes from a family with an annual income of less than $40,000.”

Wrong: “I am troubled by the statistics.”

Correct: “If we value diversity, we must have economic affirmative action because underprivileged students are vastly underrepresented in the student body.”

Then to this sentence, you can add the factual statement to support the assertion: “Only nine percent of the UR student body comes from a family with an annual income of less than $40,000, a troubling statistic indeed given that low-income individuals comprise over 40 percent of the American population.”

Topic sentences are an important component in giving your paper analytical coherence and flow. It is easy for beginning writers to “save” the topic sentence until the very end of the paragraph, but this breaks the orderly unfolding of your ideas.

4.1.7 Grammatical Errors

One professor laments frequent punctuation and grammatical usage errors in students’ papers, saying, “Following basic punctuation and grammatical rules is a must!” Though grammar is often thought of as a lower concern than substance (and it is – it makes sense to get content right before polishing the draft), effective presentation is essential to conveying your argument. Another professor writes, “The content of any paper stands – or falls – on how well it is presented.”

Four errors seem to occur more frequently in Political Science papers: semi-colon usage errors, pronoun-antecedent agreement, dangling participles, and plural and possessive cases.

Semi-colons: First, when you have a serial list that already uses a number of commas. For example:

“At the meeting were June Aprille, the provost; William Cooper, the president; and Any Newcomb, the dean of the school of arts and sciences.

Second, when you are separating two independent clauses. For example:

“There are no new ideas left; we have heard them all before.”

Do not use a semi-colon when you are separating an independent clause from a dependent one. Instead, use a comma. For example:

Wrong: “We must grant admissions preferences; not only to racial minorities but also to students from low-income families.”

Correct: “We must grant admissions preferences, not only to racial minorities but also to students from low-income families.”

Note that adding a conjunction between two independent clauses turns it into a compound sentence. Use a comma, not a semi-colon, to separate the two clauses.

Wrong: “I thought I knew what I was doing; but I was wrong.”

Correct: “I thought I knew what I was doing, but I was wrong.”

Antecedent agreement: If your noun is singular, the pronoun that refers to it must be singular. This is true even if you do not know the gender of the noun. And never use he/she (or for that matter and/or). Pick a gender and stick with it. Some professors will be more concerned with gender neutrality than others.

Wrong: “A person might not succeed in their chosen major.”
Wrong: “A person might not succeed in his/her chosen major.”
Correct: “A person might not succeed in his major.”

Dangling participles: When your sentence starts with a parenthetical phrase, that phrase automatically modifies your sentence subject. Make sure that the subject of the sentence is also the subject of the phrase:

Wrong: “With so many hours devoted to extracurricular activities, the University should do something to help its overextended students.”
Correct: “With so many hours devoted to extracurricular activities, students can easily become overextended, and the University should step in to help.”

Here the parenthetical phrase is talking about the students, not the University, so the students need to be the subject of the sentence.

Plural v. possessive case: Add an “s” to make a noun plural (as in students) and “’s” to make is possessive (as in student’s). Do not confuse the two cases. Finally, remember the plural possessive (as in students’).

4.2 Other Advice from Professors on the Writing Process

4.2.1. Start – and finish – early.

Procrastination produces a rushed process and the errors that accompany it: from things as minor as typographic mistakes to as serious as plagiarism, unintentional or otherwise. Finishing early allows for more revision, more perspective on the topic, and less stress throughout the entire process

4.2.2 Revise.

Rome wasn’t built in a day; your paper isn’t likely to be complete with one draft. Revise both for substantive issues and for grammar and other surface-level concerns. Content is important to finish before surface-level issues; after all, if one has to change significant portions of content, significant re-writing may be necessary. In this case, it is a waste of time to make a bad argument using proper grammar – get the argument first.

“Getting distance” from a draft is important in the revising process. If one has finished early, taking a day away from a paper is not necessarily bad and can afford valuable perspective on the goal the writer is pursuing in writing a paper.

4.2.3 If you have questions, ask your professor.

Political Science professors maintain extensive office hours and are always willing to set up appointments outside of those hours. But be sure to get the most traction you can get out of these meetings: try writing, figure out what gives you problems in the writing process, and come prepared with questions. Just as important, write down what professors say – it is all too easy for students to passively listen to a professor during a meeting and forget how to address an issue when staring at drafts.

4.2.4 Don’t be afraid to use the Writing Center.

Take time to become familiar with the Writing Center’s resources – the Center offers everything from the Writer’s Web online handbook to free Consultantials made through an Appointment Sign-Up Calendar. The Writing Center lists Consultants by their majors so that you can select a person with more experience in social sciences if you wish. However, this is not necessary – all Consultants will be able to provide assistance in some way.

Just as you should come prepared to meetings with professors, come prepared to Writing Center appointments: submit your draft and assignment instructions early (along with any questions you have at that time), know what you want to focus on in the conference, and write down any advice that the Consultant gives to you or insights that you have in the conference.

4.2.5 Good writing begins with good reading.

An absolutely essential element to consistent strong writing is possessing perspective on the issue. This perspective is cultivated by being well-versed in literature on the subject. This way, a writer has an idea about what to emphasize, key pieces of information, and likely counterarguments and objections to his or her position. With this broad literature base in mind, the transition to writing becomes much smoother. Moreover, reading good writing and examining how other authors have progressed through an article can provide examples for students to follow when writing their own theses statements, hypotheses, and transition sentences.

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