Political Science Papers: Writing an “A” Paper
By Dave Roberts ('07) and Rachel Hall ('14), UR Writing Consultants, with content and editing
Rick Mayes, Ph.D., Daniel Palazzolo, Ph.D.,and Thad Williamson, Ph.D.
(printable version here)
Many Political Science professors evaluate a paper with four specific
elements in mind:
(1) how well it is structured,
(2) how clearly and
(3) precisely it is written, and
(4) how rigorously it is argued.
In this section, we explore these four elements. Before one can discuss
these parts of a good paper, though, one must consider the process by
which one will compose a paper that satisfies and exceeds expectations
in these areas. Finally, this section discusses some additional expectations
for “A” papers.
6.2 The Process of Writing an “A” Paper: Sequencing Tasks
6.3 What Does it Mean for a Paper to be Well-Structured,
Clear, Precise, and Rigorous?
6.4. Other Elements to Writing an “A”
6.1 Evaluative Rubric
Dr. Dan Palazzolo of the University of Richmond Political Science Department provided his First Year Seminar (FYS) students in his Fall 2010 class "Democracy and the Deficit" with the following rubric to evaluate their political science papers:
|Need to specify key
terms of the thesis
|Thesis is unclear
||Clear topic sentences;
|Topic sentences need
improvement; or a few
|Claims not well
|Sentences have a
clear subject and
|Occasional passive voice
and unecessary prepositional
||Proper use of
|A few problems
Sources properly and
|Citations are not used
properly or consistent
|Fails to cite
6.2 The Process of Writing an “A” Paper: Sequencing
Professor Rick Mayes suggests you follow these eight steps when you are
writing a paper. Developing a good process is essential to producing good
work, and following a system similar to this will help you write good
papers and avoid confusing yourself as you develop your argument.
1. Identify a topic. At this most general stage, you are searching for
ideas. A good piece of advice is to identify a puzzle or something that
“doesn’t quite fit” or match expectations. Particularly
in advanced courses, try to address an issue that is in some way “new”
or emphasizes a different part of the issue than other scholarly papers.
2. Narrow the scope. Issues have many facets; choosing which one or ones
to discuss and subsequently limiting analysis to these key parts is one
thing that separates the “A” writer from the “B”
and “C” writers.
3. Identify your question and formulate hypotheses. Are you trying to
describe an occurrence, such as patterns of black voting in the 2004 Presidential
election? Or explain why national health insurance has not become a reality
in U.S. public policy? Or prescribe a policy to deal with Iranian nuclear
ambitions? Keep in mind your goal in terms of the levels of analysis,
then formulate hypotheses that you will test in the course of your research.
Note at this point that you do not – or at least, probably should
not – have a “thesis” in the conventional sense at this
point. After all, the position you take should be determined by the evidence
you find, not the other way around. Your hypotheses act as preliminary
assertions that you will critically examine.
4. Conduct your research, testing your hypotheses. Find relevant data,
whether it is primary or secondary, and subject your preliminary hypotheses
to scrutiny in light of your findings. Were your predictions accurate
or do they need to be revised in light of your findings?
5. Formulate your thesis and write an outline of your paper. With your
hypotheses tested, you should now have an idea of the argument you will
make. Know the argument before you begin writing, and even before you
begin outlining. Identify your position, then what you need to prove to
support it and how you will structure this evidence. This structure forms
6. Write a draft. Get it on paper. Even if it’s “in your head,”
you’re likely to run into complications when you put pen to paper
and deal with how to phrase arguments, when to address key points, and
other organizational issues. Revise your outline if necessary, but work
from this now-revised outline to keep your writing directed.
7. Make revisions. Take a day off – go to the river, sunbathe on
the green, hit golf balls – get some distance from your work. Then,
come back to it. Ask yourself tough questions: is this view supported
adequately in my paper? Is this word, sentence, or paragraph even necessary?
How does it contribute to my argument?
8. Have others review your (near)-final draft. Depending on your professor’s
instructions, you may be invited – or required – to engage
in peer editing. Other professors are willing to read drafts of papers
before they are submitted. Of course, before you share your paper with
others to gain advice, be sure that this is alright with your instructor.
What Does it Mean for a Paper to be Well-Structured, Clear, Precise, and
A well-structured paper progresses in a logically coherent pattern of thought,
from paragraph to paragraph, sentence to sentence, and word to word. Begin
with a compelling introductory paragraph that clearly and precisely states
the purpose of the paper and identifies the points you plan to develop
in the paper. An introduction should literally “introduce”
the points that you plan to develop in the paper. I cannot stress enough
the importance of a good introduction.
If the introduction is formulated properly, the rest of the paper should
flow accordingly. The remaining paragraphs should begin to develop points
identified in the introduction. Within each paragraph, each sentence should
follow logically from the preceding sentence, and sentence itself should
be written clearly and concisely.
Warning: An important skill in writing a well structured
paper is to know when to begin and end a paragraph. If a paper has too
few paragraph breaks, it runs the risk of losing the reader’s attention;
if a paper has too many paragraph breaks it will be difficult to follow.
Begin each paragraph with a topic sentence, or “controlling theme,”
one that defines the main point you plan to develop in the paragraph.
When the theme has been fully developed, i.e. you have exhausted what
you can say about it, move on to the next paragraph and begin to develop
6.3.2 Clearly Written
Writing “clearly” means writing so that the reader can understand
what you are trying to communicate without straining for the meaning of
your thoughts. Clarity does not come easily, but it is an essential aspect
of effective writing. Select your words carefully, read over your sentences
and ask yourself, again and again, does that sentence make sense? If a
sentence is unclear to you, chances are it will be unclear to other readers.
It is always a good idea to have someone else, preferably a tough critic,
read over your paper and place question marks next to unclear points.
Of course, one would want to clarify any ambiguous points indicated by
the reader before submitting the final draft of the paper.
6.3.3 Precisely Written
A “precise” paper will convey the writer's meaning exactly
as he or she intended it. Precision is difficult to achieve because we
commonly assume in everyday life that people know what we mean without
telling them exactly what we mean. We typically communicate in “ballpark”
language. The basic ground rule of ballpark language is that we only need
to talk in superficial terms in order to communicate with each other.
Thus we are in the ballpark, but not exactly sure what the score is, or
perhaps even which team is at bat and which is in the field. Nor do we
dare ask for more specific instructions; we're just happy to be in the
When we write formal papers, we not only want the reader to be in the
ballpark, we want the reader to know the inning, the score, the count,
the number of players on base, the record of the pitcher, the batting
average of the batter, and any other relevant information that a fan passing
by might want to know when he/she asks, “Hey, what's going on in
this game?” So, specify loose sounding phrases or “buzzwords.”
To continue with the metaphor, assume that the reader is interested in
more than being in the ballpark; the reader is interested in the specific
aspects of the game.
Warning: The word “etc.” is terribly imprecise
and unacceptable in a formal paper. Use of “etc.” is fine
for grocery shopping lists (one can always return to the 7-11 if one forgets
the milk) and letters to Uncle Joe or Aunt Sue (they will understand that
you are too busy writing papers to go into detail about life at the University
of Richmond), but not for developing a precise argument.
6.3.4 Rigorously Argued
A “rigorous” paper substantiates the central argument and
the major points underlying the argument with proof or logical reasoning.
Your research should produce facts, quotations, examples, statistics,
or sound reasoning to support your argument. The strength of any paper
depends partly on how certain the writer is of the argument he or she
is making. One can only be certain about an argument if one has sufficient
evidence to support the argument itself. Rigor is the difference between
a mere opinion and a well informed, well reasoned argument.
6.4 Other Elements to Writing an “A”
“A” range grades are given for truly outstanding written work
that not only meets the basic requirements of the given assignment but
also demonstrates exceptional insight, clarity, and depth of thought.
For instance, an A-range paper will not simply forward a coherent argument,
but also anticipate and attempt to answer likely objections to the argument,
and/or acknowledge points at which one’s argument might be vulnerable.