Evaluating Political Science Papers: Writing an “A” PaperWriter's Web
By Dave Roberts ('07) and Rachel Hall ('14), UR Writing Consultants, with content and editing assistance by 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.

6.1 Rubric
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” Paper

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:

  High Quality Medium Quality Low Quality
Thesis Very clear
and organized
Need to specify key
terms of the thesis
Thesis is unclear
and imprecise
Organization Clear topic sentences;
coherent paragraphs
Topic sentences need
improvement; or a few
"random" points
within paragraphs
Evidence Claims are
Occasional, but
inconsistent, support
for claims
Claims not well
Sentences have a
clear subject and
active verbs
Occasional passive voice
and unecessary prepositional
General problem
with sentence
Grammar Proper use of
A few problems General misuse
of grammar
Sources properly and
consistently cited
Citations are not used
properly or consistent
Fails to cite

6.2 The Process of Writing an “A” Paper: Sequencing Tasks

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 your structure.

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.

6.3 What Does it Mean for a Paper to be Well-Structured, Clear, Precise, and Rigorous?

6.3.1 Well-Structured

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 another point.

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 ballpark.

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” Paper

“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.

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