I don’t normally repost articles. But as we’re working through our Back to School Series, I thought this topic was worth visiting again. I still see too many students destroying their own research papers with this one simple mistake.
I’ve made quite a few changes to the original version, so here’s an updated description of how you too can destroy your research paper from the very beginning.
Some words should never find their way into research papers. Wikipedia is pretty high on that last (though I do think you can and should use Wikipedia for research). So is anything that is not technically a word (IMHO). Fortunately, though I’ve heard from others who’ve experienced the terror of encountering these in papers, I have not yet experienced them myself. That’s a good thing.
But there is one mistake I run across all too frequently, one that I’d like to see disappear forever: papers that begin with something like the following:
“I would like to try to explore the possibility of….”
This sentence and its ilk taint the beginnings of far too many otherwise good papers. Using a sentence like this to describe your paper is like building a solid table and then ripping one of its legs off. It may still be standing, but no one will want to use it. With one sentence, you’ve ruined your own research paper.
3 Problems of a Weak Thesis
1. You Are Not an Explorer
Explore (investigate, consider, etc.): Really? You’re handing in a 20-page research paper and you’ve only “explored” something? I’ll assume that you didn’t find anything interesting, otherwise you would tell me. Right? You wouldn’t keep that a secret, would you? Because if I thought that you found something cool and were just keeping it from me, I’d be pretty upset, which is bad. So as your reader, I only have two options here:
- You didn’t find anything interesting and I shouldn’t bother reading your paper.
- You found something interesting, but you’re hiding from me, and I should be angry with you.
Neither option ends well for you.
So I’d suggest that you go ahead and tell me what you found. If Indiana Jones goes on an expedition and finds some ancient and extremely valuable treasure, he doesn’t come back and tell people that he just explored for a while. He tells them what he found! So start with that.
And by the way, not finding something is still a discovery. If you went looking for X and didn’t find X, that’s worth reporting. If nothing else, you’ve demonstrated that it’s not there.
2. Trying Is Not Doing
Try to (attempt to, seek to, etc.): This just makes it worse. With “explore” you’re telling me that you wandered around for a while exploring without actually finding anything. Now you’re admitting that you’re not even sure you accomplished that! You didn’t actually explore, you just tried to.
Wow, it must have been hard. Did you encounter monsters, nefarious evil-doers, or traps with poisoned darts along the way? I can definitely see how those who make it difficult to complete your exploratory expedition.
Whatever the obstacles, I appreciate that you put forth the effort. But your paper would make much more compelling reading if you gave me some reason to believe, especially here at the beginning, that you may have actually succeeded. Since it doesn’t sound like you did, I think I’ll just stop here.
3. Doubt Comes Before the Fall
Possibility: This just keeps getting better. Now we’re not even sure that this thing you’re going to try to explore even exists. And what’s worse, I’m reading this after you’ve supposedly tried to explore it. So all I can conclude is that even though you’ve already tried to explore it, you’re still not sure whether it exists. I don’t know about you, but I have better things to do with my time than read about somebody who tried to explore some non-existent thing.
The Genesis of a Weak Thesis
So with one sentence you’ve completely undermined my confidence in your argument. And you’ve done it by making it exceptionally clear that you don’t have any confidence in your own argument.
Nonetheless, I find sentences like this in papers all the time. Why is that? Why are so many students eager to destroy their own papers at the very beginning?
1. Fearing Commitment
Students use language like this as a shield they can hide behind. If I say, “I am going to argue that X is true,” I’ve backed myself into a corner and I’d better make my argument. But if I just say that I’m going to “explore” the possibility of X, I’ve left an open door for escape. I haven’t really committed to anything, so there’s nothing to worry about.
Fear is a powerful motivator for creating weak arguments.
2. Beginning with the Beginning
Introductions like this read as if the student wrote it first and never came back to revise it later. At the beginning of your journey, it makes perfect sense to say that you’re going to explore something. That’s what you’re doing at the beginning.
So if you want to sketch an introduction from that perspective at the beginning to clarify in your own mind what your purposes are, fine. But that’s not the end of the story. When your paper is done, you should have something more interesting to report. And since I’m obviously reading the paper after it’s all done, why not go ahead and tell me what that is?
Unless there’s something uniquely interesting about the specifics of your journey, your paper should not simply narrate your learning process. It should make an argument. And if that’s what you’re doing, make it clear from the beginning.
Before you turn in your paper, read your introduction again. If it doesn’t set your paper up for success, revise it!
3. Having No Heart
Of course, it’s entirely possible that the problem is with the paper, not the introduction. Maybe you don’t have anything more interesting to report. If your paper just wanders around and “explores” or “summarizes” a lot of information, there’s not much your introduction can do to jazz that up.
If this is the case, then your paper has no heart, no soul. It will read more like a dictionary than an argument.
Unfortunately, if this is your problem, you’ve got some work to do. Simply re-writing your introduction won’t be enough. You need to dive back in and make an argument. Yes, it’s more work. But you’ll learn more, and your teacher will be much happier.
4. Thinking Like a Student
I think this lies at the heart of the problem for many. Growing up, we’re told that the student’s job is to learn. So we create papers from the perspective of the learner, writing tentatively and cautiously rather than confidently and authoritatively. That may be fine earlier in our academic careers (though I’d question that as well), but not anymore.
If you haven’t already, it’s time to give yourself permission to be a teacher. You’ve done the research. You’ve (hopefully) constructed an argument and drawn a conclusion. Now you’re the teacher. Teach me.
Just Do It
Do or do not. There is no try.
Yoda was a very wise man…person…goblin…thing.
[This post was originally part of our "How to Survive and Thrive as a Postgrad" series, and we've now included it as part of our Back to School series, which explores a variety of things we can do to get the new school year started right. Follow along and let us know what you think.]
This post . But this particular tip is for writing research papers at every level.