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The Shape of an Academic Paper

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1 The Shape of an Academic Paper
Dennis Jerz Seton Hill University 31 Mar 2006

2 An Academic Paper Has a Shape
The following examples use dummy text, highlighted to emphasize structural details. We’ll analyze a simple structure. Your instructor may ask for a specific, more complicated structure. The basic principles will still apply.

3 Shape of a 3-page Essay

4 Shape of a 3-page Essay Mechanics MLA Style Pagination Title Block
Paper Title Indented Blocks Inline quotes Nothing new here.

5 Organization I’ve reformatted the text from the previous image into this schematic.

6 Organization Introduction (Olive) Conclusion (Black)
First Point (Yellow) Second Point (Blue) Third Point (Magenta) Conclusion (Black)

7 Caution! Three mini-papers do not make a coherent argument.
Note: You don’t need exactly 3 points. Note: One point may require more than one paragraph.

8 Controlling Idea Intro: A clear thesis (Green). “Huck’s conflicted conscience is a moral mirror of his times.” Body: Relate points to thesis. “The most obvious way that Huck reflects the morality of his time is…” “Huck further illustrates an ethical conflict when he…” “Huck more subtly comments on contemporary morality when he…” Conclusion: Not just a summary. Rather, it is the destination at which the paper has been driving all along.

9 Follow a Blueprint A good thesis (green) briefly introduces the supporting points (yellow, blue, magenta). The paper should treat those points, in the order in which the thesis mentions them.

10 Use Quotations Support your points with direct references to the texts you are studying (light green). Every paragraph in this example includes several brief direct quotes. That’s good.

11 Use Quotations This sample three-page paper includes only two block quotes. That’s probably enough. Instead of quoting long blocks, integrate brief excerpts into your own sentences. Paraphrase longer passages. (But you’ll still need to cite the source.)

12 Stay on Topic Avoid starting with a list of ideas that you do not plan to investigate thoroughly. X “There are many ways of looking at subject A. Some people say X, some say Y, and some say Z. This paper will argue Q, which involves points Q1, Q2, and Q3.” The reference to Z, Y, and Z appears to be a plan for the paper, but it turns out to be a dead end.

13 Pack Your Thesis Paragraph (Don’t Pad)
Both sample thesis paragraphs include direct quotations (light green). Both samples point forwards towards the conclusion (black).

14 Continue In an Orderly Fashion
Both papers continue to handle each of the supporting points in the same order in which they were introduced.

15 A Bare List Looks Like Uncertainty
The first example lists the supporting points, but so briefly that it’s almost as if the author doesn’t yet know what to talk about: Clemens lampoons (1) religious dogma, (2) racial prejudice, and (3) anti-social violence. [Why should the reader care? Does anybody doubt that Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is a satirical comedy? What’s your point?]

16 Start Persuading Right Away!
The second example begins the argument right away. (1) Clemens humorously contrasts the rigid religious beliefs of the Widow Douglas with Huck’s native conscience. (2) We see a similar opposition between the senseless racial diatribes of Pap, and the sentimentalized portrayal of Jim. (3) Huck also finds himself torn between civilization and nature. Huck’s comically exaggerated motion across these three thresholds mirrors his moral development. [Oh, I see – your point is that the exaggeration helps throw the moral conflict into sharper focus. This sounds like a much better paper.]

17 Avoid Looking Backwards
Avoid back-stitching This author recognized the need to supply transitions… …but simply tacked the topic sentence from the next paragraph onto the end of the previous. The flow suffers.

18 Don’t Delay Synthesis Only in the conclusion do the three main ideas appear together. That’s much too late.

19 Build on Your Strengths
This author should revise. Take the last few sentences of the conclusion and work them into the thesis paragraph.

20 As Always, Style Matters
Mechanically following any of these guidelines won’t guarantee success. A clunky or misleading transition is often worse than no transition at all. First get the structure down, then revise for style and elegance.

21 More Pointers A single source, character or event is not the same thing as a supporting point. Source A, Source B, and Source C may each offer important insight. Character A, character B, and character C may each be important. But… writing a paragraph about each will lead to dry summary, rather than insightful synthesis and evaluation.

22 Review -- Organization
Carefully introduce all supporting points in your thesis paragraph. You don’t need exactly three points. Some points need more than one paragraph.

23 Review – Quotations Support your points with direct quotations.
Avoid long block quotations. Prefer shorter quotes (integrated into your own sentences).

24 Review – Controlling Idea
Introduce each new point by relating it directly back to your thesis. Never let your reader lose sight of your main idea.

25 Integrate! Weave your ideas together tightly.
“Blue” paragraph refers to the “green” thesis and “yellow” ideas. “Magenta” paragraph refers to the “green” thesis, “yellow” ideas and “blue” ideas.

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