What Professors Expect from Your Papers
29 JULY 2006

Students often imagine that professors have widely varying expectations for their work and that students must adjust how they write to suit the individual preferences of their instructors. In fact, this is not the case. To be sure, different assignments require different sorts of writing. But, in general, all first-rate work shares certain basic qualities which every professor immediately would recognize and reward:

  1. Thoughtfulness (you must have something worthwhile to say)
  2. Clarity of expression (you must say it well)

The bigger question is how to do this. The answer is not as mysterious as you might imagine.

  1. Thoughtfulness:
    1. No matter what the specific assignment, the quality of your work (and so, your grade) depends most of all on how deeply, carefully, and thoroughly you have thought about the topic at hand. Thinking is a skill, one that takes time to develop--doing so is one of the major goals of a liberal arts education.
    2. With rare exceptions, merely restating in your own words what you have read does not constitute "thinking deeply," and so is not sufficient to earn a "good grade." Understanding what you have read is important, of course, and is often the first step in writing a good paper. But the real "test" is what you can do with what you have read.
    3. Fundamentally, you need to analyze, discuss, interpret or otherwise raise questions about the material you have read. There are innumerable ways in which this can be done. The following are a few examples.
      1. "Playing Jeopardy"—You can explore the "unstated questions" which underlie the material. Ask yourself: "if this (idea, position, argument) is the answer, what is the question?" Often the author does not explicitly state the question which gives rise to the specific point of view that he or she espouses. Finding that question, and articulating it, involves reading between the lines. This is one kind of analysis and demonstrates that you can move past merely summarizing the author's views.
      2. Following the "Road Not Taken" (with apologies to Robert Frost)—You can consider the alternative views to the one which the author espouses. Every assertion implies a denial, to take one point of view is implicitly to reject other ways of considering the issue at hand. You can think through the alternatives and begin to ask yourself: "why has the author come to this conclusion rather than any of the others that he or she might have adopted?" Often this helps to bring the author's ideas into "relief," since you begin to see them against a background of assumptions and possibilities.
      3. "Backward and Forward"—Every idea, position or point of view comes from somewhere and leads somewhere. Again, an author might not make explicit the presuppositions or the implications of his or her argument. But you can do so. This will entail asking either "what must first be true if the author's point is valid?" (presuppositions) or "if the author's point is valid, what would follow from this?" (implications). Following the logic of the author's argument an additional step or two in either direction is one way to probe or analyze the material you are writing about.
    4. In all, thinking invariably involves asking questions of some sort. The challenge is to find the questions which lead in directions that are "illuminating," that is, that enable us to see dimensions of the topic which were not immediately apparent. Of course, sometimes a line of questioning that appears promising turns out to lead to a "dead end." This is invariably a frustrating experience. But, with practice, you will learn to judge more readily how to think "thoughtfully," i.e. how to determine which avenues of investigation will likely be fruitful.
  2. Clarity of Expression:
    1. Once you have something to say, an "insight" into the material, you need to figure out how to communicate it to someone else. You may be tempted to simply record on paper the steps you followed in reaching your conclusion. This, however, is seldom the most effective way to communicate, since in all likelihood you encountered some "obstacles' or "dead ends" in your reasoning process which do not need to be recounted. A better strategy is to articulate the question(s) that you have pursued and then jump straight to the conclusion you reached. Then you can present the evidence that supports your conclusion.
    2. However you choose to organize your exposition, you must choose your words and put them together carefully to express precisely what you are thinking. This too is a difficult skill to acquire, and another major goal of a liberal arts education.
    3. A "well-written" paper has certain qualities, among them:
      1. unbroken, clear flow of ideas--Each thought is explicitly connected to the one which follows. There are no "gaps" in logic, no places where the reader is left wondering why you started a paragraph, for example, talking about one thing, but ended talking about something ostensibly unrelated. Provide explicit transitions from one thought to the next. In a really tightly structured paper, it is possible to read the topic sentence (usually the first sentence) of each paragraph in sequence and follow the author's train of thought from start to finish.
      2. precision in usage-- Use the words that convey precisely what you intend. If you write in generalities, your reader will only have a general idea of what you are saying. Avoid circumlocutions and wordy phrases; choose words that are concrete and specific. If you are groping for a word that captures just what you mean, refer to a thesaurus. Be as concise as possible without compromising fullness of expression.
      3. correct English grammar and punctuation--In spoken English we take lots of shortcuts and use idioms which are not acceptable in formal, academic prose. This is not merely a matter of "being correct"-- often what you are saying becomes quite unintelligible when it is put in an ungrammatical way. It is obviously impossible here to review all the relevant rules, but you should own a good grammar handbook or manual of style and refer to it often. It is particularly important to use punctuation correctly. There are rules about when to use commas, semicolons, etc. Learn them and you will discover just how much these little marks help determine the sense of a string of words.
      4. proofread for spelling and typographical errors--Written work that includes obvious mistakes reflects sloppiness. You are all capable of speaking and writing English correctly. (With the benefit of some assistance, this should also be true for those of you whose native language is not English.) If you have any question about how to spell something, look it up.

Written work that embodies these qualities will be well-received, regardless of which professor is reading it, for the simple reason that it communicates ideas effectively.

Remember: unclear writing is frequently a sign of muddled thinking (and the converse is true as well). If you are having a hard time expressing your thoughts, take a step back to reconsider just what it is you are trying to say. Often outlining or diagramming your paper before you begin to write is a useful tool for organizing your thoughts.

Writing well takes time. There is no substitute for finishing a draft of your paper, putting it aside for several hours (or longer), and returning to it with a fresh perspective. Invariably, mistakes and ambiguities that you had not noticed when you were in the midst of your first draft will become evident on a second look. In addition, it is often valuable to have another student read your work carefully, pointing out what requires further elaboration and what may be superfluous (professors routinely do this with other professors).

It is your responsibility to gain the skills necessary for clear thinking and writing, if you do not already possess them. If you know that you have trouble in one of the areas discussed above, come in and talk with me about it before you hand in your paper. That way I can work with you to hone your thinking and writing skills.