Ben Holloway,  Teaching

How To Write a Persuasive Research Paper

The following are instructions for writing a persuasive research paper.

To include in the paper:

Introduction (one paragraph)

Explain the issue

Begin your paper with an explanation of the issue you are going to discuss. A good way to state your issue is by using a question. For example, one might write “is it only possible to understand justice for an individual if we understand justice in a city?” You may also want to state the view of the author on which you are going to write. (e.g. “in The Republic, Plato suggests that we can only understand the nature of justice in an individual if we understand the nature of justice in a city”)

State your thesis

Provide a clear statement of the position that you are going to defend. State whether you agree or disagree with the author. (e.g. “Plato’s view is wrong. A city is nothing like an individual person.”)

Outline your argument

Finally, provide an outline of the main points you are going to make in the paper. You should list each point in the order in which you will make them in the main body of the paper. (e.g. “There are three reasons that understanding justice in a city does not help us understand justice in an individual person. First, … Second, … Third, ….”)

Main Body

The main body comprises a defense of your position. A defense is made up of a series of claims that support your thesis. For each claim, provide supporting evidence and reply to any objections. 

Defend each claim

First, state the claim you are making. Then, provide evidence in the form of an argument. Finally, show how each claim goes toward supporting your thesis. 

Consider objections 

For any claim, there are reasons one might have to reject it. As you make each claim, consider and reply to possible or actual objections. 

Conclusion (one paragraph)

In your conclusion, serve your reader by reminding him/her of your thesis and main points. You should also consider the implications of the issue you have been discussing. Implications include interaction with other disciplines, Christian ministry, or the Christian life. 

Principles for good persuasive writing

Three things are true of good writers:

  1. Research – You have to know what you are talking about. 
  2. Writing – You have to know how to tell someone about it. 
  3. Revision – You have to start somewhere. So, get started and then go back a revise it. 

If you lack any of these, you won’t be clear or there’ll be nothing to read. 

I. Know what you’re Talking About (Research).

In order to write clearly, you must think clearly about the issue. In other words, you must know what you are writing about. Clarity is not merely the result of good grammar. It is also the result of mastering one’s thoughts about a topic. 

1. Where to begin: 

Sources should be 

  1. Relevant
  2. Well Used 
  3. Academic

A. Use Relevant Sources 

Find sources that are on your subject/thesis/issue. You are not the first to be talking about your topic, so follow the well worn path set before you. Start with introductory textbooks and encyclopedias. Get a birds-eye view of the domain.

Speaking of the domain, to join the conversation, you have to know what your topic is called. Say you’ve read something interesting in Descartes about the mind. Now search ‘mind.’ The results will be far too broad. A search for Descartes’ view of the mind will probably yield a better result. But now you need people who disagree with Descartes. Descartes’ view of the mind is one of many competing views. Hence, you’ll need to know what the domain is called. As you start reading about Descartes’ view, try to see what category it falls into. You will likely see some repeated phrases such as ‘the mind-body problem.’ Now search an encyclopedia for ‘mind-body problem.’

Do not play word association games. It is not the use of words that makes the source useful, but the actual topic of the work. 

B. Use Used Sources 

Introductions/encyclopedia entries and their footnotes/references all cite the most used sources on the topic. Don’t go out to find the weird one that no one else is using unless it really is a very good contribution to the discussion that no one else has noticed. 

C. Use Academic Sources

When purchasing a product, one usually considers: 

  1. Who made it (brand). 
  2. How well made it is (quality). 
  3. What other people think of it (review). 

Same for sources: 

  1. qualified source. An academic source is written by someone who knows what he/she is talking about (a qualified-in-the-field author). An English teacher who thinks that she has solved a complicated philosophical problem won’t cut it. A philosophy professor who has some interesting ideas for how to build a house won’t cut it.
  2. quality product. An academic source is written to a high standard. It is usually well researched, argued, organized and has taken a huge effort to produce (valuable writing). Very few popular level works are the result of massive research projects or extensive intellectual efforts. 
  3. Quality controlled. An academic source is reviewed by other people who know what they are talking about (peer review verified). The rigor of peer review means that what you read has already been read by a critic and at least a good deal of what would otherwise be wrong with it has been eradicated. 

(1)-(3) are jointly necessary and sufficient for being an academic source. 

Best sources: Journal Articles and books published by University Presses. 

Exception: well-known books/essays by historical figures. You may use the popular level versions (published in mass paperback form). 

Notice that you can find qualified sources that are not peer reviewed or quality products. For example, a YouTube video of a well-qualified author talking on a discussion panel will contain off-the-cuff remarks and sometimes careless comments. Academics also make all sorts of comments on social media. They aren’t always the result of extensive research. Nor are they peer reviewed. Indeed, some tweets aren’t even reviewed by the writer (they are cases in which a writer has engaged mouth without operating brain). 

A popular level work might be by a qualified author, but it may not be peer reviewed (edited for style, perhaps, but not sent to other qualified scholars in that field), nor will it always be the result of significant work (it may be a sideline for an author). Philosophers sometimes write books on interests that are not what they spend most of their time working on. That’s not to say that they are no good. They might be. You just don’t know it, so best not to use it. 

2. What to do with a Source:

  1. Correctly interpret it
  2. Precisely characterize it
  3. Fairly evaluate it

Correctly Interpret it.

Carefully interpret the content of a text. 

You are looking for 

Subject: What is the reading about?

Thesis: What does the author have to say about the subject?

Strategy: What is the author trying to do?

  1. Providing positive evidence for a view
  2. Responding to objections to a view
  3. Refuting an opposing view

Concepts: What key terms must I understand? 

Assumptions: What are the starting points for the view presented? 

Precisely Characterize it

Precisely summarize the content of a text. 

In your own words: 

  1. State the thesis
  2. Summarize the main arguments
  3. Define the key concepts 

Fairly Evaluate it. 

Fairly evaluate the content of the text. 

Evaluation involves more that knowing what you think of it. It requires that you find reasons for your belief. If you think it is bad, you can’t leave it that. You must say what is bad about the view you are criticizing. 

Do not evaluate: 

  1. The form of the work. Do not criticize the writing style, organization, or presentation. 
  2. The successful (or not) effects of the work on the reader. If you are unpersuaded by what is said, that is only a matter of your mental state. I am only interested in what reasons you might give for finding the work unpersuasive. 
  3. Descriptions of the author’s character that have influenced your view of his work. 

Avoid: 

  • I like/love this!
  • he does a great job. Awesome work!
  • He made it really easy to understand. 
  • I couldn’t understand what she was saying. 
  • It would have been better to have left this part out. I found it confusing and distracting. 
  • This topic is not relevant to my experience. 
  • No one in my church would read this. 
  • I think that this should be widely read. It would make an excellent basis for a Sunday School class. 
  • I was unimpressed by his syntax.
  • The author seemed like a nice guy. 
  • The author is a tyrant. I can’t stand him. 

I want to see phrases such as

  • S says p, but what reason do we have for p? 
  • S believes p for good reasons. First, … Second, …
  • S believes p. But p is false for three reasons. First, … 
  • S and R (authors you have found in research) disagree over p, but there is a way in which both could be correct. 

A Christian Evaluation: 

  1. Is the claim consistent with a Christian claim? Could both be true. 
  2. Is the claim contradictory with a Christian claim? Cannot both be true. 
  3. Does the claim entail a contradictory claim?
  4. Does the claim confirm a Christian claim? Offers evidence for the Christian belief. 
  5. Is the claim confirmed by a Christian claim? A Christian belief offers evidence for the claim. 
  6. Is a claim independent from any Christian claim? Christianity has nothing to say on the matter. 

3. What to do with your research: 

  1. Create a taxonomy of views and proponents.
  2. Create a glossary of terms and definitions.
  3. List the arguments for and against your view. 
  4. Organize the research to best support your theses and remain most relevant to your thesis. Create an outline. 

Know how to Tell Someone about it (Write).

“The fundamental rule of writing is that the writer should pay attention to his words, so as to leave the reader free to concentrate on the thoughts expressed. Your reader ought to never have to pause to consider what thought is being expressed; if he does, you have failed as a writer … you must think about the words you are using, so that the reader does not need to” (Michael Dummett, Grammar and Style, 62).

Three corollaries (Dummett): 

  1. Take care of what you say. Does your sentence say what you mean? If you fail to say what you mean, either you will be misunderstood, or your reader will guess.  
  2. Avoid Ambiguity. Could your phrase or sentence mean more than one thing? 
  3. Don’t be unpredictable. “the structure of your sentences should never surprise the reader” (Dummett, 64). Better to be clunky and clear than poetic and obstruse. 

Quotations

Quotations should be used only to support the claims you are making. If they do not do so, leave them out. If possible, you should summarize arguments in your own words. This entails that you understand what an author is saying. So, before you write anything, you should read carefully and think thoroughly. Test yourself before you write: could you repeat the author’s argument out loud in your own words without looking at the text? 

When to use quotations: 

Main answer: SPARINGLY. As much as possible say it in your own words. If you can do so, you will be showing that you have mastered the work. Direct quotations serve as: 

  1. Evidence for what you are going to argue (He says, “…,” but this is in contradiction to his later statement when he says, “…” or She assumes x. She writes, “…”). When using quotations as evidence, you are showing the reader that you are correct about something. You are making a claim and defending it using quotations as evidence.
  2. Samples for you to explain. (She writes, “…” First, she assumes a. Second, she argues b. Finally, she concludes p.). When using quotations as samples, you are supplying something to be explained. Just as a preacher reads a text and then explains it, you are quoting a text and then explaining it. This can be very effective when quoting an argument. 

Direct quotations do not serve as

  1. Decoration (don’t use a quotation to tell me that you have not really done any research. Instead, you are trying to make it appear that you have done some research. I can tell!)
  2. Space Filler (if quotations are not useful to your paper, they are merely there for the word count. I will sometimes count the words of a useless quotation and deduct it from the overall count of the document). 
  3. Cover for the fact that you don’t really understand what’s being said. If you can put it in your own words, you have some grasp of it. If you must quote because you can’t put it in your own words, then you need to go back, read it again, and carry out more research. 

Whether you cite a text or summarize a view, you must provide the reader with the location of the source in a footnote and a bibliography. Use a standard format guide for help (e.g. Turabian). 

Plagiarism (Joel Feinberg)

Academic plagiarism is not subject to criminal law. Instead, it is a punishable offence in the academic context (by suspension or failing grade). 

  1. Academic plagiarism is lying. 

You are saying it is your own work knowing that it is not and intending for your professor to believe that it is. 

  • Academic plagiarism is stealing. “plagiarism is a violation of a property rights” (Feinberg, 9). 

When you steal something, you take it and maintain that it belongs to you. When you plagiarize, you are taking the intellectual property of another person and telling others that it belongs to you. You violate the rights of another person. 

  • Academic plagiarism has victims: 

a. Your professor. He is the victim of a deception. And the classroom code of “respectful exchange” has been violated. 

b. Your fellow students. If you cheat you are taking advantage of your fellows. If you fraudulently fail to pay your taxes, another person will have to pay for you. If you take advantage of the trust in you to produce your own work, you advantage yourself over your fellow students unfairly. 

  • Academic plagiarism causes broad harm beyond the victims:

The more plagiarism, the less trust. If a professor sees a lot, he will likely trust less. That’s not good for anyone. The atmosphere of a school depends on a trust between students and professors. 

Need information on plagiarism? Go to writing center website (you’ll find it on CampusNet). Have a look at “Ten rules for citing sources” and “Avoiding Unintentional Plagiarism.”

III. You have to start somewhere (Revision). 

“Even after a preliminary outline has been completed and a central argument sketched, there are times when the words still will not come … My best advice is simply to start writing anyway” (Joel Feinberg, Doing Philosophy, 8). 

Don’t hand in the first draft. Staying up late to start and finish a paper is not a recipe for success. Instead, complete the first draft, conduct a series of revisions, and then go through it with a fine-tooth comb correcting spelling and grammatical errors. 

Activities that aid revision:

  1. Read it Out loud.
  2. Have a friend read it. 
  3. Read it out loud to a friend.
  4. Disagree with it. 
  5. Keep messing with it. 
    1. Sometimes start at the last page and work backwards. 
    1. Work on an individual paragraph. 
    1. Work on individual sentences.
    1. Work on organization. 

When professors grade persuasive essays, they are probably looking for (Feinberg):

  1. Clarity.
  2. Presence of an argument.
  3. Strength of the argument.
  4. Degree of difficulty.
  5. Ordering of what is important. 

Some other general rules (Feinberg):

  1. Keep it concrete; don’t be poetic. 
  2. Keep to the point; don’t be wordy.
  3. Keep it simple; don’t be too technical. 
  4. Keep it economic; don’t pad. 
    1. Say it once.
    1. Say what’s relevant.
    1. Say what matters. 
  5. Keep it authentic; don’t be pretentious. 

Assistant Professor of Philosophy and History of Ideas at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary and The College at Southeastern.

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