This week I'm going to be talking to a lot of students about academic writing. I've decided to make Benjamin Martin's rule of thumb my running theme. "Aim small, miss small," he reminds his sons as they are preparing to ambush a unit of British soldiers. (Benjamin Martin is Mel Gibson's character in the 2000 movie The Patriot. I used the scene in my second "film assignment" at SMT the other week. I still have to post my answer.) The Internet Movie Database explains the line as follows:
When teaching Mel Gibson and Heath Ledger how to shoot a muzzle-loading rifle, technical advisor Mark Baker gave them the advice to "aim small, miss small", meaning that if you aim at a man and miss, you miss the man, while if you aim at a button (for instance) and miss, you still hit the man. Gibson liked this bit of advice so much he incorporated it into the movie, just prior to the ambush scene.
I want to suggest that the same thing is true of composing a paper. First of all, you can't just set out to ambush the British. You have to resolve to shoot each individual soldier. Here, that means you can't just aim to write the paper, you have to conceive of the task as writing 20, 30 or 40 paragraphs. Aiming for the paper is simply aiming too "big".
But those paragraphs themselves each need to have a focus. You establish this focus by writing a key sentence—a single sentence that expresses clearly what you want the paragraph to say. (The rest of paragraph merely supports this key sentence.) It is by focusing on this sentence, by aiming only to get that smaller point across that you get the job done. You move from one small focus to the next, rather than from one vague area of the whole subject to the next. If you write forty paragraphs, each focused on a key sentence that has been defined in advance to be well within the subject of your paper (like a button on a man's uniform is well within the space he occupies) you are likely to hit the subject of your paper even if you sometimes miss your specific mark. If you aim, in each case, for that sentence, you are correspondingly likely to hit the larger subject of the paragraph.
After drafting the paper, you may still have some work to do on individual paragraphs. You may need to add a few hadn't considered, or you may need to tighten some of them up. Or you may need to work on the connections between them. But you will find that your misses were small in direct proportion to the smallness of your aim. What is missing in your paper, that is, will be minor.