Wednesday, February 22, 2012


"I have heard it said that the two standard tutorial questions at Oxford are "What does he mean?" and "How does he know?" I doubt the report—no university could be that good..." (Wayne Booth)

As an academic writer, your aim should be to provide support for claims. The relevant unit of composition is the prose paragraph, in which a key sentence states the claim and roughly five further sentences support it. The key sentence tells us what you mean, the rest tell us how you know.

At any given time your mind will be occupied by one or more research projects. Such projects will either be at the back of your mind or at the forefront of your attention, but in all cases they consist of a series of more or less inchoate claims that you are more or less able to support. My first suggestion for a "spiritual exercise" is to articulate those claims, to make them explicit. Remember, as always, that a research project in the social sciences can be represented by a standard 40-paragraph paper, which will cover familiar kids of ground: introduction, background, theory, method, results, implications, conclusion.

The core of a project lies in its theory, method and results. Every night, before you go to bed, pick one these sections in one of your projects. List three major claims in this section, i.e., write three possible key sentences of a theoretical, methodological or empirical kind (i.e., how you see the world, what you did, or what your data shows). If you are doing these exercises regularly, you will probably have this list already made and you'll only have to choose three sentences to look at. In any case, read the three sentences out loud. Now, pick the one you know best. Put an "x" beside it. This is the claim you will support in the morning. All in all this exercise shouldn't take more than five minutes. Don't struggle with it. Pick a claim that you are very familiar with from among three claims you are also familiar with.

The next exercise, to be carried out in 30 minutes, first thing in the morning, is to write the supporting paragraph.

No comments: