Tuesday, January 15, 2013

A Writing Assignment

Next week, I'm off to Barcelona to teach a writing course for PhD students at the ESADE Business School. I thought I'd share the assignment I've given them with the readers of this blog. You can either use it as inspiration for assigning writing to your own students, or try it yourself. (If you want me to come to your institution to give the assignment and provide feedback, drop me a line at thomas at basboell dot com.) As I point out, it takes exactly two and a half hours to complete. Any longer or shorter means you're doing it wrong.

Dear Participants,

The purpose of the class is to introduce you to a way of writing. When we meet, I'm going to outline a reliable process for the production of scholarly prose, especially the prose we find in journal articles. If you master it, it will serve you throughout your academic career.

Please read these instructions carefully. They are not asking very much of you, but they are asking you to do something very specific. The more closely you follow the instructions, the more you'll get out of the exercise.

I'm not very interested in seeing writing that you have already done. I want you to do a little bit of writing specifically for me in preparation for the class and then a substantial amount of writing afterwards, which I will look at and suggest improvements to. If you follow my instructions, I will be able to help you develop your competence as a writer, that is, I will help you improve your writing process, not just the end product. You here have an opportunity to become a more effective, more efficient, and happier writer.

The purpose of this preparatory assignment is to make sure we're all "on the same page" when we meet. I want every participant to write exactly five paragraphs for a (real or imagined) paper. Together they will constitute the introduction and conclusion of what I call the "standard social science paper". While not all journals demand it, and some make slightly different demands, being able to write these paragraphs is a skill you will not regret acquiring.

Again, I don't just want you to send me the introduction and conclusion of a paper or chapter you are working on. I want you to do exactly 2.5 hours of writing. Each paragraph should be written in a pre-planned session lasting exactly 27 minutes (followed by a three-minute break). It should consist of no less than six sentences and no more than 200 words. It should state a single well-defined claim (we call this the "key sentence") and support it.

You can do this any time between now and our meeting. The important thing is to spend exactly 27 minutes on each paragraph, and to write all five of them.

You should know the day before you write what you are going to say. That means you should know which paragraph you are writing and what its key sentence is at the latest before you go to bed the day before. Notice that this means that if you want to do it all on the same day, you'll have to decide what all five key sentences are at once. If you spread it out over a few days, you'll only need to decide on one key sentence per day. My recommendation is that you spend one week (5 days, 27 minutes per day) doing this. But it's up to you.

Do the best you can. But don't spend more than the allotted time. One of the purposes of this exercise is to see for yourself, and to show me, what you can accomplish in 27 minutes.

Choose a topic that is quite familiar to you. You can either imagine a paper you might write about something you know well, or choose a paper that you're already working on, but make sure you have a good sense of what it will say. If you have to struggle to understand the ideas you're writing down, you will not be able to focus on the specific problem of writing. Confine yourself, then, to something you know now, not something you hope to learn in six month's time or a year from now.

Here are the paragraphs I want you to write:


1. Describe the current state of our world.
"We live in an age of increased global competition." It should not be that boring, but it should that sort of thing. You are here establishing a "common place" for you and your reader, a point of departure. You should say something that is interesting, and of course true, but not very controversial (or at least not in a way your reader will find controversial). It's what everyone who is familiar with this topic knows, even people who are not professional scholars.

2. Describe the current state of your field.
What is the overarching consensus or characteristic dispute (about the world you've just described) that defines research in your area? This is basically a short statement of your literature review or, better, a summary of your theory section. The paragraph should identify the key concepts in your analysis. It should re-describe the world of paragraph 1 in theoretical terms. This paragraph, that is, describes what the experts know about your topic.

3. Describe your paper.
"This paper shows that..." Feel free to use exactly those four words to begin this paragraph followed by a clear statement of your conclusion. Now, don't argue for the conclusion, but describe instead a paper that argues for it. You've already said what your theory is, so you don't need to say too much more about that for now. But do present your method. (Did you do interviews? If so, how many? With whom?) Summarize your results in one or two sentences, i.e., elaborate on the conclusion you've already stated. Also, summarize the theoretical or practical implications of your research in a sentence or two. What are you recommending? A reform of practices? A rethinking of concepts? New research? Let the reader know what your research implies for theirs.


4. State your conclusion.
This is the first paragraph of your conclusion. You can construct the key sentence here simply by removing the first four words ("This paper shows that...") from the key sentence of paragraph 3. Then support it. It offers you an opportunity to make the strongest possible argument, to the most well-informed reader you can imagine. Remember, this reader has just read—and presumably understood—your whole paper. State the results of your empirical analysis with authority (you've presumably earned it by now) and use theoretical terms without explaining their meaning (the reader gets it by now).

5. How does the world look now?
As a parting word to your reader, re-describe the world you presented in paragraph 1 in the light of your research results. It may be a world that calls for more research. It may be one that calls for new policies or managerial action. Whatever it is, it's a world that is now better understood than before we read your paper. The whole point of your paper was to make us smarter. The difference between paragraph 1 and paragraph 5 should subtly indicate the difference of outlook that this improvement implies. (If you read only paragraph 1 and 5 you wouldn't actually get smarter, but you'd get a sense of how much smarter you would get if you read your whole paper. They're like "before and after" pictures.)

The key to writing an academic paper is to appreciate your finitude. In this case, you have five paragraphs to write. You have no more than 200 words for each of them. And you have to write it in 27 minutes. Decide what you are going to say accordingly.

If it appears impossible, you've misunderstood the task. (Often, you've decided to say too much all at once.) Read the instructions again. Then, if you're still stuck, send me an email telling why you can't (i.e., why you can't even try to) write these paragraphs. There's usually a simple solution to the problem.

Also, please don't think I'm trying to make you write a paper in any particular way. I'm only trying to give you five simple tools that you can use to find your own way of writing a paper. The final form of the paper will always be up to you. After learning how to write paragraphs in this way, you simply have more options available to you.

Please send me the result of your attempt. If you did not want to do the assignment, or didn't have time (2.5 hours is all I ask, remember), please send me a mail letting me know why. I look forward to meeting you!


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