How to destroy your own research paper in one simple step
Some words should never find their way into research papers. Wikipedia is pretty high on that last. So is anything that is not technically a word (e.g. IMHO). Fortunately, though I’ve heard from others who’ve experienced the terror of encountering these in papers, I have not yet experienced it myself. That’s a good thing. (Note to my students: for your sake, please keep it that way.) But, there are some other student favorites that I’d like to see disappear forever.
“So, I would like to try to explore the possibility of….”
This sentence and its ilk taint the beginnings of far too many otherwise good papers. Using a sentence like this to describe your paper is like building a solid table and then ripping one of its legs off. It may still be standing, but no one will want to use it. With one sentence, you’ve cut the legs out from under your own research paper.
1. Explore (investigate, consider, etc.): Really? You’re handing in a 20-page research paper and the only thing you’ve done is “explore” something? I’m going to assume that you didn’t actually find anything interesting, otherwise you would tell me. Right? You wouldn’t keep that a secret, would you? Because if I thought that you found something cool and were just keeping it from me, I’d be pretty upset. And that wouldn’t be good. So, as your reader, I only have to options here: (1) you didn’t find anything interesting and I shouldn’t bother reading your paper; (2) you found something interesting that you’re hiding from me, and I should be angry with you. Neither option ends well for you.
So, I’d suggest that you go ahead and tell me what you found. If Indiana Jones goes on an expedition and finds some ancient and extremely valuable treasure. He doesn’t come back and tell people that he just explored for a while. He tells them what he found! So, start with that. And, by the way, not finding something is still a discovery. If you went looking for X and didn’t find it, that’s worth reporting. If nothing else, you’ve demonstrated that it’s not there.
2. Try to (attempt to, seek to, etc.): This just makes it worse. With “explore” you’re telling me that you just wandered around for a while exploring without actually finding anything. Now you’re telling me that you’re not even sure you accomplished that! You didn’t explore, you just tried to. Was it hard? Did you encounter monsters along the way that made it difficult for you to complete your expedition? Whatever the obstacles were, I appreciate that you put further the effort. But, your paper would make much more compelling reading if you gave me some reason to believe, especially here at the beginning, that you may have actually succeeded. Otherwise, I think I’ll just stop here.
3. Possibility: This just keeps getting better. Now we’re not even sure that this thing you’re going to try to explore even exists. And, what’s worse, I’m reading this after you’ve supposedly tried to explore it. So, all I can conclude is that even though you’ve already tried to explore it, you’re still not sure whether it exists. I don’t know about you, but I have better things to do with my time that read about somebody who tried to explore some non-existent thing.
So, with one sentence, you’ve completely undermined my confidence in your argument. And, you’ve done it by making it exceptionally clear that you don’t have any confidence in your own argument.
Nonetheless, I find sentences like this in papers all the time. Why is that? Why are so many students eager to destroy their own papers at the very beginning?
1. Fear: Students use language like this as a shield they can hide behind. If I say, “I am going to argue that X is true or not true,” I’ve backed myself into a corner and I’d better make my argument. But, if I just say that I’m going to “explore” something, I’ve left an open door for escape. I haven’t really committed to anything, so there’s nothing to worry about. Fear is a powerful motivator for creating weak beginnings.
2. Beginning with the beginning: This introduction reads like the student wrote it first and then never came back to revise it later. I can understand how you might think at the beginning of the journey that you’ll just be exploring some issue. That makes sense. You don’t know yet how things will end. So, if you want to sketch an introduction from that perspective at the beginning to clarify in your own mind what your purposes are, fine. But that’s not the end of the story. When your paper is done, you should have something more interesting to report. And, since I’m obviously reading the paper after it’s all done, why not go ahead and tell me what that is? Revise your introduction!
3. No argument: Of course, it’s entirely possible that the problem is with the paper, not the introduction. Maybe you don’t have anything more interesting to report. If your paper just wanders around and “explores” or “summarizes” a lot of information, there’s not much your introduction can do to jazz that up. Unfortunately, if this is your problem, you’ve got some work to do. Simply re-writing your introduction won’t be enough.
4. A “student” mentality: I think this lies at the heart of the problem for many. Growing up, we’re told that the student’s job is to learn. So, we create papers from the perspective of the learner, writing tentatively and cautiously rather than confidently and authoritatively. That may be fine earlier in our academic careers (though I’d question that as well), but not in graduate or postgraduate research papers. If you haven’t already, it’s time to give yourself permission to be a teacher. You’ve done the research. You’ve (hopefully) constructed an argument and drawn a conclusion. Now, you’re the teacher. Inform me.
Do or do not. There is no try.
Yoda was a very wise man…person…goblin…thing.
[This post is part of our Tips for the Th.M. series, offering suggestions on how to survive and thrive in a postgraduate program.]