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….”

Just stop.

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.

Here’s why.

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.

Let the words of the master guide you here:

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.]

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About Marc Cortez

Theology Prof and Dean at Western Seminary, husband, father, & blogger, who loves theology, church history, ministry, pop culture, books, and life in general.

Posted on August 29, 2011, in Th.M. Program, Writing and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 15 Comments.

  1. “So, I would like to try to explore the possibility of…. — Just stop.”

    lol

  2. Marc,

    Brilliant! I’ll be linking this . . .

  3. Nice. Thanks, Marc. I know now that I had better not write the paper for Th.M. consideration without that fourth leg. At this point, it sounds like I am better off exploring the possibility of doing anything but that.

    Also, it appears you have done your research. No one else seems to know what Yoda is either: http://starwars.wikia.com/wiki/Yoda.

    Great advice, though. Thanks for posting this!

  4. Thank-you. I like to think this is possibly somewhat helpful. (It is, actually!)

  5. Marc,

    Do you think this “exploring the possibility of” is often used because many people don’t have the stomach for controversy? You said fear is a big motivator for this type of writing and for some reason I think one of the greatest fears that plagues my generation is the accusation of arrogance. I hear a lot of this, “I’m not saying I’m right. I just want to have a conversation.” Obviously they think they are right. If they didn’t think they were right they wouldn’t open their mouth. So, perhaps this type of language is some sort of pseudo-humility—whether it be intentional or unintentional. I may have to investigate that….ha

    • I definitely think that’s a factor. I almost included “false humility” as one of my explanations for what’s going on here. There’s a pervasive sense that speaking authoritatively is necessary arrogant and wrong. And, I do think that we need to be careful not to overdo this point and end up presenting ourselves as the experts with nothing to learn on some topic. But, the mistake is thinking that the two are somehow incompatible. You can (and must!) reach a conclusion when you’re writing a paper like this. And, there’s nothing wrong with stating that conclusion confidently, even as you remain open to learning from others. That is exactly what the best teachers do in class every day.

  6. Marc, thanks again for this great reminder. You & your readers might be interested in a follow-up to this post, describing how to create a strong central claim (thesis) for your paper: http://gratefultothedead.wordpress.com/2011/08/30/follow-up-to-dont-do-this-in-any-academic-paper-how-to-craft-a-central-claim/. It comes from the cornucopia of the Duke Writing Studio’s online collection of handouts (which I helped put together back in the day). You can find that at http://twp.duke.edu//writing-studio/resources.

  7. Well said and exactly right about the best teachers. We cannot present the full debate on every matter we talk about, or we will waste time and both confuse and bore everyone present. Our job in preparing lectures is to find what, in the opinion of the guild (and our own judgment), is the best current information on a given topic, and present that.

    Of course in particular cases, where we judge a scholarly controversy to be an important one for our students to master (or at least to wrestle with), we may present two or more sides of a debate. But on the whole, we cannot continually be doing that and at the same time maintain our pedagogical effectiveness.

    This is especially true at the undergraduate level and in introductory and survey courses. Less true, perhaps, at the graduate level, but there we must make a distinction between classes (and students) within a professional degree program and those within a Ph.D. or other academic program.

    HOWEVER, professors at every level could certainly do a better job of making clear to their students at the outset that that is what we are doing: choosing sides on many debates to better communicate basic information. Students should know they are receiving, oh, what’s a good metaphor, the living tip of the coral, not the whole structure beneath that supports that tip (which is itself made up of many polyps–that is, the work of many scholars), and that all “information” is open for revision.

    This is especially true in the hermeneutic disciplines such as theology and history, whose very stuff is the sea of stronger and weaker interpretations, constantly revised.

  8. I should have been clearer about the coral: the living tip is made up of many polyps, not the calcified structure below. This makes the metaphor perhaps both more and less apt.

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