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Some Notes on Writing Political Theory

These notes are intended primarily for undergraduates in political theory classes. Comments and questions are welcome at mmanty@umich.edu.

"...one ought to recognize that the present political chaos is connected with the decay of language, and that one can probably bring about some improvement by starting at the verbal end. If you simplify your English, you are freed from the worst follies of orthodoxy. You cannot speak any of the necessary dialects, and when you make a stupid remark its stupidity will be obvious, even to yourself. Political language - and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists - is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind."
-- George Orwell, "Politics and English Language," A Collection of Essays (San Diego: HBJ, 1981).

Political theorizing is not the same as writing political pamphlets, but Orwell's advice is worth keeping in mind when writing papers in this course. Technical jargon is tempting ("If theorists can hide behind obscurity, well, heck, why can't I?"), but do resist it. Long sentences and big words are not stylistically desirable, no matter how much academics might use them. It is much better to write with a style and vocabulary with which you yourself are comfortable (although, of course, papers shouldn't be transcripts of how you talk). This is a controversial point; there are people who disagree. As you can tell from these notes, I am of the school of thought that regards a relaxed use of language as completely acceptable. In addition, try to remember the following points:

1. All papers should be neatly typed. Include your name on the paper and number the pages. Cover pages and extra pages are a waste of space; they are not necessary. You must submit your paper electronically; I do not accept actual paper.

2. Do not try cover the whole world in your paper. Stick closely to your topic, and stay focused. A careful exploration of one issue, no matter how narrow, is often more desirable than aiming at breadth.

3. Structure your paper around a thesis you intend to defend. Forget (for now) what you have been told in creative writing classes and suchlike, and believe me when I say stylistically boring clear papers are better in political theory courses than stylistically ambitious endeavors. It is OK to begin a paper with something like:

Hobbes's account the state of nature is implausible and therefore threatens his whole theory. In this paper, I will argue that Hobbes is a bad psychologist.…

and not OK to write:

It was a stormy night, and trouble was on its way. His mind light years away, Montesquieu scratched his chin, tightened the belt of his robe, and stared into the rain. On the desk lay the Bible, with cigar ashes on it…

4. Organize your thoughts so that your discussion supports your thesis. It is always helpful to make an outline in advance, listing the points you want to make and the order in which to present them; be sure your thesis, and your arguments for it, are evident in your final version.

5. Whenever possible, give reasons for the claims you make. Your paper will be judged largely on your mastery of the material and the strength of your arguments. Strive for clarity of thought and expression (see #13).

6. Address possible objections to the view you are supporting. Bring up a possible criticism of your position and respond to it. You don't need to take up every possible counterargument; you can choose one or two of the critiques you find most interesting or most pressing. (Responding to the simplest criticisms while ignoring the harder ones is a cop-out - give your opponents a fair chance.)

7. In a scholarly paper you should be dealing in arguments, not opinions. Avoid statements such as: "I am an atheist so I think Locke is full of it." Construct an argument you think might have a chance of convincing your opponents. Remember, arguments are a form of communication: you want your opponent to understand you, and this often means looking for some common ground or 'shared understandings' to serve as a basis.

8. So write with a critical reader in mind - someone who isn't initially sympathetic to your thesis, but who will listen to reason. You need not defend every assumption you make (most of us agree the Earth is round), but try not to assume something very controversial ("Since capitalism is obviously evil, there will never be social justice for all in the United States."). As a rule of thumb, imagine your reader is another member of the class who disagrees with you and will challenge your points.

9. Remember the "No Idiot" principle. The people we read may occasionally sound bizarre, but the fact that they have been published means someone has taken them seriously. Try to do the same, and don't make people sound like half-wits in paraphrasing their views.

10. If you want to attribute a view to someone we have read, make sure you interpret them carefully. On controversial points, it helps to cite textual evidence, either by quotation or by giving the page numbers of the relevant text in parenthesis or in a footnote. You must indicate when you are quoting or paraphrasing from someone else's work, and you must cite texts and page numbers. This is particularly true for secondary material, if you choose to use some. (I recommend you don't, though.) Refer to some accepted manual for appropriate ways to cite (MLA, Chicago, etc.). Any generally accepted style is OK, just stay consistent. 

11. Acknowledge other debts as well. The general rule is that whatever is not a product of your own brain should be acknowledged. You might want to consult my brief guide on plagiarism. [These notes have been inspired by similar notes for philosophical writing by Ed Curley (Univ. of Michigan), Sally Haslanger (MIT) and Steve Yablo (MIT).]

12. Quotes can be helpful, especially when you attribute a claim or a position to some author. However, don't overdo it: five, or seven, or 10 pages aren't, after all, that much. The paper should be by and large in your own words.

13. Read over your paper after you have written it. Make sure you addressed the topic and made good of your initial promises. (Sometimes it makes sense to write your intro last: Then you know what you have been able to argue for in the paper, and you won't make promises you can't keep.) Rewrite any parts which might be difficult to understand. Remember, you will be only given credit for what you actually say, not what you intended to say (but didn't). We can read your words, not your mind. No one can tell you are thinking clearly if you are not writing clearly. Correct errors in grammar, spelling and typing. Using a spell-checker is recommended, but not enough: proofread! Grammar, syntax and vocabulary matter.

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Last updated on 19-Sep-09.