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Anthropology: Student's Practical Guide to Writing Papers: Magical Rule #1

Magical and Practical Rule Number 1

A paper should be organized around a clear problem. The problem is formulated in the course of exploratory reading in the anthropological literature.

First, you should choose an appropriate topic and check it for feasibility by doing some preliminary research in the library and by consulting with your TA or professor. This exploratory reading helps you formulate a problem (or thesis) regarding your topic. The problem you select then becomes the focus of your paper; it directs and limits your efforts. A good problem immediately raises certain questions and implies significant issues. You use your library know-how to find the data that answer these questions and to find the ideas of the scholars who have discussed these issues.

You should use only the data needed to answer your questions. Otherwise your paper will lack coherence and unity, and you will have done more work than you needed to. And, worst of all, you may not get your paper in on time. The professor may then never get a chance to read it, because he has flown off to some delectable Pacific island, and you may be stuck with an Incomplete.

So subordinate your reading and note taking to a clear, well defined problem (or controlling idea), formulated in your exploratory reading.