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Anthropology: Student's Practical Guide to Writing Papers: Magical Rule #4

Magical & Essential Rule #4

Write with your readers in mind. Be clear and explicit so that they can follow your argument. Be concise and yet complete.

You are writing something that will be read and evaluated by someone. Keep in mind that all your readers can know of your thoughts is what you put down on paper. Telepathy is rare even among anthropologists. So be explicit. Don't refer or allude to ideas or information not contained in your argument, unless you can reasonable expect the readers to be familiar with that material. Make sure that the readers have all the information they need in order to follow you from point A to point B in your discussion. If your roommate doesn't understand how you argued your way from point A to point B, your TA or professor probably won't either.

And choose your words with care. You don't want to obscure your reasoning by putting it into the wrong words. A brilliant logical argument can be lost for want of precise words.

Your outline will help you make the logical connections in your paper explicit. You may even want to use some subtitles in your paper (one or two per page) which serve up the points made on that page. These subtitles will correspond to your outline--or at least they will if you stick to it. Using subtitles can alert you when you start to stray from your plan. Subtitles also have the advantage of reminding the weary reader (who has just read 137 term papers before starting yours and has 79 yet to go) where he has got to in your argument. (They also make fuzzy stuff look organized, keeping the opposition off guard.) However, if you allude extensively to material not included in your paper, or ideas not explained in your paper, or do not choose your words with some care, then even subtitles won't save you.

You want to be clear, explicit and complete, but you don't want to bore your reader (or not very much anyway--not more than is necessary). So don't belabor the obvious. Put things in your paper because they're important in terms of your argument, not because you feel you should explain everything--twice. Be as concise as you can, while still being clear, explicit and complete.

So, it is important to be clear and complete, but on the other hand, it is important not to be boring or obvious. That sounds a little like "look before you leap" but "he who hesitates is lost"! And yet these points are not as contradictory as they may seem. It's a question of balance, which, in writing term papers, as in learning to ride a bicycle (and practically everything else), is only learned through practice--by doing it until you don't fall down. Too much explanation and qualification of your argument can distract the reader from the essential points you are trying to make. Too little explanation and elaboration makes a paper vague; the reader doesn't have enough information to judge the essential points of your argument, or see how they are connected--or even, sometimes, see what they are.

When in doubt, it is better to bore than to be vague. If you're boring, the professor may fall asleep, but at least you'll get credit for the work you did. If you are vague, on the other hand, you leave the reader with no way of knowing what you meant. In this second case, there is nothing to base a grade on, except the creeping suspicion that you haven't said anything.

Vagueness is generally pretty boring anyway. It is better to work on being both clear and interesting; with practice and commitment, it is possible to be both.