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Writing Sociology Papers
Writing is one of the most difficult and most rewarding of all scholarly activities. Few of us, students or professors, find it easy to do. The pain of writing comes largely as a result of bad writing habits. No one can write a good paper in one draft on the night before the paper is due. The following steps will not guarantee a good paper, but they will eliminate the most common problems encountered in bad papers.
1. Select a topic early. Start thinking about topics as soon as the paper is assigned and get approval of your topic choice from the professor before starting the research on the paper. When choosing a topic, think critically. Remember that writing a good sociology paper starts with asking a good sociological question.
2. Give yourself adequate time to do the research. You will need time to think through the things you read or to explore the data you analyze. Also, things will go wrong and you will need time to recover. The one book or article which will help make your paper the best one you've ever done will be unavailable in the library and you have to wait for it to be recalled or to be found through interlibrary loan. Or perhaps the computer will crash and destroy a whole afternoon's work. These things happen to all writers. Allow enough time to finish your paper even if such things happen.
3. Work from an outline. Making an outline breaks the task down into smaller bits which do not seem as daunting. This allows you to keep an image of the whole in mind even while you work on the parts. You can show the outline to your professor and get advice while you are writing a paper rather than after you turn it in for a final grade.
4. Stick to the point. Each paper should contain one key idea which you can state in a sentence or paragraph. The paper will provide the argument and evidence to support that point. Papers should be compact with a strong thesis and a clear line of argument. Avoid digressions and padding.
5. Make more than one draft. First drafts are plagued with confusion, bad writing, omissions, and other errors. So are second drafts, but not to the same extent. Get someone else to read it. Even your roommate who has never had a sociology course may be able to point out unclear parts or mistakes you have missed. The best papers have been rewritten, in part or in whole, several times. Few first draft papers will receive high grades.
6. Proofread the final copy, correcting any typographical errors. A sloppily written, uncorrected paper sends a message that the writer does not care about his or her work. If the writer does not care about the paper, why should the reader?
Such rules may seem demanding and constricting, but they provide the liberation of self discipline. By choosing a topic, doing the research, and writing the paper you take control over a vital part of your own education. What you learn in the process, if you do it conscientiously, is far greater that what shows up in the paper or what is reflected in the grade.
EMPIRICAL RESEARCH PAPERS
Some papers have an empirical content that needs to be handled differently than a library research paper. Empirical papers report some original research. It may be based on participant observation, on secondary analysis of social surveys, or some other source. The outline below presents a general form that most articles published in sociology journals follow. You should get specific instructions from professors who assign empirical research papers.
1. Introduction and statement of the research question.
2. Review of previous research and theory.
3. Description of data collection including sample characteristics and the reliability and validity of techniques employed.
4. Presentation of the results of data analysis including explicit reference to the implications the data have for the research question.
5. Conclusion which ties the loose ends of the analysis back to the research question.
6. End notes (if any).
7. References cited in the paper.
Tables and displays of quantitative information should follow the rules set down by Tufte in the work listed below.
Tufte, Edward. 1983. The Visual Display of Quantitative Information. Cheshire, CT: Graphics Press. (lib QA 90 T93 1983)