Powers' Pointers for Papers that Make Their Points Powerfully

Originally written in 1997 by Dr. Nancy Powers, Department of Political Science, Florida State University
(Hosted on Dr. Paul Hensel's web site)

Making an Argument

1. First, state the point. Then, give evidence for that point. Be explicit about how that evidence fits the point you are trying to make. Spell it out. Make the connections for your reader.

2. Description is not explanation. A good argument does both. First describe what happened. Then try to explain why it happened: what caused a certain event, or a certain change?

3. Have a thesis statement (at the beginning of a paper and at the beginning of a paragraph).

4. Have a conclusion (a concluding paragraph at the end of a paper and a concluding/transitional sentence at the end of a paragraph).

5. Be aware of where you are going with the essay -- and keep the reader aware of where you're going. Use clear paragraphing. Use transitional sentences.

6. A related point: Avoid going off on tangents. Ask yourself "is the point I'm making now contributing to the point of the entire essay?" If it is necessary to diverge from the main topic in order to explain something fully, be sure, once you've finished the detour, to bring the reader "back on track."

7. Organize! Keep like ideas in the paper together. Separate different points or different examples into separate paragraphs.

8. Be consistent. Be aware of statements you are making in paragraph #4 that may call into question assumptions you used in paragraph #1. Be aware of ways that your current point might contradict an earlier one. Make sure your conclusion matches your introduction.

9. Try to use nation, state, government, country, regime, etc. in the way those terms are used in the field of comparative politics. Using terms precisely indicates clear thinking (because it takes clear thinking to decide which of the possible terms is the right one to use).

Using Texts and Evidence

10. Avoid excessive direct quotations.

11. If you use a direct quotation, everything in quotation marks must be exactly as the author stated it. You cannot adjust, punctuate, or rephrase what the author said in any way.

12. Do not plagiarize through paraphrasing or changing a few words. Put things completely in your own words. Give credit (with a parenthetical citation or footnote) for ideas or ways of looking at things that are not your own.


13. Edit. Clear writing seldom occurs on the first draft. Be succinct, not wordy.

14. Avoid redundancy.

15. There's no need to be stuffy, but you should strive to use serious language, avoiding colloquialisms. Examples to avoid: "The Nigerian elections were a joke." (Try: The elections were fraudulent.) "The Igbos had to tough it out." (How about: The Igbos endured a great deal.?)

16. Avoid polemical, judgmental, or emotional terms. Examples: propaganda, greedy.

17. Avoid dramatic or excessive word choices. Examples: totally, very, the worst in the world.

18. Vary the length of sentences, so that your essay isn't "choppy."

Grammar and Mechanics

The following checklist is based on the errors most frequently seen while grading papers. These are not errors that you'd want to make on a graduate school application or in a memo to your boss. Avoiding these mistakes not only helps you avoid embarrassment, it helps improve the substance of your writing. Poorly constructed sentences can't say what you're hoping they say.

19. Subject and verb must agree (both singular or both plural).

20. Watch for run-on sentences (which should be divided into two or more proper sentences). Don't separate two complete sentences by a comma.

21. Normally, don't begin sentences with conjunctions, such as "And" or "But."

22. All sentences must have an active verb, otherwise they are sentence fragments. Examples: "Although he wanted to be a very good writer." and "The student who studied the most."

23. When you begin a sentence with an introductory clause, you must put in a comma (as I did here).

24. Do not place a lone comma between a subject and its verb, no matter how long the subject is. (Example of incorrect usage: The best example that she could give, was at the end of the book.)

25. Apostrophes must be used to indicate a possessive and cannot be used to indicate a plural (except in very rare circumstances). Know the difference between country's, countries, and countries'.

26. Watch out for an it or they that does not clearly refer to anything at all, or that could refer to more than one thing in the previous sentence.

27. Watch out for an it referring to a person (use who, she, etc. as appropriate). Watch out for they referring to a singular entity. For example, don't say: The British government was wrong, because they treated the Igbos badly."

28. Wherever possible, avoid dangling prepositions. This is a situation where we don't write as we speak. Thus, a phrase or sentence should not end with "the person he was talking to" or "the place she came from." If you have to reorganize the sentence to make it grammatical, do it!

29. Learn the difference between it's (contraction for "it is") and its (the possessive of it)!

30. Learn the difference between affect and effect. Correct usage: To affect is to have an impact upon something. A cause leads to an effect.

31. Learn the difference between their, theirs, they're, there, and there's.

32. Use prepositions and conjunctions properly. Read your paper aloud to see if the word you wrote sounds right. Note, however, that some things we say are incorrect. You might say "I'll try and do it," but all infinitives start with to, so the proper (spoken and written) English is: "I'll try to do it."

33. The most frequently misspelled three-letter word in English is the one spelled with four letters. There is NO A in the past tense and past participle of "to lead"! Think: Fred, bed, red, Ted, LED!

Final Proofreading

34. Check spelling. Check for "typos."

35. Don't rely on a spell checker. It will not catch homonyms, such as "then" and "than."

36. Don't rely on a spell checker. It will not catch missing words, nor will it catch extra words that you forgot to "cut" as you were moving text around with the word processor.

Last updated: 5 July 2008
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