For many graduate students, especially those who have not attended university in a number of years, the thought of writing a 20-page research paper is quite overwhelming. Like most tasks, however, once the process is broken down into a series of smaller steps, the end product becomes more realistic and attainable.
Regardless of the writing project, there are several phases that most writers use. In this chapter, I focus on the first two phases: planning and drafting your paper. You should begin by establishing a direction for your paper by analyzing the expectations of the course assignment or other writing task. The next step is to refine your topic and establish a purpose for the paper. Then you begin to gather and organize your research material in a meaningful way. However, this is not your paper. This is your research for your paper!
At the graduate level, you are expected to do more than simply gather information and reorganize it to meet the assignment criteria. You must review the literature with an evaluative lens and engage in critical thinking and reflection so that you are able to taking a position on the topic or issue. This position is expressed as a thesis statement, which then becomes the guide for the rest of your writing process. Your paper will be organized around this thesis and a set of key arguments designed to support that thesis. Your background research must then be synthesized and integrated to support those key arguments.
By the end of the chapter, you will have everything you need to complete a first draft of your paper. You can skip ahead to any of the topics covered by clicking on the links below.
- Planning your paper
- Drafting your paper
The writing process
There are several phases in writing a graduate paper, which I have adapted from Fowler, Aaron, and McArthur (2005). Neilsen (2009) outlined similar steps in her “Learn to Love Your Term Paper” Web page. Even though I will address them sequentially, most people do not follow a strict linear process; instead, they loop back and forth between these phases. This chapter will focus on the first two phases:
- Planning: In the first phase, you will establish a general direction for your research and writing, gather appropriate resources, and organize the ideas from these sources in a meaningful way.
- Drafting: Through critical reflection on and analysis of the professional literature, you will take a position on the topic and identify the key points you want to make, organize them within the structure of your paper, and craft your introduction and conclusion.
Chapter 3 focuses on the revision phase of the writing process:
- Revising: Once you have a draft of your paper, it is time to review and revise the content of the paper. In this phase, you are examining your own critical thinking processes and reading the paper with a view to ensuring that you have effectively communicated your ideas. You then build consistency and flow in your paper through the use of appropriate verb tense, structuring skills, and other linguistic tools.
In Chapter 4 and Chapter 5, we move on to the editing phase, which is the predominant focus of your APA Manual:
- Editing: Although editing occurs throughout the entire writing process, you should also plan a deliberate editorial review of your paper. You must ensure, first of all, that your citations and references are correctly formatted and that they accurately reflect the sources you used. Then you will format the whole paper according to APA standards. I highly recommend that you then step back and invite peer review as part of your final editing process.
Planning your paper
Planning your paper involves selecting a topic, carefully reviewing the assignment criteria to determine the purpose of the paper, and delving into the professional literature to start gathering and organizing ideas.
Selecting a topic and defining your purpose
The place to start writing a graduate paper is with the description provided for the particular assignment. It is possible to write an amazing paper but not address the topic or purpose targeted in the assignment or to place too much emphasis on one element at the expense of others. Take, for example, the excerpts from two assignment descriptions in Figure 2.1 below.
Sample Assignment 1
The purpose of this assignment is give you an opportunity to critically analyze and deconstruct the major tenets of psychotherapy models by engaging in a process of case conceptualization. Drawing on one of the case scenarios provided, shape your analysis through the following questions:
- What is your working hypothesis about the problem? Provide a brief analysis of the problem from the perspective of your chosen model. Draw on the model’s understanding of the nature of humans, the nature of healthy (or well-adjusted functioning), the causes of problems (or not functioning in a healthy manner).
- What is your working hypothesis about how change is likely to occur? Based on your chosen model, elaborate on the nature of change. You may want to take into account what variables or factors are targeted, what processes are involved, the role(s) of client and counsellor, and whether change occurs within or outside of the counselling session.
- What intervention might you choose? Identify a potential intervention based on your chosen model. Describe what you would do to be helpful to the client, what you would invite the client to do, what resources you would draw on, the context of your activities, etc.
- What outcomes do you anticipate? How would you describe a successful outcome for the client based on your chosen model. Be specific and creative in imagining a preferred future for this client.
Sample Assignment 2
We live in a society in which there is differential privilege, inequitable access to health resources and services, and lack of full participation in community, organizational, and social systems, based on both visible and invisible cultural identity factors and group affiliations. The purpose of this assignment is to (a) identify the types of messages that abound in popular media that either challenge or perpetuate oppression of non-dominant populations and (b) articulate a reasoned, supported, and convincing argument in support of equity, culturally sensitivity, and social justice in health service provision. Your task is to write an article that could be published in a popular magazine or newspaper.
- Choose a topic or issue related to culture and/or social justice (focused on one non-dominant population or impacting more than one population). Then, scan the popular media to see what ideas are current being discussed or what diverse positions are being argued. You can do this through news reports, magazine articles, websites providing commentaries, or other appropriate sources. Try to use online sources for easier access by your peers.
- Critically analyze the various messages you encounter. Once you are satisfied that you understand the arguments being made, write a brief paragraph (4-6 lines) that synthesizes the essence of the debate, challenge, or controversy that has captured your attention. Select 2-3 articles to reference and provide links to them.
- Decide on a position you want to take on the topic or issue. Draw from the values, principles, and/or competencies outlined in the course. Articulate a clear thesis statement that will form the foundation for your own article. This can be a rebuttal to one or more of original articles or it can further extend their positions.
- Develop the key points in your argument. Base these on your thesis statement and integrate and synthesize the professional literature to support your position. Come up with a catchy title for your article that might encourage others to read it. Be creative about the message you want to send through your article.
Figure 2.1. Sample assignment criteria.
There is a lot of important information provided in these assignment outlines that will help you begin your writing process. In both cases, you are given an opportunity to select your topic (e.g. the psychotherapy model or the topic/issue related to culture and social justice), but the purpose of each assignment is quite different.
Before you can begin writing about a particular topic, you must clearly understand the purpose of the assignment. The purpose might be to describe a particular phenomenon, to argue a specific point of view, to reflect on personal feelings or increase self-awareness, or to persuade the reader about a particular position (Fowler et al., 2005). Understanding the purpose is a key step in planning your paper.
A well-worded assignment description will use language that is consistent with the purpose of the assignment. Many course designers draw on Bloom’s (1956) taxonomy of learning objectives as a means of providing guidance to students about the type of academic skills they expect to see demonstrated through the assignment (e.g., purpose of the learning activity). Bloom identified three domains of learning where change may be targeted: the cognitive, affective, and skills domains. Each domain is broken down into specific types of learning goals and criteria that are used to assess whether those goals have been reached.
Table 2.1. Bloom’s (1956) Taxonomy of Education Objectives
Levels of learning in the cognitive domain
Levels of learning in the affective domain
Levels of learning in the skills domain
Review the two sample assignments above to pick out words that suggest the levels of learning targeted in the assignment.
For most graduate papers, you will be required to go beyond knowledge and comprehension to analyze and apply what you have learned (as in Assignment 1 above), to engage in evaluation, and to integrate and synthesize the literature (as in Assignment 2 above). If the level of learning is unclear from the assignment description, assume you are to aim for the highest levels of learning. Both of these assignments focus predominantly on the cognitive domain. In most applied health disciplines, you will also be expected to demonstrate commitment to the values of the profession (affective domain) and to implement new skills in a way that is responsive to client/patient needs and context.
Applying this lens to your analysis of the assignment gives you clues about how to establish an appropriate purpose for your paper. Table 2.2 illustrates both congruence and mismatch between levels of learning and the purpose identified for an assignment. In each case, the topic is models of client/patient care.
Table 2.2. Congruence between level of learning and purpose
Level of learning
|Analysis||The purpose of this paper is to critically analyze the similarities and differences between an individualistic and an ecological approach to client/patient care.||The purpose of this paper is to describe two different approaches to health care: individualistic and ecological.|
|Synthesis and evaluation||The purpose of this paper is to build a solid case for an ecological approach to client/patient care based on current theory and clinical research.||The purpose of this paper is to identify and create a list of the best practices for client/patient care.|
|Commitment||The purpose of this paper is to reflect on and position my values and beliefs about how to best care for each unique individual I encounter.||The purpose of this paper is to explore what I believe about client services and what my personal values are.|
Recall an assignment you have recently written or choose one from a current course. Complete Exercise 1 to practice crafting purpose statements that reflect the cognitive learning objectives. There are no right answers to this exercise because many different purposes statements could emerge from a single topic.
What is important is that you identify a purpose that reflects the levels of learning targeted by the assignment before you start conducting your research. Depending on your knowledge of the topic area, you may begin with a relatively simple purpose statement and elaborate it over time as you increase your knowledge base. Your purpose statement can be directly incorporated into your introduction later on.
Generating and organizing your ideas
Now that you have a topic and a purpose, you will need to start gathering and organizing the information that you will use to build your paper. There are many techniques for developing the content of your paper. See Fowler et al. (2005) for examples. Here are some suggestions to consider:
- If you already know something about the topic, start by writing down all the points you would like to integrate into your paper. See what themes emerge and what areas you might need to explore further. Then turn to the professional literature to either confirm or redirect your thinking.
- If the topic is relatively new, then read, read, read. Start with more general information to establish a knowledge foundation and then look for critiques, analyses, or other issue-focused articles about the topic. See if others have written papers with a similar purpose. Be sure to take notes on all the points that seem relevant to your paper.
Before the days of computers, many graduate students gathered their notes on slips of paper and then arranged and rearranged them on their desk until they had a clear sense of the meaning of the literature they were reading. You may still find this a useful activity. However, I find it very easy to use a Microsoft Word file to arrange my ideas as I research a particular topic. While I was first creating the content for this eBook, I was also working on a literature review in the area of social justice. I have used this review to demonstrate how I organized information as I read and critically reflected on the body of knowledge in this area. See Organizing Your Research in the appendices of this e-book. Each of the three entries reflects one of the times that I sat down to read and make notes on this topic.
When I find a topic area that interests me, I often start by creating a document like this that covers more content than I will use in any given paper. The final paper will not necessarily follow this structure, but I will have the information to support my key points and sub-points at my fingertips. Notice that the way in which I have pulled together this information reflects higher order learning objectives. For example, I do not just list one point from one source. I synthesize and integrate ideas across sources as I read and make notes: e.g., …the shifting demographics of Canadian society and increased systemic barriers to career and life success (Arthur & Collins, 2005b) are bringing social justice back to the forefront (Arthur & Collins, 2005a; Fouad, Gerstein, & Toporek, 2006), particularly in the area of career development (Toporek & Chope, 2006). I am also evaluating the literature: e.g., It is important to understand the way in which social class forms a cultural schemata that impacts career development values, beliefs, assumptions, aspirations, and goals (Blustein, McWhirter, & Perry, 2005; Liu & Ali, 2005).
One of the things that I found most exciting about graduate school was the intellectually challenging climate and the opportunity to articulate and debate ideas with other people. I still seek out opportunities to work collaboratively with my colleagues on projects that will push me to think critically, creatively, and beyond my current points of view. This often creates a synergy that results in new ideas and directions I might not have generated on my own.
I hope that you will have many opportunities throughout your graduate program to engage in this type of co-constructive learning process. Engaging with the professional literature as you write your graduate papers offers you a similar opportunity if you approach it with a critical mindset. You bring your ideas, worldview, and expertise to create an interactive process that can result in exciting new perspectives. I hope that you will welcome this challenge as I do.
Drafting your paper
At this point, you should have a pretty clear sense of what the body of literature in your field has to say about the topic you have selected and you have gathered notes, paying attention to the purpose of the assignment. If you were writing a paper at a lower level of learning (e.g., in some undergraduate courses), you might simply create an outline for your paper based upon your work so far. However, at the graduate level, you are expected to go beyond simply describing what others have to say about a topic. As noted in Chapter 1, this is where the development of your own voice becomes critical.
Critical thinking and critical writing
To support the purposes of analysis, synthesis, and evaluation, you must develop the ability to both read and think critically. Review the definition(s) of critical thinking on the Critical Thinking Community Website. What I like about their approach is the emphasis on shared intellectual values across disciplines, the importance of developing the lifelong habit of thinking critically, the importance of attending to motivation in both presenting your own views and critically analyzing the perspectives of others, and the caution about attending to and suspending personal biases to read and critique with an open mind.
Take a moment to write your own personal definition of critical thinking.
Throughout your graduate program, you will be expected to openly explore alternatives and then establish a personal position on certain issues, supporting your points of view with various forms of evidence, theory, or plausible lines of reasoning that will stand up under the healthy review and scrutiny of your classmates and instructors. You will be asked to respond to your instructors – and to each other – from a place of curiosity and scepticism, key components of a scholarly attitude. Here are some suggestions for optimizing your contributions to your own scholarly and critical thinking community:
- Explore the world around you: Each of you is surrounded by a wealth of information about human nature, health challenges, social interactions, and change processes. Take a look around. Pay attention to diversity in experience and perspectives. Talk to friends and colleagues. Listen to what your clients/patients have to tell you.
- Research and investigate: Get into the literature and find out how others have conceptualized particular issues or concepts. Seek current research as well as seminal (i.e., earlier, significant writings), non-mainstream, and related resources that comprehensively and critically address your topic. Be sure to pay attention to diversity in research paradigms and procedures.
- Reflect on your own values and beliefs: How do your own values, assumptions, beliefs, or attitudes fit with what you are reading and observing? Pay attention to those things that ring true to you. Pay attention also to the areas or issues that you react to or disengage from.
- Synthesize the material you have gathered: Identify key themes and critical points from your exploration and research. What main issues arise for you? Draw together these diverse points in an organized conceptual framework, showing how you see them offering patterns, relationships, or models that address your subject. Make sure to note those elements that do not fit or continue to baffle you.
- Analyze the material: Identify and question the assumptions of any knowledge claim, acquaint yourself with the critiques made about the claim, and question the evidence or means by which it was obtained, as well as any assertions made from the evidence (e.g., unwarranted leaps of logic). Demonstrate your analyses of other research or knowledge claims in the contributions you make.
- Adopt a point of view: Establish personal positions on the issues you are exploring. This does not need to be a permanent self-statement; in fact, we hope you continue to evolve your views over a lifetime. Nonetheless, you are expected to clearly articulate your position in the here-and-now. Illustrate how your exploration of various forms of evidence and thinking supports your point of view in defensible ways. Not taking a critical position on your subject is a position that you will be expected to support.
- Express your perspective with clarity: Be clear and concise. Take the time to translate jargon and simplify difficult material. Above all, thoughtfully edit all contributions before you submit them.
A fundamental objective of critical thinking is to consider how, or whether, you might make personal and/or professional use of information. [Recall the focus on Discerning appropriate information sources in Chapter 1.] Information must hold up under critical scrutiny and offer useful understandings of some aspect of your life or work. Probing beyond the surface of any assertion requires discipline, and answering some of these questions as you read can be particularly helpful:
- What are the primary assertions being made by the author(s)?
- How clear, concise, consistent, comprehensive and coherent are these assertions? Could you make these assertions understandable to someone unfamiliar with your discipline?
- How are these assertions supported? Do you agree with the evidence offered, and the way it was obtained (i.e., the appropriateness, and proper use, of the research methods used)? Are the claims made from the evidence sound?
- What do other authors or researchers in the field think of these assertions and the evidence used to support them?
- What assumptions are implicit in these assertions? Do these have any cultural, gender, or other blind spots? Do you agree with the relevance of the assumptions to the subject?
- How well do these assertions fit with your own values, beliefs, and worldview? Do they push you to consider personal cognitive, attitudinal, or behavioural change?
- What are the relative strengths and weaknesses in the assertions being made?
- What alternative metaphors, conclusions and analogies for these assertions can you come up with? How can you develop these into other, more plausible, lines of thinking?
- Where, when, and with whom would these assertions not hold up? Why? Who else would take exception with these assertions? Why?
- Do these assertions make a genuine contribution to better understanding the subject, even if they are different from those understandings that are a better fit for you?
- How do these assertions look in practice? Would they be recognizable and usable?
In communicating in your classes and in your written work, you are expected to go beyond what you read. Show others how you have critically made (or not made) that information your own and why you consider the information useful or not useful to you and others. If such an expectation is new for you, welcome these challenges and the excitement of academic thought and discussion.
Recalling the levels of learning in Bloom’s (1956) taxomony, Fowler (2005) pointed to the relationship between analysis, synthesis, and evaluation:
- To synthesize material, you must first analyze it by breaking it down into its parts to understand its possible meanings.
- To evaluate material, you must first synthesize it by making connections among the parts, identifying relationships, and drawing out implications.
- Evaluation takes critical thinking a step further by making supported judgments about the quality of the arguments, the validity of the conclusions or implications, and the significance to the body of knowledge in psychology or other disciplines.
In keeping with Bloom’s (1956) emphasis on affective learning and as a member of an applied health discipline, you will also be challenged throughout your graduate program to reflect on the various lenses through which you view the world. Chapter 1, for example, provided you with an opportunity to look at cultural biases and how those might affect the quality of your writing. The goal of self-reflection is not to move to a value-neutral position, but to move to a point of awareness where your own personal values can be consciously and temporarily suspended, so that you can most accurately hear what is being said by others. You will also be expected to critically reflect on and evaluate your own beliefs and values in light of the professional literature, ethics, and values. So, for example, you might currently believe that people are poor because they are too unhealthy to work. However, once you spend time exploring the professional literature that belief will probably be turned on its head, and you will instead embrace the opposite assumption: Poverty is most often a precursor to ill health (Friedli, 2009).
Critical thinking is the foundation and benchmark of graduate education! Your ability to read critically, think critically, and then translate your ideas into writing critically is what will ultimately make you a successful writer. You may want to explore the following online links to enhance your understanding of critical thinking processes.
- Massey University Online Writing and Learning Link – What Is Critical Thinking?
- Massey University Online Writing and Learning Link – Critical Reading
- University of Toronto Writing Workshop – Critical Reading.
If you want to learn more about critical thinking, check out the work of Kevin deLaplante of the Critical Thinker Academy. He has created a playlist in YouTube of videos on critical thinking that offer a great alternative for those of you who are more visual or auditory learners – see https://www.youtube.com/user/PhilosophyFreak/playlists.
Developing a thesis statement
Once you have gathered enough information and taken the time to critically reflect on your research to get a clear sense of what you would like to say about the topic, I recommend that you take a break from your research and write a thesis statement for your paper. A thesis statement is a sentence (or two) that tells the reader what you intend to argue about a particular topic. It is the main point or central idea that forms the backdrop against which the relevance of everything else in your paper is assessed.
To explore the difference between the topic, purpose, and thesis of your paper, review the following Web resources:
- Purdue University Online Writing Lab – Creating a Thesis Statement
- Purdue University Online Writing Lab – Establishing Arguments
- University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Writing Lab – Thesis and Purpose Statements
- University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Writing Lab – Developing a Thesis Statement
Let’s pick up on the purpose statements from Table 2.2 above to differentiate between purpose and thesis statements. Notice, in Table 2.3 below, that the thesis statements are also aligned with the level of learning targeted.
Table 2.3. Linking Purpose and Thesis Statement
Level of learning
|Analysis||The purpose of this paper is to critically analyze the similarities and differences between an individualistic and an ecological approach to client/patient care.||Although there are some similarities between the individualistic and ecological approaches to client/patient care, the core values, locus of control, and locus of intervention are substantively different.|
|Synthesis and evaluation||The purpose of this paper is to build a solid case for an ecological approach to client/patient care based on best practices and clinical research.||An ecological approach to client/patient care must begin with a systems level analysis of the presenting concern, engage the client actively in intervention/treatment planning, attend to the impact of social determinants of health, and build in inter-professional collaboration where appropriate.|
|Commitment||The purpose of this paper is to reflect on and position my values and beliefs about how to best care for each unique individual I encounter.||As a health care practitioner, I embrace the values of the ecological approach to client/patient health (e.g., respect, collaboration, and social justice); however, I struggle to reconcile them with some of my core personal/professional values for individual client/patient care (e.g., self responsibility, practicality and immediacy of intervention/treatment, and personal autonomy).|
Each thesis statement above has been evaluated against the following criteria (Fowler et al., 2005; Purdue University, 2010; University of Wisconsin-Madison, 2009):
- A thesis statement is usually a single sentence.
- It focuses on one central idea.
- It makes an assertion about the topic.
- In most cases, the assertion is debatable.
- The assertion is specific enough to provide direction for the paper.
- The thesis statement provides scope and direction for the paper.
- It provides a preview of the organization of the paper.
You will notice that a number of different thesis statements have been drawn from the topic of approaches to client/patient care. The nature of the thesis statement depends on (a) the purpose of the paper, (b) what you discover in your research, and (c) your interests and opinions about the topic.
A strong thesis statement indicates to readers the single most important idea that you want to communicate and often provides them with a preview of how your arguments will be laid out in the paper. You may revise your thesis statement as you continue to develop your paper. Normally, you position your thesis statement prominently in your introduction, often as the last line.
Complete Exercise 2 to test your understanding of how to create a strong thesis statement.
Building effective arguments
Now that you have a clear thesis for your paper, your task is to create a convincing argument in support of that thesis statement. A graduate, professional paper is organized according to a set of key points or arguments (an undergraduate paper might simply follow a topic outline based on your gathering of ideas above). The arguments you make to support the thesis of your paper should be clear, succinct, and well organized. This requires you to take a step back and consider how to best support the thesis statement you have generated.
The example in Figure 2.2 is drawn from my own research and might form the foundation for a paper I write on the topic of multicultural counselling and social justice. Apply the principles we have examined above to the purpose and thesis statements. Then consider the key arguments (in bold) and sub-points I have chosen to support those arguments. Both reflect my critical analysis of the literature and my own professional experience and perspectives (e.g., my voice).
Topic: Multicultural counselling and social justice
Purpose: To evaluate the relative position of multicultural counselling and social justice in the profession of counselling.
Thesis Statement: Multicultural counselling and social justice are inextricably intertwined and both are central to competent and ethical practice with all clients.
- All counselling is multicultural in nature, and culture-infused counselling forms a foundation for working with all clients.
- Personal cultural identity reflects a wide range of factors, including gender/gender identity, ethnicity, sexual orientation, age, ability, religion, socioeconomic status, and their intersections.
- Culture is co-constructed through the interface of client-environment and in the relationship between counsellor and client.
- The counsellor, the client, and the counselling relationship are all influenced by the interface of client-counsellor cultural identities.
- Infusing awareness of culture into the counselling process brings these influences into awareness and facilitates more culturally relevant and appropriate practices.
- The interface of client-counsellor cultural identities cannot be fully appreciated without deliberate attention to relative social locations.
- Non-dominant cultural identity is defined, not by relative numbers, but by relative positioning in personal, interpersonal, and group power and privilege.
- There are significant discrepancies between the social, economic, and political positions of dominant and non-dominant cultural groups in North America.
- Individuals and groups who do not form part of the dominant culture are more likely to experience social exclusion, including barriers to services and resources, cultural oppression and marginalization, as well as limitation to social, economic, and political inclusion and advancement.
- In contrast, individuals and groups who reflect the dominant culture often experience unearned privileges by virtue of their social location.
- Without active attention to the relative privilege of counsellor and client, it is impossible to build an effective working alliance with the client, and there is a significant risk of inadvertently perpetuating cultural oppression within the counselling process.
- Awareness of the complexity of client cultural identities and social locations necessitates critical analysis of client contexts and experiences of social injustices in both case conceptualization and intervention planning.
- Engaging clients actively in a collaborative and co-constructive counselling process optimizes the potential for minimizing power differences and ensure the counselling process is client-driven.
Figure 2.2. Building an argument.
Although I am drawing on the research I have conducted in this area, each of the key points and sub-points are in my own words. They are my analysis, synthesis, and evaluation of the literature. This does not mean I do not need to give credit to the sources I have reviewed; I have just left them out here to unclutter the example. You will likely want to insert them as you go, however, to ensure you do not lose track of whom you need to credit to support your ideas.
A solid argument is composed of an organized and logical set of the following elements.
- Assertions about or points of view on a subject. You may break your thesis statement down into several key points or arguments, but each should be clearly connected to the position (thesis) of your paper.
- Evidence to support those assertions or points of view. You have built the foundation of your arguments by gathering information from the body of professional literature and now you will use that research to support the key points in your draft paper. Your challenge is to take a critical look at that evidence to ensure that it supports your thesis and is presented in a systemic and logical fashion.
- A response to counterarguments. In some cases, there may be arguments against your thesis statement that are important for you to address in order to provide your reader with a complete picture. By systematically identifying and responding to these counterarguments you demonstrate critical thinking and strengthen your overall argument.
Developing solid arguments requires you to effectively integrate the evidence to convince the reader of the validity of your assertion (or thesis statement). To read more about building effective arguments, review the following resources.
- The University of North Carolina Writing Center – Argument
- Purdue University Online Writing Lab – Organizing Your Argument
- Massey University Online Writing and Learning Link – Constructing an Argument
Think of each of the key points or arguments in Figure 2.2 as the outline for a paragraph or set of paragraphs in your paper. As I created my argument above, I systematically and purposefully organized each of the key points to build my overall argument. I had to reorganize my argument a number of times to make sure there was a logical flow. In this case, I have opted to move from broad assertions down to more narrowly focused points. I corrected a few flaws in the progression of my ideas as I read them through sequentially. You may want to contrast the argument outlined in Figure 2.2 with a more traditional, undergraduate paper outline in Figure 2.3. The latter is organized by topic and does not clearly lead the reader to a logical conclusion or position (thesis).
Topic: Multicultural counselling and social justice
Purpose: To evaluate the relative position of multicultural counselling and social justice in the profession of counselling.
Thesis Statement: No thesis statement created
- Nature of counselling
- Personal cultural identity
- Co-construction of culture
- Interface of client-counsellor cultural identities
- Infusing awareness of culture
- Social location
- Definition of non-dominant cultural identity
- Discrepancies between dominant and non-dominant cultural groups
- Social exclusion
- Unearned privilege
- Attention to relative privilege of counsellor and client
- Case conceptualization and intervention planning
- Collaborative and co-constructive counselling process
Figure 2.3. A topical outline (in contrast to the argument required in graduate writing).
It would be very difficult to write a solid argument based on the topical outline in Figure 2.3. You would be much more likely to end up with a descriptive paper (e.g., one that demonstrates only knowledge and comprehension according to Bloom’s (1956) taxonomy) than one that takes a particular position and systematically supports that position. There are a number of other common traps that students fall into in developing their arguments. Please review the following documents to ensure that you do not make similar errors.
- The University of North Carolina Writing Center – Fallacies
- Purdue University Online Writing Lab – Using Rhetorical Strategies for Persuasion
Table 2.4 provides another example of an argument on the topic of our food supply (and compares it to a traditional outline). I have stated each key point clearly in one sentence. The logical flow between the key points is clear. I have nested (indented) the key points and sub-points to make the flow of the argument clear. I based this sample argument on a book I was reading.
Table 2.4. Contrast between an argument and a traditional outline
Key Points in An Argument
|The large-scale industrialization of food production is seriously compromising the quality of our food, and, without a revolution of the masses, both human beings and the planet will experience dire consequences. [Notice that this is my thesis statement.]||Introduction|
|The industrial revolution has opened doors to new methods and models of food production; however, innovation does not always mean increased quality.||Industrial revolution and food|
|Changing the values that drive production has resulted in serious consequences for the quality of food we eat.||Impact on food quality|
|Both the loss of nutritional value and the addition of chemical toxins are already having a dramatic effect on human health.||Impact on human health|
Note. Adapted from “The end of food: How the food industry is destroying our food supply – and what you can do about it,” by T. F. Pawlick, 2006, Vancouver, BC: Douglas & McIntyre.
Critically analyzing and extrapolating the argument presented by another writer, as I have demonstrated in Table 2.4, is a good way to summarize the ideas that you may want to incorporate into your own paper. It forces you to think critically and to synthesize the information into succinct statements (using your own words). However, do not use this as the argument for your paper as if it reflects your own ideas. Copying another author’s argument is another form of plagiarism.
Take a few minutes to come up with a purpose and thesis statement that might fit for the argument above. Then complete Exercise 3 to put into practice the principles you have learned.
Synthesis and integration of the literature
At this point, you have a clear argument drafted with key points and sub-points to support the thesis of your paper. Make sure that each paragraph (or group of paragraphs) relates to one of the key points in your argument. You may want to copy each of your key points to the first line of the paragraph that elaborates on that point. The key point becomes the topic sentence for that paragraph and ensures that the reader can easily follow the flow of your argument.
If you have effectively tracked the sources of your ideas, you may find that you have already clearly supported some of the key points and sub-points in your argument; in other cases, you may need to revise the paragraph(s) to provide sufficient evidence to support the key point. This might mean going back to the ideas you generated and organized through your preliminary research on the topic or you might have to go in search of additional sources to inform and support your points.
Students sometimes have difficulty understanding how the purpose of the paper (e.g., the levels of learning targeted) should influence how they integrate material from other sources and word the points and sub-points in their paper. Figure 2.5 provides you with some examples of the kinds of statements you might make if you were attempting to demonstrate Bloom’s (1956) levels of learning. Read the criteria associated with each level and then analyze the statements on the right to see how well they reflect these criteria. Notice how the nature of the statements changes as the level of learning targeted increases. Remember, it is difficult to accomplish all the goals associated with a particular level in one or two statements; these are simply intended as examples. I have not included the skills domain, because this would rarely be assessed through a paper. I have now added fictional citations to reinforce the importance of synthesizing the professional literature to support your points. You will learn how to accurately cite your sources in Chapter 4. Notice that even when you are speaking about your own attitudes, beliefs, and values (e.g., affect), it is important to tie your assertions to the professional literature.
Table 2.5. Synthesis of the Literature To Reflect the Level of Learning Targeted
Levels of learning in the cognitive domain
||The social determinants of health include racism, poverty, poor housing, lack of access to education, and social isolation (Brown, 2015; Frankel, 2012; Young & Pedersen, 2015).|
||These issues are considered social determinants of health because they are most often outside of the individual’s control (Brown, 2015), and they affect diverse groups in society differently (Collins & Arthur, 2013).|
||The social determinants of health provide a useful conceptual model for arguing against a purely individualistic approach to client/patient care (Dunkel, Green, & Mason, 2014; Young & Pedersen, 2015). For example, framing poverty as a social determinant of health places responsibility on society to effect change in the inequitable distribution of resources rather than on the individual to rise above these inequities (Arthur & Collins, 2013; Dunkel et al., 2014)|
||All of the social determinants of health share these commonalities: the apply to groups of individuals, the influence across groups differs, groups with less power and privilege are more vulnerable to and negatively affected by them (Dunkel et al., 2014; Edgeworthy, 2010; Williams & Grant, 2011). The social determinants of health are a reflection of broader social narratives about who is more deserving of access to resources and services (Williams & Grant, 2011); these narratives are often built on misrepresentations of justice and equality (Brown, 2015; Frankel, 2012).|
||A logical extension to the social determinants of health argument is that the responsibility for change rests predominant with those of us who benefit from inequities and social injustices (Frankel, 2012; Nuttgens, 2016). Only by increasing awareness of these inequities, will society be able to shift the balance of power and privilege (Arthur, 2016) and fully embrace social justice (Brown, 2015; Nuttgens, 2016)|
||Although I am arguing in favour of applying a social determinants of health lens to our understanding of health problems and solutions, this approach is not without its weaknesses. It potentially paints groups of people with the same brush and washes out individual differences; it opens the door to top down interpretations of change; and it may overwhelm and lead to immobilization rather action (Dunkel et al., 2014; Edgeworthy, 2010; Williams & Grant, 2011). It is also difficult to argue against the idea of social justice; it is important to break this broad concept down into specific assertions and practices to better engage in a balanced debate (Paul, 2010; Zimmerman, 2013).|
Levels of learning in the affective domain
||I struggled at the outset of the course with the idea that doing nothing about racism or sexism in society is supporting the status quo (Arthur, 2011). I did not understand that awareness without action meant I was not fulfilling my professional and ethical responsibilities. As the course progressed, however, I opened to the idea that unless I actively confront racism, sexism, and homophobia, I am supporting cultural oppression within the health professions and within the broader society (Arthur, 2011; Gray, 2014; Lalande & Young, 2016).|
||As a result of this new awareness, I have begun to seek out opportunities to apply what I have learned in practice. I have joined the social justice chapter of the Canadian Counselling and Psychotherapy Association and am volunteering in a local immigrants’ society. I am also actively confronting these isms by challenging oppressive comments, practices, and policies as they arise (Arthur, 2011; Lalande & Young, 2016). For example, I have volunteered to rework our intake form to be more culturally sensitive. I have set a goal for myself to identify one specific task to undertake each month to increase my own understanding of cultural oppression and to share that learning with others.|
Complete Exercise 4 to practice writing in a way that reflects the levels of learning targeted. Writing that reflects analysis, synthesis, and evaluation will make the difference between a poor grade and a great grade on graduate papers.
You now have an almost complete draft of your paper. Carefully read through it to ensure that the criteria for demonstrating critical thinking identified in your course assignment are met through your writing. You may want to actually write in the margins the levels of learning you are demonstrating with each key point: evaluation, synthesis, awareness, and so on. If you cannot clearly identify which criteria apply, rethink and rewrite that section.
At some point in our lives, most of us have lost work because we did not save documents regularly or back up our system. Be sure to set the auto-save function in Microsoft Word. Go to Word on the menu bar and select Preferences. Click on Save and then check “Save autorecovery info every ___ minutes.” I suggest you set this to save every 5 minutes. You never know when you might have a brilliant idea or word something perfectly!
Drafting a clear introduction
Now that you have pulled together the literature to support your argument, take a step back to ensure that your purpose and thesis statements are still a good fit with your draft of the paper. You may find you need to massage them a bit based on new research you have discovered or the evolution of your argument. Then you are ready to craft your introduction. Drawing on (Fowler et al., 2005), at minimum, your introduction should
- introduce the topic of the paper,
- describe your purpose in writing the paper, and
- state your thesis.
You may also want to
- describe why the topic is important,
- indicate your attitude toward the topic,
- provide an example, a scenario, or a dilemma to capture the reader’s attention,
- set the context or provide relevant background information,
- define key terms or concepts, and/or
- describe how the paper is organized (if not indicated in your thesis statement).
I typically begin by introducing the topic and stating the purpose of my paper, add any additional information, and then conclude with the thesis statement. The Massey University Online Writing and Learning Link – Essay Introduction provides a clear overview of how to write an introduction that incorporates your thesis statement. I have crafted a sample introduction in Figure 2.4 based on the topic, purpose, and thesis in Table 2.6 below.
Table 2.6. Sample topic, purpose, and thesis statement
|End of life care||The purpose of this paper is to evaluate the similarities and differences between at home and residential hospice care systems.||Both at home and residential hospice care programs offer critical medical and psychosocial support to patients and families; however, those patients with hands on support from family/friends experience increased quality of life, autonomy, and sense of well-being by staying in their own homes.|
Figure 2.4. Crafting an introduction.
As you become more confident in your writing, you may want to add a significant quote to your introduction that leads into your thesis statement or an image that provides a context for your paper.
Complete Exercise 5 to practice drafting introductions based on the topic, purpose, and thesis statements used in earlier exercises.
Drafting your conclusion
The conclusion to your paper is just as important as the introduction. Your conclusion will typically begin with a brief summary of the arguments presented. It should link to your thesis statement to demonstrate how the main point of the paper has been supported through the body of your writing. Rather than simply copying your thesis statement, restate it in a new and interesting way. You may then choose to include the following, depending on the nature of the paper:
- implications or significance of the ideas presented,
- directions for further research or development,
- personal reflections or applications, and/or
- a call for action.
Review the sample conclusion below. It is based on the topic, purpose, and thesis from Table 2.6 that was used above to craft the introduction.
Figure 2.5. Crafting a conclusion.
For more tips on creating an effective conclusion, see the Massey University Online Writing and Learning Lab – Essay Conclusion.
Complete Exercise 6 to create a conclusion for the imaginary papers that begin with the introductions you drafted in Exercise 5.
Planning and drafting your paper are the most demanding tasks in the writing process. They require you to carefully analyze the assignment criteria, shift into a critical thinking mode, and demonstrate your ability to engage in higher order learning. Some students skip this critical thinking phase of their writing entirely by simply gathering ideas from other sources, rearranging them into some logical order, and assuming they have created a draft paper. However, the cornerstone of graduate and professional writing is the insertion of your own voice, your own critical analysis, and your own position on or assertion about the topic.
Once you have completed the first draft of your paper, use the following checklist to ensure that you have met all of the criteria below. I have drawn many of these ideas from Fowler et al. (2005).
- Have you clearly stated the topic and purpose of your paper?
- Is the main thesis of your paper clear and well-constructed?
- Have you positioned your thesis statement in a way that takes a position, is arguable, and makes your voice clear?
- Does your introduction include the purpose and thesis statements?
- Does your introduction capture the reader’s attention and provide the reader with a sense of direction and context for the paper?
- Does your argument clearly flow from and support the thesis statement?
- Is the body of your paper divided into clear points and sub-points that support the central thesis of the paper?
- Do you demonstrate critical thinking throughout the paper?
- Do you state each of the key points in a clear and concise manner?
- Have you organized the key points in your argument in a systematic and logical fashion?
- Have you presented your key points and sub-points in a way that reflects the levels of learning required (e.g., analysis, synthesis, evaluation)?
- Have you linked each paragraph in some way to the thesis statement?
- Have you structured each paragraph in a deliberate way to support the key point?
- Do your sub-points provide sufficient examples or evidence to support the key points?
- Have you effectively integrated the professional literature base?
- Have you identified theories or concepts that influenced how you framed your thesis and arguments?
- Have you clearly defined all terms you use?
- Does your thesis statement lead logically through your key arguments to the conclusions you draw?
- Is your point of view clear to the reader?
- Does your conclusion wrap up the key points in the paper?
- Does your conclusion succinctly restate the thesis in a new way?