Since I have been teaching cultural anthropology online, I have graded a lot of papers at all levels of quality. For papers that land in the B to C area, I have noticed some common pitfalls that can be fixed if the student knew more about the research paper format. Two of the sticking points for the student new to research paper writing are the introduction and conclusion. In this post, I will go over the mistakes that students make in these sections, explain their purposes, and in the next post, give a non-academic model of how a writer can introduce and conclude a paper.
Problems with the introduction and conclusion can be categorized as being either too short or too long. In the former case, it seems the student just does not know what to put there. Maybe the research is not done yet so the student does not have a point in mind. Sometimes, a student will writeÂ just the thesis statement in the introduction before moving on to the body paragraphs. Having run out of things to say by the conclusion, the student leaves a vague sentence about the topic. Maybe the student leaves the conclusion out entirely. In the case of too much text, a student might cram everything he or she has found into the introduction, leaving the body paragraphs empty.Â The conclusion sometimes will be a philosophical tangent that springboards off of the body paragraphs to parts unknown. (The introduction could also be where random musings take place, but there tends to be more focus there).
The right way to craft an introduction is actually easy to do once one knows what the purpose of these paragraphs. The introduction gently eases the reader into the argument. It is like the steps of a hot tub that let the bather get used to the temperature a foot at a time. The first thing the student should do is to make sure the hot tub is already there for the reader! This bad metaphor means that the student knows what his or her main point is going to be before starting the paper. With a goal in mind, a common way to do this via writing is to move from the general to the specific, ending with the thesis statement that declares what this paper will tell the reader. For a paper about rites of passage in the Balinese and Maori cultures, for example, the introduction could start with a few lines on what rites of passage are and why they are important to study. The next step is to mention the Balinese and Maori cultures as the subjects of this particular look at rites of passage. The last part of the introduction is the thesis that states the purpose of the paper and the point it will show: “This paper will examine rites of passage in the Balinese and Maori cultures and show that…” Of course, seasoned writers will use their cleverness to give their paper more style, but at the basic level, this is what an introduction needs.
Similar steps can be used to write a good conclusion. In a way the introduction and conclusion are similar, but they are also mirror images. The conclusion eases the reader out of the paper-slash-hot tub and back into the real world. The first sentence states the main point: “In conclusion, the Balinese and Maori rites of passage….” From there, the main supporting evidence is given again. The last line is the most general, briefly bringing the discussion back to rites of passage as a whole. The conclusion’s conclusion mirrors the introduction’s introduction. Here is an outline of the basic parts of a research paper:
- General Topic
- Preview of Subjects
- Thesis Statement
- Body paragraphs which may be the topic of another post.
- Thesis Statement
- Review of Subjects
- Concluding Point
There are two main reasons why I think students do not follow this plan in their paper, even when they know it. One is that it feels awkward to keep belaboring the same points repeatedly. In a three page rough draft, it seemsÂ wrong to say the same points in the first paragraph, again on the next page, and one more time on the third page. The second reason is that there are no good models of this format outside of academic journal articles. I ask students to model their paper’s organization on the academic sources that they find, but frankly, professional papers can be a pain to read. I searched my brain extensively for something non-academic that I can use to show students how a research paper is structured, and I found one:
The World’s Wildest Police Videos series
Yes! Join me next time for an analysis of one of the episodes to see how it follows the research paper format.