How Papers Work

One way to distinguish between “essays” and “papers” is to say that essays present ideas and papers present results. In school, this distinction won’t always hold, and sometimes you’ll be asked to write a “paper” that is actually an essay, or vice versa. But in the journal literature, the distinction is often enforced by editors, who like to distinguish between contributions that are based on an empirical study and contributions that are based on the author’s personal experience and reflection. An essay is always implicitly asking the reader to “try to imagine” something, while a paper is less literary and more technical in its ambition. It is informing the reader about what the writer has learned, not just proposing that the reader consider a series ideas. Both forms of writing are “persuasive” in the sense that they’re attempts to get the reader to believe something. But both the writer and reader make different assumptions about the rhetorical situation they’re in in each case. Having already written a post about essays, I thought I’d write one this morning about papers.

Properly speaking, you can’t write a “paper” if you haven’t conducted a “study”. This implies that you have both a theory and a method; you have framed a research question (with theory) and you have (methodically) collected data in an attempt to answer it. Ideally, you have answered your question, and your results suggest some implications, either for theory or practice. At the end of the day, it is those implications that your reader wants to know about. But even an inclusive result is a result; although it will be rare that we didn’t learn anything at all from a study, if the implications are simply that we’ve been right all along, the paper may be worth publishing simply to record a “null result”. In any case, if you’re writing a paper, you must have a result of some kind to present.

But this doesn’t mean that you can’t anticipate being in a position to write a paper before the result is known. And that means you can actually write a substantial portion of your paper in draft form while you’re planning and conducting your research. The background section, for example, as well as the theory section, serve mainly to frame your question, and you should have articulated that quite clearly before you started collecting your data. Everything you know about your empirical context (before you begin your data collection) and everything your literature review tells you to expect of it (before you complete your analysis of the data) serves as the basis of your background and theory sections. Also, while you don’t know exactly what you’ll do to collect your data, you’ve got a good sense of what your probably should do, simply by knowing the methodological standards of your field. So there is plenty to work with, one paragraph at a time, one morning at a time, even while you conduct your research.

The essential thing is that you write the whole paper again once you know the results. A paper should simply and straightforwardly present results that are known to the writer. The writer of the first paragraph should have a “knowing air” about what is to come, and the result itself should be presented already in the introduction. The background and theory sections should be written so as to frame the analysis and set up the discussion in the most efficient way possible. There’s a great deal of artifice in this and the reader should feel like the whole experience has been explicitly constructed for the purpose of delivering the result along with its implications. Finally, a paper assumes a great deal of competence (knowledge and intelligence) in the reader. A research paper is always written for a peer — someone working in the same field, using the same theories and methods. It presents the results to this reader for the purpose of discussing their validity.

Like I say, the distinction between papers and essays isn’t always formally applied. But it can be good to ask yourself whether you really have a result to present to your reader, or you’re just asking them to think along with you for a few paragraphs. (This is also why it can sometimes be useful to think of parts of longer texts, like projects or dissertations, as mini-essays, even if they appear within larger paper-like text.) While a good essay, like a good paper, is written with the end in mind from the beginning, it will often (and preferably) feel more improvised. So it’ll also, often, be written in closer connection with the thought process it presents. It should not feel completely “unrehearsed,” however. I will continue to recommend that you put at least a week between your thinking and your writing to make sure that you aren’t literally thinking out loud in your writing.

An essay can be both more urgent and more ephemeral than a paper. It has its moment and it passes. But a research paper goes into the literature as a record of what you have done and what you have seen. Even after the results are superseded by others, the record remains.

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