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Organizing Your Social Sciences Research Paper

Offers detailed guidance on how to develop, organize, and write a college-level research paper in the social and behavioral sciences.

Last Word

Dear Student,

This writing guide was originally developed in response to an international relations professor who had vociferously complained to me that she had to return the first assignment papers back to all of her students because they didn’t know how to write. She didn’t say it exactly like that, but I don’t need to include the expletive she used. This exchange, however, ignited my desire to create the Organizing Your Social Sciences Research Paper writing guide.

Good writing doesn’t come naturally to most of us and, as a result, successfully completing college-level writing assignments, particularly in first year courses, can be daunting. The style and prescribed organization of most research papers in the social and behavioral sciences can be difficult to formulate because they require the application of thoughts, ideas, and concepts that are unfamiliar and difficult to make sense of. I can assure you, this was me as an undergraduate majoring in geology as a freshman, then quickly discovering, oh wait, yea, that requires a lot of math, and switching my major to history.

It is true, as with most acquired skills, that the more you write, the more comfortable you become putting fingers to keyboard. In reflecting on my own writing experiences in college and from reading a lot of literature about the pedagogy of college writing, I offer these finals thoughts on how to become a better, more proficient writer.

  • The chair of my dissertation committee once emphasized to me that achieving the goal of being a good writer is a life-long endeavor. Because language and ways of expressing oneself is malleable and meaning can be communicated in multiple ways, absolute perfection does not exist; improvement can always be realized. When writing, don’t seek narrative perfection, just correct grammatical errors and focus on saying what you want to say with precision and clarity.
  • The step-by-step organization of this guide is deceiving. Composing a well-written paper is almost never a sequential, linear process. A college-level research paper requires multiple cycles of revising, editing, and correcting text before a paper comes together in a way that satisfies the guidelines of the assignment and, perhaps more importantly, satisfies your own beliefs about the quality of your thoughts and ideas.
  • A commonly cited strategy to becoming a better writer is to read what others have written so you can learn about different discursive and expressive forms of writing. This is generally true. But, added to this, be introspective about what you read. If something comes across as unclear or oddly written, think to yourself, how would I have said this? Critically reading and contemplating how better to express an idea, argument, point of view, or observed phenomenon is the path to developing your own personal writing style.
  • Language is culture and culture is language. Forms of expression, either written or as oral tradition, are culturally situated and relative. Read the writings of other expressive cultures. Want to escape the confines of slogging through the dry, analytical readings from your course syllabi? Search the library catalog for books of African poetry about colonial resistance. Or read a collection of short stories about family life in Brazil. Anything that might interest you. A myth about academic writing is that there’s no room for creativity; it’s structure is prescribed in such a way that it washes away any semblance of innovative thought. This is true to an extent because academic writing is not storytelling, but there are ways to express ideas or describe phenomena that does not have to come across as pedantic and laborious. Stepping outside of familiar forms of writing can be an engaging way to broaden how you can express the significance, meaning, and impact of your research.
  • Much has been written about the presumed negative influence of social media on reading and writing. To me, it’s just another type of expressive culture, modified by technology. In some ways, the character limits of some social media sites requires brevity and being succinct. The exchange of images illustrates the idiom that a picture is worth a thousand words. Think about the ways that the peculiarities of social media can inform academic writing styles. Is it a stretch to think this way? Perhaps. But there are no limits to places you can go to develop good writing habits.
  • And finally, take advantage of campus resources. As a student, I never sought help from my campus writing center because I didn’t know it existed. You should visit, however, if you need help with completing your writing assignments. The USC Writing Center offers both in-person consultation as well as resource guides, brief workshops, and video tutorials. The information gained from using the Writing Center can save you time with getting started on a writing project and help build confidence in your own abilities to write a college-level paper.

Thank you for visiting this guide. And best of luck with all of your writing endeavors, in college and beyond.

Dr. Robert V. Labaree