Guidelines for Writing Papers

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  1. Have a clear and strong thesis. In the beginning of the paper, i.e. the first paragraph, offer a clear statement that presents the argument that you will be developing throughout the paper. You can think of your thesis as the answer to a specific question. Answering a specific question, and backing up your answer (thesis) with specific evidence, is quite different from providing "book reports" on the materials you have read.

  2. By beginning with a clearly articulated thesis, you impose a certain structure on your paper that will help both the flow of the narrative and the overall coherence of the paper. Clearly stating the goal of the paper and then referring back to it will keep you from going along unproductive digressions. It also gives the reader a clearer sense of where your paper is going and how your arguments fit together. And it will help you when you come to the conclusion of your paper, which should contain a restatement of your argument and central thesis.

  3. Depth over breadth. It is better to develop two ideas thoroughly than it is to mention five and leave them relatively unexplained. Part of your goal in writing papers for this class is to show that you are capable of articulating a position and then developing the argument. In such a brief paper there is no expectation that you will be able to deal with every aspect of the question at hand. As a result little is to be gained from listing a number of considerations without exploring them in any detail.

  4. History is necessarily an interpretive enterprise. There are rarely clean, clear- cut beginnings and ends to eras. Nuance is an important key for characterizing contributions, events, and shifts.

  5. Short paragraphs should not be the norm for your paper. They may work to punctuate a certain point in rare instances, but generally, paragraphs should have a beginning, middle, and end– so, at least, three sentences. They should fully develop a point that fits in the trajectory of your overall argument.

  6. At first reference to an author, use their full names (i.e. first and last). The last name can be used thereafter.

Note on Web-Based Sources

You are encouraged to use web-based sources, such as Wikipedia, when preparing your essay. Such sources often provide helpful background and lists of references for further reading. However, you should not use such materials as sources in your actual paper, either for direct quotation or for paraphrasing. Obviously the point is not to plagiarize from on-line sites! Rather, it is to use such sites, together with help the professors and teaching assistants, as tools to help guide you to relevant information, in the form of peer-reviewed books and articles. (The same holds for paper-based resources like "traditional" encyclopedia articles: these can certainly be used as background, but should not be the final sources upon which you rely when crafting your arguments and composing your papers.)

Scholars rely on formal peer review as an important safeguard for the validity of the information they draw upon for their own studies, and students in STS 003 will practice the same habits. Tens of thousands of scholarly articles on all the topics relevant to this course are available on-line. Using the web to retrieve electronic copies of peer- reviewed scholarly articles from published journals is strongly encouraged. If one is brave enough to venture beyond one's dorm room, additional vistas await in the form of several million paper-based books and articles conveniently housed in MIT's libraries.

Another type of web-based source that is appropriate to use in class papers is primary sources that have been compiled and presented on the web. For example, a consortium of scholars has been collecting and preparing works by Isaac Newton for presentation on the web, many of which, such as his private notebooks and correspondence, have never been published before (see The Newton Project). These sources, and comparable ones for more recent scientists, can indeed be used in class essays, in combination with more traditional, peer-reviewed secondary sources.

A useful discussion of appropriate uses for Wikipedia and related web-based sites in classes such as this one may be found in this article:

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