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Guidelines on Writing an Academic Paper

Argument and Structure

These guidelines apply to genres of writing that involve an argument of some kind. An argumentative paper can be distinguished from other kinds of academic writing. When writing an argumentative paper, the author is putting forward a claim and offering evidence in support of that claim. When writing an abstract, summary, literature review, white paper, or report, the author is not putting forward any claim at all, although the author might summarize someone else's argument.

The argument: The word “argument” can have many meanings. In academic writing, the argument is the coherent structure of reasons and evidence in support of a claim. In this context, an argument is not mere wrangling, dispute, contentiousness, or quarreling.

The paper must have an argument, that is, a single major point that the author is trying to make. Your argument should be stated clearly in a single sentence in your paper's introduction, usually the first or second paragraph. Your entire paper should be focused on this argument, with little deviation. The argument is important, so it must be well stated.

The claims, reasons, and evidence: The body of the paper offers a series of claims, reasons, and evidence in support of the argument. Avoid a paper that is only descriptive. This means simply stating a good, strong argument and offering data and logical arguments to support it (remember to include significant contrary facts and theories). You may also consider:

  • Applying a theory: showing how a particular state of affairs can be understood through a particular theoretical or conceptual framework.
  • Showing a causal relationship: for example, showing that export agriculture in El Salvador has led to extreme poverty for most peasants.
  • Supporting one side in a controversy: for example, showing that population growth is [is not] the major cause of hunger in the Third World.
  • Showing the logical structure underlying a certain phenomenon: for example, showing how the displacement of peasants by export agriculture is the inevitable result of the structure of international capitalism.


Structure: Every paper builds an argument. Organization is crucial. Your paper should include the following sections:

  • Beginning: The introductory paragraphs or introductory section (depending on the size and scope of your paper) provides the argument and sets the scene. They give enough information to set out the problem to be solved and to make the thesis comprehensible. They should tell the reader the subject of the paper, the type of analysis, and the argument that you are intending to make. A research paper is not a mystery story. You need to tell the reader at the outset where you are going. Avoid cosmic introductions about "the nature of man" or "throughout all history." Get right to your subject. Often it is possible to immediately capture the reader's interest by starting off with a specific example or case study that illustrates your thesis.
  • Middle: Develop your claims, reasons, and evidence in a progressive manner. This is the body of the paper.
  • End: Always end with a few concluding paragraphs. Summarize the material briefly, and state your conclusions as clearly as possible. Conclusions should elaborate your thesis and analyze the material that has gone before. It is here that you can suggest wider implications of your analysis -- for example, that the displacement of peasants in El Salvador may be applicable to other Third World countries with similar political and economic systems.


Style: Every paper you submit in this program is a formal paper. Avoid colloquialisms, clichés, and awkward wordy constructions. Do not use contractions. Do not hedge your claims by writing “I think ___" or "It is my conclusion that ___" It is, however, appropriate to use “I argue…” Consider your audience not as your instructor or professor, but rather as a person who is generally educated in the field but not a specialist. Avoid jargon. When using unusual terms or references not familiar to a general audience, define or explain them (even though you know the professor is familiar with them). None of this should suggest that your style should be unnatural, stilted, or humorless. Try to be as clear and as straightforward as possible.

Title: Your title should be specific and interesting. It should suggest your thesis. For example, "Holy and Unholy Alliances: The Politics of Catholicism in Revolutionary Nicaragua," is far better than "Religion in Nicaragua." Note how much is packed into this title: religious political alliances, Catholicism, revolution, Nicaragua. Note also the use of a main title separated with a colon from the subtitle. This form allows for briefly conveying considerable information without having a title that is convoluted or unwieldy. It is often best to start with a "working title" and polish the final title only after you have finished the paper.

Subheads: Please use subheads for papers that are five pages or longer. Subheads are important because they break the body of the paper into manageable chunks for the reader. In the article cited above, subtitles might include: "The Divided Church," "The Popular Church and the Sandinistas," "The Vatican Counterrevolution," and "Conclusions: Power Through Alliance." Make sure your subheads really represent important divisions and are not used merely because you are unable to think of good transitions.

Citations: Please use Chicago Author - Date citation style for the core courses in this program

At the end of a body of information -- whether quoted or not -- provide in parentheses the author, date and page(s) of the source, like this: (Scheingold 2011, 83). Note that the period comes after the parentheses. If you use the same author for several sentences or paragraphs, with no intervening copy from another source, cite only once at the end of all the material from that author, like this (Lovell et al. 2016, 62, 85, 73). The exception is that direct quotations are always cited immediately. 

Citing Court Cases: Court cases can be cited in-text, as well.

  • In Santa Clara v. Southern Pacific, the United States Supreme Court recognized corporations as persons deserving protection under the Fourteenth Amendment's Equal Protection clause (118 U.S. 394 (1886)).
  • In 2010, the U.S. Supreme Court recognized that rights of free speech of corporations-as-persons meant that limits on corporations' political spending was a violation of their freedom of speech (Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission 558 U.S. 310).

Citing Archival Sources: Documents that you find in archives are not published. We recommend that you cite archival documents in a footnote, because archival sources sometimes lack an author or in some other way do not comport to the style of published works. Footnotes can be added to a Word document by going to References > Insert Footnote, and the footnotes will be added to the footer of the page. MS Word will automatically number your footnotes, so there is no need to add them in order. In citing a document from an archive, you should include the specific document, followed by the date, the name of collection, and the name of archive. Please see an example at the footnote below.[1]

Note that the examples in that link are for archives that you visit and access original documents, hence the use of box and folder numbers as identifiers. You should modify this approach for digital archives, including a link to the digital archive.

At the end of the paper list, you should include a section called “Works Cited.” This section should include only references actually cited, with the authors names in alphabetical order. Do not include a general bibliography. Web sources are included alphabetically with the other sources. Specific guidelines for citations are indicated on the Chicago Author-Date citation guide, linked above.

[1] Letter from Robert L. Carter to Prof. Glenn Abernathy, 18 November 1957, Papers of the NAACP, Part 22: Legal Department Administrative Files, 1956-1965, NAACP Papers: The NAACP's Major Campaigns—Legal Department Files, ProQuest History Vault. Accessed July 28, 2018.