Knowing What You're Doing

You cannot write a good paper if you don't know what it is about. Most people think that all that is needed is a general topic, but in fact, that doesn't give you enough direction. In a humanities paper, you need three parts: a topic, a question, and a thesis.

Topic: The topic is the general area you want to write about. Examples of topics are things like: "AIDS in America", "The causes of the WWI", "Dali". Topics tend to be broad, and are like the "field" in which questions are asked.

Question: Topics are not questions. You ask a question within the area of the topic. One topic could have many questions associated with it. For example, the topic "AIDS in America" could have the following questions: "What is the history of AIDS in America?", "What is the relationship between religion and AIDS in America?", "What are some of the ways that the trauma of AIDS has been communicated through art or music?", and so forth. You can see that there could be hundreds of possible questions.

When you get a question, or a few possible questions, you should analyze them. Define the words, even the easy ones. Think about other ways to ask the same question (that is, reword it). Do whatever it takes to become as clear as possible about the question you are asking.

It is important to learn to recognize the kinds of questions asked in particular disciplines. In the humanities, we tend to move between and across disciplines, but that doesn't mean that questions don't draw on the resources of disciplines. Philosophical questions, for instance, are usually different from historical or psychological ones.

Thesis: The thesis is just the answer to the question. Good theses come from good questions, poor theses come from unclear questions. A great many papers are just a collection of vaguely relevant information to a topic. They do not know what they are asking, and therefore they don't know what a good answer would look like.

Theses can be conclusions of arguments (that is, you are trying to convince someone of something), but they can also be more descriptive. There are times when you want to write a paper that says "Here's how we should look at this thing (e.g., work of art)". Implicitly you might be saying that the way you propose is the best way to understand something (and in that sense, even this descriptive project could be seen as an argument), but you might really just be trying to say that your way of describing the thing illuminates something important about it, and enables us to understand it.