Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Helping Students Bring Order Out of Chaos: Creating an Outline of a Scholarly Article

Students often ask me for advice on how to write scholarly articles to fulfill upper-level research and writing requirements, and one of the chief difficulties they face is how to take a mass of research and organize it into an outline.  I thought I might share with you a series of questions I ask my students to pose for themselves as a way of identifying the categories of information that will ultimately form the structure of their articles.

I first make certain that they know two things: 

       1) that they have to discover a clear thesis a point they wish to make that can be stated in a sentence or so; and

       2) that they should arrange their material by considering it from the reader's point of view a reader who is relatively uninformed, skeptical, and possibly hostile to the thesis the student is asserting.

Given those two principles, they should see all of the questions as an extrapolation of one key question:

What does the reader need to know, understand, and believe in order to accept my basic point, i.e., my thesis?

From that question come several useful questions they should ask themselves to spur their thinking:

1. What is the point that I am trying to make i.e., what is my thesis?

2. Why is my thesis important?  (Why should the reader care?)
     - Does it solve a problem?
     - Does it expose a problem that needs to be solved?
            - an injustice?
            - an inconsistency in the law?
            - an inefficiency in the law?

3.  What legal theories and doctrines underlie my thesis?

4.  What policies or values does my thesis exemplify or reflect, and are they likely to be shared by the reader?

5.  What changes in current theories or doctrine does my thesis require in order to be accepted?

6.  What practical obstacles exist to the implementation of my thesis?

7.  What must be done to overcome the obstacles?

8.  What shared values can I appeal to? 

Given the answers to 1-8:

9.  What must the reader know?
      - The nature of the problem or the origin of the problem, for example.

10. What must the reader understand?
      - The effect of the problem?
      - The logic of the theories or doctrines underlying or setting up my thesis?
      - The logic underlying my thesis?

11. What must the reader come to believe in to accept my thesis?
      - The need for a solution?
      - The importance of the problem?
      - The importance of my thesis?
      - The validity of the theories or doctrines underlying my thesis?

12. What are the logical steps for a reader to go from uninformed and unconvinced to informed and
convinced?

The list is hardly exhaustive, of course, and the sub-questions under each larger question are merely examples; but I found that the list largely reflects the implicit and explicit questions I ask myself when I structure an article.  From such questions the writer can identify the necessary concepts the reader must grasp and begin to see potential structures that would help the reader do so. 

The writer will likely discover that several effective structures might work but will also likely discover that certain concepts must be clear before others will make sense; so only those structures that respect that fact will actually work. 

I thought my students might find an explicit list of questions helpful to spur their thinking and give direction to their writing, so I scratched out this list.  I thought you might also find the questions helpful (or a better list of your own making) if students ask you how to begin to bring order out of the chaos of their research.  (dbw)

http://lawprofessors.typepad.com/academic_support/2006/03/helping_student.html

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