Advice for Writing Papers at Seminary

It is paper season at seminary. As both a writer and grader of papers, I offer four suggestions for improving academic paper writing. There are points of writing that people may quibble over (e.g., the use of 1st and 2nd person), but a quality paper is possible, even by average students, if they exercise due diligence and consider a few basics.

I’d love to read your thoughts on additional suggestions in the comments below.

  1. If your professor provides instructions on how to write your paper, read and heed.

    Professors recognize that different students have different backgrounds, different skill levels, and different interests. Professors also recognize that other professors emphasize different elements of the writing process or require different things for a paper or essay.

    In many cases, the professor will give detailed instructions for how many sources and what types you must use. Sometimes there are particular instructions for formatting or structure of the paper. There is little that is more frustrating to the professor or grader than to have explicit requirements ignored.

    This is a clear indication that you, the student, just don’t care about the final product. Unfortunately, it is rarely the case that such negligent students don’t care about their final grade.

    Ignoring advice or requirements from the professors is grating to the person reading the paper, so it is best to follow the directions, even if you don’t think formatting and structure are important, your professor obviously does.

  2. Begin with a thesis. Make it one that you can prove in the allowed page length.

    A common flaw with many papers I read is a lack of a thesis. When there is a thesis, it is often too broad.

    There are differing opinions on this, particularly from the English faculty. However, in research papers (a different animal than essays), it is nearly always best to clearly state a thesis. “This paper will show that . . .” or “This paper argues that . . .”

    Your professor or grader will get dozens of papers. Don’t make finding your thesis a scavenger hunt.

    Also, having a thesis helps you structure your argument. It helps you outline the logical steps necessary to prove your point. If you cannot demonstrate the logic of how you will get from your beginning point to your thesis, your paper is not complete.

    After you develop a thesis, the next step is to ensure it is sufficiently narrow. You will not be able to adequately defend the inerrancy of Scripture in twelve pages. However, you may be able to argue that inerrancy is not “bibliolatry” as some moderates argued during the Southern Baptist’s conservative resurgence.

    This latter project could still be a dissertation, but in a twelve page paper, it might still be possible to adequately defend this thesis.

    Make the thesis as narrow as you can and prove it as tightly as you can. It makes for a better paper.

  3. Proofread your paper. Have someone else proofread it.

    Aside from ignoring the explicit instructions given by the professor, there is little more offensive to the reader than a failure to proofread.

    No matter how meticulous a person is, a few typos will always remain. This is okay.

    However, when the wrong word is used throughout the paper (it’s for its; there for their; tenant for tenet; etc.), sentences are frequently missing key words, and the paper jumps from topic to topic, it is clear no proofreading occurred.

    In many cases, this is because the student waited until the last minute to begin the paper that was assigned at the beginning of the semester. In other cases, I think it is because students that do most of their communicating via text and social media do not think that accuracy in language matters.

    It matters.

    Before you turn in a paper, read it aloud. Have a pen in your hand to mark errors as you read it. Make sure it flows logically and all the words are there.

    Before you turn in a paper, run spell check on it. Don’t just add words to the dictionary without verifying they are actually words. Don’t ignore the grammar check, either.

    Another important step is to have another person read it. It may be helpful to trade proofreading with a peer in your class. Or, you may find someone in your church or family to read papers for you. Sometimes it is more helpful to have someone unfamiliar with the material read your paper. If your paper explains the concepts clearly to them, then it will probably communicate well to your professor.

  4. Choose sources wisely. Use quality sources.

    A frequent question I get as a grader is, “How many sources do I need?”

    That question is fundamentally flawed. A good student will know that the answer to that question varies by the topic. You need as many sources as it takes to adequately support your thesis and engage objections.

    In general, for a graduate level theology paper, a decent rule of thumb is to have at least one source per page of text (not one citation per page, but a 12 page paper should have at least 12 sources). Many times a paper will require more sources than this. Sometimes due to the nature of the assignment, or the nature of the thesis, there will be fewer sources. However, in most cases this is a good starting place.

    The quality of the sources is more important than the number.

    Wikipedia is never a valid source, unless your paper is about internet encyclopedias. Generally, a website should not be used as a source unless it is being used to illustrate a particular point or to provide a specific fact that can only be found online (e.g., the number of patients served at a health clinic might be available online only).

    The exclusion of web sources, however, does not preclude using academic research databases. These are tools set up to bring edited content to people without having a print copy directly available.

    The limitations on the type of sources are based on the idea that the editing and peer reviewing processes an important part of publishing. A website may change, and it may not be carefully edited prior to publication. This is why such sources are not generally allowable.

    The age of the sources is significant, too.

    Particularly in the field of ethics, it makes little sense to make an argument on a current social issue based (only) on sources published thirty years prior.

    Current scholarship is not always better, but it should reflect exposure to the most important research that has come before.

    Unless you are writing about a particular issue from a particular time period, you should ensure you include sources that are recent. This shows you've done your research and explored the field before (or during) the writing process.

Are there other suggestions you have? Let me know what you think below!