Teaching resources

Writing a good political science paper (like any written work) is as much art as science. Nevertheless, regardless of the subject the writing process often entails many of the same steps and papers share a similar structure. Over the years, I have read many papers that make similar errors. This guide describes what I see as the basic tenets of undergraduate political science research paper writing. I encourage students to read this guide and follow it as much as possible when submitting a paper to one of my classes. This guide will hopefully help you in formulating your research area and question and help clarify my expectations for your final paper.

This is by no means the only way to approach writing a political science paper, but it is consistent with expectations for other undergraduate political science classes—both at the ANU and at other institutions. At the end of this handout I list a number of writing resources I have found helpful in my own writing as well as preparing this handout.

In normal research papers, the literature review is the foundation upon which you build your argument. Rarely does a writer come up with an idea (like Athena from Zeus’ head) completely divorced from the writer’s experience. Rather, we stand on the shoulders of other researchers. Regardless of the research topic, you want to build your theoretical argument on a strong foundation. This is not to say that you should include every article, book, or press clipping that you could possibly think of. Rather it consists of the literature (often building on class readings) relevant to your subject area. For example, if you were writing on the causes of the 1998-2002 Congolese civil war, you might start with the literature on post-colonial Zaire, the spillover effects of the Rwandan genocide, or other topics relevant to your particular paper—whether they be natural resources, state failure, or the regional spread of conflict.

In general, six steps are involved in writing a literature review. I mention them here and then discuss each in more detail in this literature review guide.

1. Find a starting point—a main topic of interest and a few central authors for this topic.

2. Read sources at your starting point and take notes summarizing your reading.

3. Find who these sources cite and who cites them, read them and take notes.

4. Look at your notes and think back on your reading. What big themes keep repeating themselves?

5. Chose three or four themes you find most compelling.

6. Create a paper outline focused on those themes.

Academia involves two things that most people hate pretty much more than anything on Earth: writing papers and public speaking.[1] This is notable given that writing and talking are the two main ways scientists convey what they have learned about the world. As a result, most academics have refined planning or coping mechanisms to produce written research or get in front of an audience. One of the best ways I have found to overcome my occasional reluctance to writing and speaking is to have a topic I find really interesting and that I want to share with others. Another is to clearly plan out what I want to say and break it into manageable chunks.

This brief research proposal guide describes the techniques my field (and others) often use to describe a research plan to others. We write research proposals to elicit feedback and suggestions from others that can strengthen our research approach before too much time and energy has been expended. This is why the topic of writing a research proposal gets me interested enough to write this guide—learning how to write a compelling research proposal is both a really useful skill as well as something that helps break larger research projects into a set of clear and manageable chunks.

This guide begins by outlines a research proposal’s main elements then discusses each step in more detail. It then highlights challenges we often face when writing research proposals generally as well as specific challenges you may face when writing a research proposal for my class. It concludes with a discussion of the research proposal rubric for this class.


[1] Fear of public speaking (also called glossophobia) has been estimated to affect up to 75% of people and can often exceed the fear of death. There is no comparable technical term I could find for fear of writing long papers. Common terms include “writer’s block” and “writing anxiety.”  For more details about writer’s block see Upper (1974).

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