One idea per paper!

The new academic year is approaching rapidly and I’m thinking about student essays again. In Groningen, we now devote a certain amount of course hours to the actual writing of term papers. This has made me think not only about the kind of advice I want to give, but also about the kind of advice that actually works, in the sense that it can be implemented demonstrably. Given that I’m better at giving than following advice myself, that is quite a difficult question for me. One of the best pieces of advice I ever received came rather late, during my postdoc years in Berlin. I was discussing my worries about a paper with a good friend of mine. It was a paper on Ockham’s theory of mental language, and most of these worries concerned what I could possibly leave out. So much needed to be said – and he just stopped my flow by exclaiming: “one idea per paper!”

At first I thought that he was just trying to mock me. But thinking about my actual worries, I soon began to realise that this advice was pure gold. It settled quite a number of questions. Unfortunately, it also raised new obstacles. Nevertheless, I now think it’s good advice even for monographs and will try to go through some issues that it settled for me.

(1) What do I actually want to claim? – When writing the paper in question, I wanted to say a number of different things. I was proud that had discovered a number of intriguing passages in Ockham that had not yet been taken seriously in the secondary literature. Reading these passages, I had a pile of ideas that I thought were new or deserved more attention, but I couldn’t quite put them into a proper sequence, let alone an argument. My new rule made me ask: what is it that I actually think is new? I initially came up with two and a half points, but soon realised that these points had different priorities. The one and half had to be shown in order to make the crucial point work. So the question I had asked myself had imposed an argumentative order onto my points. Now I was not just presenting bits of information, however new, but an argument for a single claim. (For the curious: this was the claim that Ockham’s mental language is conventional.)

(2) How much contextual information is required? – Once I had an argumentative order, a sequence of presenting the material suggested itself. But now that I had one single point at the centre of attention, another problem settled itself. Talking about any somewhat technical topic in a historically remote period requires invoking a lot of information. Even if you just want to explain what’s going on in some passages of a widely read text, you need to say at least bit about the origin of the issue and the discussion it’s placed in. If you have more than one idea under discussion this requires you to bring up multiple contexts. But if you’re confining yourself to one single claim, this narrows this demand considerably. As a rule of thumb I’d say: don’t bring up more than is required to make your one single claim intelligible.

(3) What do I have to argue for? – However, often contextual information that makes a claim intelligible is in itself not well explored and might need further argument to establish why it works as support of your claim. This could of course get you into an infinity of further demands. How do you interrupt the chain sensibly? Often this issue is settled by the fact that scholars (or your supervisor) simply take certain things for granted: the conventions of your discipline settle some of these issues, then. But I don’t think that this makes for a helpful strategy. My rule is: you should only commit yourself to argue for the one single claim at hand. – “But”, you will ask, “what about the intermediate claims that my argument depends on?” I’d say that you don’t have to argue for those. All you have to do is say that your argument is conditional on these further claims (and then name the claims in question). Rather than making the argument yourself, you can tackle these conditions by pointing out what you have to take for granted or what others have taken for granted (in the secondary literature) or what would have to be shown in order to take up these conditions individually. (To give a simple example, if you bring up textual evidence from Crathorn to address the consequences of Ockham’s theory, you don’t have to begin discussing Crathorn’s theory on its own terms. Why not? Well, because you support a claim about Ockham rather than Crathorn.) Of course, someone might question the plausibility of your supporting evidence, but then you have a different claim under discussion. In sum, it’s crucial to distinguish between the claim you’re committed to argue for and supporting evidence or information. For the latter you can shift the burden by indicating a possible route of tackling difficulties.

So the rule “one idea per paper” imposes structure in several ways: it provides an argumentative hierarchy, allows for restricting contextual information, and provides a distinction between tenets you’re committed to as opposed to tenets whose explication you can delegate to others (in the literature). Your paper may still contain many bits and pieces, but it they are all geared towards supporting one single idea. If you’re revising your first draft, always ask yourself: how does that paragraph contribute to arguing for that claim? If you can say how, state this explicitly at the beginning of the paragraph. If you can’t say how, delete the paragraph and save it for a later day.

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