How do you turn a half-baked idea into a paper?

Chatting about yesterday’s post on reducing one’s ideas to one single claim, I received the question of what to do in the opposite scenario. “It’s quite a luxury to have too many ideas. Normally, I have just about half an idea and an imminent deadline.” Welcome to my world! Although I think that the problems of too many ideas and too little of an idea are closely related, I think this is worth an extra treatment.

Before trying to give some more practical advice, I think it’s important to see what it actually means to have a half-baked idea. So what is a half-baked idea or half an idea? What is it that is actually missing when we speak of such an idea? – The first thing that comes to mind is confidence. You might secretly like what you think but lack the confidence to go for it. What can you do about that? I think that the advice to work on one’s confidence is cold comfort. Contrary to common opinion, more often than not lack of confidence is not about you but about a lack of legitimacy or authority. If you were an old don, you probably wouldn’t worry too much whether people think your idea a bit underdeveloped. “Hey, it’s work in progress!” But if you are going to be marked or are on the market, then presenting real progress is a privilege you don’t necessarily enjoy.

Now if you lack certain privileges, you can’t do much about that yourself. Luckily, this is not the end of the story. I think that what we call “half-baked ideas” lacks visible agreement with other ideas. In keeping with the three agreement constraints I mentioned earlier, your idea might either lack (1) agreement with the ideas of others (authorities, secondary literature etc.), (2) with the facts or – in this case – with (textual) material or (3) with your own other ideas. If you can’t see where your agreement or disagreement lies, this might affect your confidence quite drastically, because you don’t know where you actually are in the philosophical conversation. In view of these agreement relations, I’d take two steps to amend this. The first thing I would advise to figure out is how your idea agrees on these different levels. So how does it relate to the literature, how does it relate to your material or the facts under discussion and how does it relate to your common or former intuitions? If you make these relations clearer, your idea will certainly become a bit clearer, too. (We often do this by rushing through the secondary literature, trying to see whether what we say is off the mark. But it’s important to see that this is just one step.) In a second and perhaps more crucial step, I would look for disagreements. Locating a disagreement within the literature will help you to work on the so-called USP, the “unique selling point” of your paper. If your idea doesn’t fit the material, it might be good to re-read the texts and see what makes you think about them in such a disparate way. If you disagree with your (former) intuitions, you might be onto something really intriguing, too. In any case, it’s crucial to locate your disagreements as clearly as possible. Because it is those disagreements that might add precision to your idea.*

Another way in which ideas can be half-baked is if they are too broad. Yes, it might be right that, say, Ockham is a nominalist, but if that’s your main claim, no one will want to read on. (History of) Philosophy is a conversation, and you won’t feel like you’re contributing anything if you come up with too broad a claim. But how can you narrow down your claim to a size that makes it interesting and gives structure to your paper? I think this is one of the hardest tasks ever, but here is what I think might be a start. Write an introduction or abstract, using the following headers:

  1. Topic: If your claim is too broad, then you’re probably talking about a topic rather than your actual claim. If you can’t narrow it down, begin by writing about the topic (say, Ockahm’s nominalism), bearing in mind that you will narrow it down later.
  2. Problem: If everything is fine, you won’t have something to write on. But if your questions are too broad, they are probably still referring to a common problem discussed in the literature. It’s fine to write about this in order to say what the common problem is, say, with Ockham’s nominalism.
  3. Hypothesis: Only in the light of a common problem can you formulate a solution. If you find that your solution is in total agreement with the literature, then it might be better to go back and see where your solution disagrees. (Don’t be discouraged by that. Even if you agree with a common claim, you might have different paths to the same goal or think of different material.) Anyway, in keeping with the “one idea per paper” rule, now is the time to say what you think about one single aspect of Ockham’s nominalism! That’s your hypothesis.
  4. Question: If you have such a claim, you’re nearly there. Now you have to think again: Which question has to be answered in order to show that your hypothesis is correct? Is there a special feature of Ockham’s nominalism that has to be shown as being present in his texts? Or is there a common misunderstanding in the literature that has to be amended? Or is there a thesis that needs some refinement? Spelling out that question as precisely as possible gives you a research question or a set of them. Answering that set of questions will support your claim.

Going through these steps, you can draw on your insights regarding the disagreements mentioned earlier. But even then you might still have the impression that your thesis is too broad to be interesting or too broad to be pursued in a single paper. What then? I’d say, take what you call the hypothesis and make it your topic, and take what you call the question and make it your problem. Then try to narrow down again until you reach a workable size. If you have that, you have written a kind of introduction. That doesn’t yet give you a complete structure. But once you break down the research question into manageable parts, you might get the structure of your paper out of that, too.

____

* It’s important to note that the task of locating agreement and disagreement requires an explicit point of contact on which the (dis)agreement can be plotted. So you should make sure to find a concrete sentence or passage about which you (dis)agree. You’ll find more on points of contact here.

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