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.

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.