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Department-by-Department Reference Guide

Writing in Political Science Courses

A Sampling of Advice from Faculty

This information is based on two surveys of Political Science faculty (1995 and 2005) about their expectations for student writing in their classes. It does not exhaust the views of all Political Science professors, but it does give a fairly representative sample of faculty’s expectations.

1.  What kinds of writing assignments can I expect in Political Science classes?

     Writing assignments vary considerably from professor to professor. Expect writing assignments in most Political Science classes, including essay exams (in-class or take-home) or essay questions on exams that include other kinds of questions. Writing assignments tend to be used more extensively in writing-intensive courses and upper-division courses, where some professors require term/research papers. In lower-division courses, some professors require one or two 3–5 page papers that may or may not require research. The following list will give you a sense of the kinds of assignments you might receive in undergraduate courses:


  • Research papers (ranging from 10–25 pp.); at least one professor requires and grades a 5-page plan for the paper at midterm; others require a rough draft to be turned in well before the paper is due.
  • Short papers (3–5 pp.) that respond to prompted questions
  • Less structured short papers for which the professor suggests a topic or students choose one related to course concepts
  • Weekly short essays that link course readings to a current article they find in the newspaper (These are done on line, and the professor often asks students to respond to each other's writing.)
  • Optional writing assignments to improve grades, including one professor’s option of a guest speaker critique
  • In Service Learning courses, a 5-page reflection paper or, for those not doing Service Learning, a book review of similar length

2.  What qualities are especially valued in an outstanding Political Science paper?

     Some professors hand out sheets with evaluation criteria so that students know how their paper will be judged. If your professor offers one of these, follow it carefully.


     The valued qualities listed in responses on the faculty surveys include the following:

  • Thesis statement and conclusion
  • An introduction that provides readers with a clear statement of purpose and indicates where the paper is going
  • Clear organizational framework (with subheadings as needed)
  • Grasp of relevant theory
  • Research effort, including thorough overview of principal works in the secondary literature
  • Coherent argument
  • Points elaborated with substantive support
  • Terms defined
  • Creativity and original thinking (e.g., hypotheses; interpretation of evidence)
  • Evidence of a sophisticated understanding of the topic
  • “A genuine attempt to state different sides fairly and to confront opposing arguments as one gives one’s own opinion.”
  • Good citations
  • Relevance to the issues raised by the course
  • Knowledge of cases and relevant data
  • Clarity of expression
  • Standard English, grammatical correctness

3.  What kinds of evidence (argumentation) do Political Science professors recognize as valid in the work they assign?

     Professors’ answers to this question varied according to the kinds of assignments they give. In general, good papers in Political Science classes will use evidence from (a) facts or arguments from assigned readings or class discussions, and (b) in the case of research papers, sources in academic journals and books, not popular magazines or superficial Internet sources. Most professors value a combination of primary and secondary sources on these papers.


     Here are some of the professors’ responses in their own words:

  • “In a research paper I encourage students to seek out primary source data, and I insist that all other claims are supported through secondary source material. I am comfortable with students referring to other arguments, as long as they are properly acknowledged.”
  • “Much of the research paper work [in my class] entails doing case studies and/or examining relevant quantitative and qualitative data and bringing the data to bear on focal questions/hypotheses.”
  • “Students need to show reasonable judgment regarding their choice of sources. Web pages, for example, can be excellent sources, but not all Web sites are reliable. Encyclopedias might be a useful place to start, but cannot be the mainstay of a college paper. Books on narrow topics may not be the best sources for a short paper on a broad topic. Students writing about volatile issues in contemporary politics should avoid dated sources.”
  • “I do not require fieldwork/data-gathering but am open to it. I am more likely to receive an original case-study; in that case, the case study must be placed within the larger scholarly literature or else one has produced a feature story (journalism).”

4.  What citation conventions will I be expected to use in Political Science papers?

     Although the professors responding to the surveys indicated flexibility about citation styles, there was a preference for an author-date system of parenthetical citations that are keyed to an accompanying list of references. The American Political Science Association style, one professor’s preference for advanced classes, is based on the Chicago Manual’s author-date system. Above all, faculty stress the need for consistent formatting. Combining author-date with a footnote system, for example, is not acceptable. You should check with your instructor for specific advice.

     One professor notes, “My students are free to pick any standard citation system, but they must be consistent and provide sufficient information so that the sources can in fact be located. The most important thing is to be comprehensive, i.e., bend over backwards to avoid any appearance of plagiarism.”

5.  Special do's and don'ts regarding Political Science papers:

     The best papers will be on topics appropriate to the class. Work carefully to relate the paper to ideas and themes discussed in class. Before you read through the following list of reminders, it is important to note that for many professors plagiarism is a major concern. Do everything you can to present your work in the best light and avoid any appearance of academic dishonesty.

  • Do remember that paraphrases and direct quotes must be cited by page numbers; ideas, arguments, even facts—including statistics—that that are not general knowledge within the course must also be referenced to the source you are using. (For online help with paraphrasing and quoting, click here.)
  • Do use scholarly journal articles and scholarly books as your main sources. Only very minor use of textbooks (our own or other textbooks) is permitted. Newspapers and popular periodicals are to be avoided. In some classes, the only Internet sources permitted are on-line journals. As one professor puts it, “Reading the New York Times or the Economist is not social science research.”
  • One professor says he insists that “students avoid certain language like ‘I feel’….” Do remember that in academic papers, reflections on opinions and feelings are inferior to an analytic argument. As another faculty member puts it, “Don't write ‘I feel’ when you mean ‘I think.’”
  • Do proofread carefully to avoid (a) grammatical errors and (b) the appearance of laziness and sloppiness.
  • Do pay attention to formatting, including page numbers and fonts that are at least 10 point.
  • Do use section headings as appropriate, but be sure they are not “orphaned” at the bottom of a page.
  • Do use tables when appropriate for presenting data effectively. (If you aren’t sure, check with your instructor.)
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Page Last Modified: October 18, 2018

  For suggestions and corrections, please email
Dr. Rebecca Nowacek, Associate Professor of English
Director of the Ott Memorial Writing Center, 240 Raynor Library (414.288.5542)
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