Why Writing Matters

Why Writing Matters in Political Science

"In political science courses students will encounter many kinds of texts. In the 100-level courses they may use a textbook, but it will likely be supplemented with political/government documents, opinion pieces, scholarly articles, cartoons, literary works, and web sites. Upper-level courses will put more emphasis on articles and books written by and for political scientists. Success in political science courses depends largely on the student's willingness to read carefully and reflect thoughtfully. This reflection will emerge, to a large extent, in their written work."

~Dr. Erik Trump, Professor of Political Science


Writing in Political Science

Many political science courses place great emphasis on the development of students' writing, both as a means of demonstrating mastery of political science concepts and as a way to nurture critical thinking skills.

Typical Writing Assignments

Writing assignments can take many forms -- in-class brainstorming sessions, one-page response papers, essay exams, the researched paper, and so on. All of these forms, however, are variations upon three basic concepts that form the core of critical thinking: summary, analysis, and synthesis.

  • Summary: The first step in critical thinking is understanding. You must be able to accurately and concisely explain ideas and facts that have been presented in lecture or encountered in readings. You do this through summary. For example, before you could offer a reasonable assessment of national drug policy, you would need to describe (summarize) current policy and explain (summarize) the range of arguments that politicians and policy experts have made about the effectiveness of that policy. This groundwork demonstrates your knowledge about the topic.

    Writing assignments may focus entirely on summary or require elements of it. Typically, summary tasks will precede or be part of a larger writing assignment. Some examples follow:

    • An in-class exam question may ask you to describe why U. S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall believes that our Constitution was defective. This question essentially is asking you to summarize Marshall's argument.
    • A homework assignment may require you to consider and respond to Franklin Roosevelt's "Four Freedoms" presidential address. The "consider" part of this assignment implies that before you offer your opinions about Roosevelt's ideas, you should summarize those ideas.
    • An in-class exercise may require you to study a table of quantitative survey data and record in writing what the table reveals. In this case, you are essentially summarizing quantitative information, demonstrating that you can accurately read a table

  • Analysis: Once you understand a concept, you are ready to offer some critical observations about it. You break an idea into its parts, examining how they fit together. Instead of just describing the "what" of an author's argument, you examine the "how" of that argument. This nature of the analysis often stems from the broader goals of the course. In the drug policy example above, we can imagine that you might follow the summary of a politician's argument with an analysis of that argument. If the course focus is public policy evaluation, the analysis might focus on how the politician uses sensational anecdotes rather than objective statistics to support his/her position. On the other hand, if the course is studying political ideology, the analysis would center on how the politician's argument reflects his/her ideology.

    Effective analysis requires that you go beyond mere acceptance and regurgitation of an idea or fact. Many writing assignments are designed to facilitate this higher level of engagement. Some examples include:

    • A paper assignment that asks you to identify and evaluate the underlying assumptions that inform Marshall's criticism of the Constitution.
    • A midterm essay question that asks you to argue how Roosevelt's "Four Freedom's" speech might have appealed to Americans during the Great Depression.
    • A take-home final exam that requires you to study the results of a survey and argue how the data should be interpreted.
    • An annotated bibliography in which you summarize the main argument of each source and explain its relevance to your researched paper.

  • Synthesis: The final level of writing invites you to bring together ideas and facts from several sources, using them to generate your own thesis. This kind of paper encourages you to think critically about a range of ideas and facts, identifying, and perhaps even reconciling, inconsistencies and uncertainties. An effective synthesis demonstrates your ability to think flexibly, drawing together and ordering many different ideas and facts. It is important to remember that the unsupported expression of opinion has little merit to the political scientist.

    A synthesis paper can take many forms, but it will always invite you to make sense of a complex world. Some possible assignments might ask you to:

    • Examine and assess two sides of a current public policy debate.
    • Offer a critical comparison of several political scientists’ arguments about a specific president’s impact on our political culture.
    • Use a theory about interest group politics to examine the drafting, debate, and passage of a recent piece of legislation.

Qualities of Good Writing

EVALUATION (A single factor may affect a paper's grade, negatively or positively. )

A: Detailed, accurate understanding of the relevant readings/sources; an original, perceptive and sophisticated thesis; evidence presented gracefully; ample, clear, accurate, and creative use of sources/readings to support central points; coherent, logical organization, including an excellent introduction and conclusion; few or no mechanical mistakes; clear, unambiguous sentences, perhaps with a touch of elegance; fulfills all the requirements of the assignment (length, topic, documentation, and so on). In sum, an "A" paper is of superior intellectual and academic quality.

B: Solid understanding of the relevant readings/sources; thesis is clear and relatively insightful; mostly appropriate use of evidence, although a few quotations may be too long, awkwardly integrated, or irrelevant; points are sufficiently supported, although useful pieces of evidence from the readings/sources may have been missed; ideas are reasonable and are anchored in the text(s); the writer has a point to make and makes it in an organized and competent way -- any organizational glitches are minor; clear and accurate use of language with only a few minor mechanical errors that do not affect meaning; fulfills all or nearly all requirements of the assignment. This paper gives the reader a good view of the topic at hand.

C: Some minor confusion about what the relevant readings/sources actually say; a discernible thesis, but a bit fuzzy or not particularly challenging; mostly appropriate use of evidence, although there may be long passages that seem used mainly to demonstrate that the writer studied the material, not to prove a point; use of ideas from the readings/sources is minimal or of somewhat questionable relevance; organization is evident, but paper may stray from the main point in places, and a paragraph or two may show perfunctory development -- transitions, topic sentences, introduction, or conclusion may be rough; some interesting points are raised in the paper, but the reader wishes for more development; prose is generally clear, but many minor mechanical errors and a few major ones (fragments, subject/verb disagreement, mixed constructions) are to be found; proofreading is weak; fulfills all or nearly all requirements of the assignment. There are ideas here, their expression and development are mostly competent, but the reader stumbles over distracting elements.

D: Serious misunderstandings of the relevant readings/sources or only superficial reference to the readings/sources; thesis is missing, inadequate, or cannot be fully supported; presentation of evidence is confusing or used to fill space; little discernible organization; poor prose makes the writer's ideas difficult to understand; writer doesn't really have a point to make; some requirements of the assignment are missing or ignored (e.g., fourteen point font, triple spaced, and still too short). Uncalled for, and unsupported, expression of opinion and/or belief. The reader is left feeling confused.

F: Assignment not completed or a sloppy and token effort to meet requirements.

Grading guidelines adapted from Guidelines and Procedures for the Freshman-Sophomore English Program (Boston University, 1993) and from Harry Edmund Shaw, "Responding to Student Essays," in Fredric Bogel, ed., Teaching Prose (New York: Norton, 1984).

Appropriate Types of Evidence & Support

The texts for your political science courses will often be provided or identified by your professors. In some cases, however, you will be asked to write papers that draw on sources that you have discovered independently. These sources should be selected carefully and, in most cases, should demonstrate that you have used a range of appropriate research techniques to locate the best possible materials. For example, the most appropriate sources are likely to come from political science journals, not popular news magazines. Similarly, the best sources will be located by using specialized library indexes, not by surfing the net. In many cases, a paper that relies entirely on sources found over the internet is likely to offer a superficial and flawed treatment of its topic.

Check with your professor whenever you have any doubts about the appropriateness of a source.

Citation Conventions

The department has no single preferred style, leaving the choice up to individual professors. Consult your course syllabus or ask your professor what style he or she prefers. Possibilities include APA, MLA, Chicago Manual of Style, and American Political Science Association.

Style guides are available in the library and Writing Center, online (see the Writing Center's web site), or from your professor. 

Special Comments

"Special Case" Writing Issues in Political Science

Names: In the initial mention of an author, use the person's full name (e.g., James Q. Wilson); in subsequent references, use the author's last name only. If the figure is a politician, give the person's title with the initial mention (e.g., Senator Carl Levin); in subsequent references, use the person's last name only.

Capitalization: Several commonly-used terms should be capitalized
Constitutional Convention
Declaration of Independence
Democrat (when referring to the party)
House of Representatives
President (only when preceding a name -- President Nixon)
Republican (when referring to the party)
Senator (only when preceding a name -- Senator Debbie Stabenow)
Supreme Court
White House

References and Resources

Strategies for Student Success

Reading tips: Allow sufficient time to read and digest material that may be unfamiliar. Use a dictionary to look up unfamiliar words. Outline/summarize everything you read as a way to prepare for discussion, papers, and exams.

Many political science articles will begin with an abstract that summarizes the overall argument. Study this abstract and use it to help you distinguish between the author’s argument and the author’s discussion/criticism of other people’s arguments; failing to make this distinction can lead to serious misunderstandings.

Writing strategies: Begin early and get feedback. Start thinking about an assignment as soon as you receive it, and put your thoughts down on paper right away. Share your drafts with other readers -- your professor, classmates, or Writing Center mentors. An early start will guarantee your best effort and enhance your learning experience.

Developing knowledge: Information about politics is everywhere you turn, if you are willing to pay attention. You may find that something as simple as watching the evening national news, reading the national/international section of your paper, or listening to the news on National Public Radio will make your political science courses both easier and more interesting.

Faculty Perspectives 
on Writing:

Erik Trump, Political Science

What My Teacher Taught Me

"What Do You Want on this Assignment?"

Writing Beyond College

Overcoming Writing Problems

Department Publications

The Sovereign 
(Digital Editions)
Volume 5, Issue 1, Winter 2014 (8,877kB)
Volume 4, Issue 1, Winter 2013 (10,374kB)
Volume 3, Issue 1, Winter 2012 (6,454kB)
Volume 2, Issue 1, Winter 2011 (6,434kB)
Volume 1, Issue 1, Winter 2010 (6,818kB)

The SVSU Law Review
2011 SVSU Law Review (1,425kB)

Political Science Newsletter
Winter 2013 (547kB) 
See: "Student Scholarship"

Spring 2011 (1,867kB) 
See: "The 'Write' Stuff"

April 2010 (711kB) 
See: "Benefits of Professional/Technical Writing Minor"

February 2009 (410kB) 
See: "The Importance of Writing in Law School and Beyond"