Making Claims in Research Writing

Overview

A research paper, simply stated, is organized to support a claim, an assertion about the truth or falsity of something. So two of the several ways a research write-up can proceed is by stating that major claim, or thesis, of the paper near the beginning , or by first posing a research question the paper will explore, and then, near the end, make its major claim, a nice method of organization known as a delayed thesis.

Either way, by the revision, a research paper is built around supporting its major claim. I say “by the revision,” because we can look at drafts as more exploratory. It takes a lot of work to support a major undertaking in writing, such as supporting a claim. In a complete first draft, false-starts, mistakes in logic, disorganization, grammar and mechanics errors, lack of clarity and digressions are all signs of attempting to write clearly and well about complex ideas. I say “in a complete first draft” because in hasty, incomplete writing, the same signs are going to be caused by lack of preparation, effort and time. In that case, they are not the result of grappling with difficult concepts, but the result of hardly grappling with research at all. 

But when drafting in a professional, committed manner, you should not consider these marks of exploration as flaws in your writing ability, nor should you feel guilty or bad about them. Instead, consider them as the normal outcomes of the process of drafting, especially if this level of exploration through research is relatively new to you. At early drafting stages, chaos is a sign your writing is proceeding normally!! In order to acknowledge that even expert writers creating complete drafts will show signs of struggles with language such as the ones mentioned above, I grade drafts approximately one letter grade higher than I would if I were evaluating a revision. 

It’s quite normal to begin an exploration, only to discover that the evidence will not support the proposed claim. It’s best to consider all claims tentative until your research exploration is close to being finished, for the simple reason that when you begin, you had an idea, but did not yet have the depth of information and knowledge about your idea that you have later on. As you research and write, adjust your claim to fit the available evidence. Don’t stubbornly try to force the evidence to fit your claim that can’t be supported. Modifying or distorting evidence to fit your claim is unethical. In addition, it undermines your writing as well as your ethos, which is a term commonly described as “credibility.”

The takeaway so far:

  • Research papers are built around major claims
  • A research paper can state its major claim up front as a thesis, or state a research question and near the conclusion present its major claim, as a delayed thesis. 
  • Research writers modify their claims during the process of researching and writing to fit the evidence.  Modifying evidence to fit claims is unethical, undermines your writing and your credibility.
  • At early stages of committed and serious drafting, chaos is a sign your writing is proceeding normally.
  • Drafts are given a one-letter grade curve to acknowledge that even the most professional writers’ drafts show signs of disarray, as we struggle to express complex ideas clearly and logically.

Making Appropriate Claims

In my courses, I present the acronym, SPICED, which stands for Specific, Possible or Practical, Interesting, Current, Essential (covering the idea that a topic should be relevant, necessary, important), and Debatable. SPICED is one way to think about what goes into a good proposed thesis or research question. Here is one way you can look at a draft to help you decide the proposed thesis or research question is too broad:

Paragraphs that list a lot of different points about a claim, without having the space to explore a few points in depth is a sign that the major claim is too broad. I call these kinds of research papers “listicles” because they resemble a shopping list of ideas rather than an exploration. Sometimes I refer to them as “source dumps” or “information dumps.”

Rough Example: A student is writing an exploration of the research question, “What are the effects of childhood trauma.” The draft contains the following paragraph: 

Childhood trauma can consist of emotional abuse. Emotional abuse can be controlling, manipulating and threatening. It can also be withholding, such as withholding love. It can also consist of blaming, which creates guilt (Psychology Today). Childhood trauma can also consist of sexual abuse. Sexual abuse can consist of inappropriate touching as well as penetration. It can also consist of forcing sexual contact with others or forcing a child to engage in sexual displays or witnessing things of a sexual nature (“Types of Sexual Assault”). As far as physical abuse of a non-sexual nature, to a child that can consist of punching, shoving, biting, kicking, shaking and other forms of physical harm (Child Abuse Network).

Why do I consider the above paragraph a sign of a topic that’s too broad? Because there are too many things to define, that an entire paragraph is simply a list of the types of childhood trauma. It’s a sign that there won’t be space to discuss any aspect of trauma and its effects meaningfully and deeply. It would be best to modify the claim so that the effect of one type of trauma is explored in depth

If you enjoyed this lesson, you might also enjoy Better Signal Phrases for Research Writing

For several decades I have conducted writing workshops of all kinds, and for 14 years I have taught writing on the faculty of Indiana University Southeast. Now I have decided to give back for these opportunities by making my lessons available online. I hope you enjoy this lesson, and the other lessons here on my writing Web site, michael-jackman.com. You may download and use any lesson here free of charge, provided you give credit as: © Copyright Michael Jackman. All Rights Reserved.

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