How to Write a Seminary Paper: Part 2, Researching (And Perfecting) Your Thesis
In our first post we looked at the most important aspect of a good seminary paper: the thesis. But the thesis is actually only one leg of a three legged school. A good seminary paper (or any paper, sermon, public speech, or argument, for that matter) contains three components: (1) a good question, (2) a good answer, and (3) a good argument.
Our first post, then, looked extensively at the answer (the thesis), and briefly at the question. But what makes for a good argument? A good argument is a reasonable, focused, and understandable demonstration that your thesis is true. We’ll use that definition for the next two posts (which is why I took the extra time to to embolden it 😉 ).
So let’s unpack it a bit. In this post we will discuss how your argument is tied to your thesis, and how that tie affects the way you research. (And in the next post, we will look at how that tie affects the way you write).
Your research is determined by your thesis
First of all, and here we are really just repeating ourselves, your argument is about your thesis. And that means that your research, which is designed to demonstrate your argument, is also determined by your thesis. Research your thesis, and don’t get sidetracked.
Now the tough love. If you don’t have a decent thesis then don’t bother (unless you just need to pass the class, in which case get ‘er done, but plan on a B- at best). Everything you are about to do depends on your thesis, so if you haven’t read the first post in this series about the importance of the thesis, then you don’t deserve to read this post. Seriously, no soup for you. Move along. Nothing to see here.
But if you understand that a good thesis is not only essential, but in fact determines the rest of your paper and the research for that paper, then you are currently in a very good position. If you have a good thesis then the hard part is over and your overall workload is far more manageable. You’re ready to read and research and analyze and write, and as you engage in all of these tasks you will intuitively know what is relevant and what can wait for another day.
But that way of putting it raises an important question. Do you actually have a good thesis?
Thesis or Hypothesis?
What if your thesis isn’t all that good yet? No problem. From the perspective of research, which is the point of this post, you actually only need a good hypothesis, which is defined (for our purposes) as a preliminary thesis. If a thesis is an answer to a good question, then a hypothesis is a preliminary answer to a good question. The hypothesis is preliminary thesis. It may be preliminary because your answer is vague and general and you wish to make it more concrete. It may be preliminary because you believe it but have not proven it. It may be preliminary because you are uncertain if it’s true. It may be preliminary because you are not sure you are asking the right question. Nevertheless, for whatever reason your thesis is preliminary, and so really isn’t a thesis but a hypothesis. That’s not a bad thing and it doesn’t mean you can’t write a good paper. It’s part of the process.
Think of it this way. If a paper is designed to make an argument, and an argument simply answers an important question in a persuasive manner, then a paper is as much determined by a question as it is by a position. That’s good news (provided you have a good question). You don’t need a perfect answer to write a paper; all you need is a good question and a preliminary answer. Your research (hopefully) transforms the preliminary answer into the persuasive answer.
Which brings us to your research. Research is nothing more than trying to discover a reasonable and persuasive answer to your question.
So whether or not you have a great thesis, at the very least make sure you have a good question and an at least preliminary answer to that question. If you’ve only got a hypothesis, you are on the right journey, but you haven’t yet reached “cognitive rest” (a term that I have taken from John Frame’s Doctrine of the Knowledge of God). Research will help you find the rest you need, and your hypothesis provides the trajectory along which that research can travel.
How to stay focused (what to research, and what to ignore)
As you research and write you will be tempted by various distractions. All sorts of interesting rabbit trails will present themselves to you. They will beckon you, like they beckoned Alice, to Wonderland. Tell these rabbits “no.” The issue may be important, but as soon as you spot that it is ultimately irrelevant to your thesis, put it in a “someday I’ll explore this” list and move on. So, for example, while the authorship of a particular book may be incredibly important generally, if it doesn’t help your reader better understand your thesis, don’t talk about it.
This is incredibly helpful because it limits the work you need to do. You don’t need to solve every problem; you only need to solve this problem (and, of course, all the problems that upon which this problem depend). Furthermore, you don’t need to convince every person; you only need to convince your (ideal) audience. Don’t do more than your need to do. Stay focused. Don’t get distracted, either in writing or in research. Prove your point and move on.
Revise Your Thesis
Now you may need to tweak your thesis along the way–the process of research (and writing!) will almost inevitably result in alteration, increased specification, and maybe even repudiation of your thesis. That’s ok and to be expected, but (for now) you have the thing you need to direct your research. The thesis is more than just the point that you are making; it is the path by which you are conducting your investigation. As you conduct your investigation–analyzing the evidence, asking new questions, and questioning old assumptions–you may find that your (hypo)thesis can no longer stand in its originally stated form. Don’t be afraid of that. Just edit it accordingly and adjust your research trajectory to match this new hypo(thesis), then move along.
The thesis (or hypothesis) is the first thing that you should write, and it’s the final thing you should edit. Your thesis is always a work in progress. Precisely because your thesis is the key to your paper, it’s also the most changeable sentence. As you research you are going to want to alter, revise, and perfect your thesis (and, again, see the previous post in this series regarding how to do that).
Excursus: How to handle tangential issues
As we mentioned above, as you research, you will come across countless issues that are related to your thesis but not critical to it. How do you handle important issues that may or may not be relevant to your paper? Or, to put if more crassly, what if the issue is “sort of” related? How should you handle “tangential” topics? What if you come across an issue that seems really interesting but doesn’t, in the end, forward your point?
If your thesis would ultimately stand regardless of the truth or falsity of that topic, then explore the issue a bit to make sure that you are correct in that conclusion. On the one hand, you don’t dismiss topics out of hand, but you don’t want to exhaust yourself in them either. Your goal is to study it just enough to establish that the issue is irrelevant to your thesis. In your written argument (as we will discuss in the next post), you will give such concerns the luxury of a footnote–state the issue, acknowledge that it is important (but in the end doesn’t much matter in the present paper because of x, y, and z), and cite an article or two for further investigation. Your research should be just extensive enough to do this, and then you should move along.
But what if the issue is relevant to your thesis, and is also hotly debated, but most of your audience will assume that the position you take on the issue is the true one? That’s a bit more difficult, but the same principles apply. Remember that you are trying to convince your audience that your thesis is true, so if your audience generally presumes that one of your premises is true, then don’t spend too much time on it. For example, let’s say that the argument you are making requires that Paul wrote Ephesians. As you (presumably) know, many scholars reject Pauline authorship of Ephesians, so you will be tempted at this point to spend a good deal of time arguing that Paul wrote Ephesians. Don’t. Don’t waste your time. Why? Because in the paper you are about to write you are not addressing such skeptics, so in that paper you can simply state in a footnote that you are making this assumption, and that scholars who reject it can still learn something from your article (hopefully), and that the best argument you have read to date on Pauline authorship of Ephesians (ie, the article most likely to convince a skeptic) is such-and-such. Then move along. Your paper is not about Pauline authorship, it’s about something else, so research the something else.
Easier Said than Done
The whole point of this post is to encourage you to stay focused as you research. Don’t get distracted by interesting and important issues that are irrelevant to your thesis.
But that’s easier said than done. Here are some practical strategies for doing this.
- Keep an “ideas” journal. Have it with you at all times. If you get a brilliant idea, write a sentence or two about it. Be sure to describe the context that generated the idea–the paper you were researching, the book you were reading, the dream you were dreaming, or the movie you were watching–so you can retrace your steps at a later date. Then move along.
- Most papers don’t need an excursus. I say that knowing full well that the present blog post contains an excursus. Most excurses our actually papers in disguise, or an indication that you need to reorder the paper that you are currently writing. The excursis above should actually be a bullet-point below (but is slightly too long for that), or integrated into an earlier paragraph (which I spotted while editing, but decided to leave it in order to make this point). If you find yourself wanting to research material that will only be an excursus, reference it in a footnote and develop it in your next paper.
- Annotate everything you read. That’s not always easy, but it’s easier now than it used to be. The basic idea here is to keep a running “thought journal” as it relates to your research. That can be as easy as highlighting passages of your books that you find helpful. It can be writing in the margins (which I know is heresy for some, and I apologize). It can involve a separate piece of notepaper in which you are taking notes. Or maybe it’s that old fashioned note-card system. I use Zotero for this because it allows my to annotate what I’m reading and also cite it in whatever I am writing (I’ll have a seperate post about Zotero later in this series). Obviously, DO NOT write in library books. Find a system that works for you and stick with it.
- Remember that the same thesis can be addressed to different audiences. Let’s say you’ve spent a lot of time proving that Paul’s epistle to the Ephesians is a kind of Pauline “Credo” or “Systematic Statement of Paul’s Theology.” You may have good evidence that such is the case, but that evidence is going to be assessed differently by those who accept Paul’s authorship of Ephesians and those who do not. The easy way through that dilemma is to write only to those who accept Pauline authorship of Ephesians, and that would make for a good paper. The better way through is to write two papers for two different audiences, one for evangelicals and one for critics (or, even better, three audiences: evangelicals, critics, and skeptics). If you’re going this route, though, remember to tailor your thesis (and therefore your research) to your audience. For evangelicals it’s “Ephesians is different than other Pauline epistles because it is not addressed to some particular issue that Paul is trying to solve, but serves rather as a kind if introduction to Paul’s teaching and mission.” For skeptics the same paper might have as its thesis: “while many reject Ephesians as Pauline, when we consider the lack of situational immediacy reflected in this epistle, we find that non-Pauline authorship is no longer necessary to explain the differences between this document and others universally regarded as belonging to Paul.”
- The goal in all this is to avoid distraction. I’m sure you’ve already developed techniques for avoid distration. How do you avoid distraction in ordinary life? Adapt those to your research. For me it’s a combination of journaling, note-taking, and old-fashioned GTD capture tools. What’s it for you? Adapt it to research, because of the writing and reading of books there is no end.
Research can be intimidating, but usually we make it out to be more intimidating than it needs to be. Proving an argument–even the simplest of arguments–requires a lot of work. Don’t make it harder by diving into every debate or interesting insight. Stay focused on your task as you research, and once your paper is finsihed, kick back, relax, and read all that stuff you didn’t have time for before.