Introduction to Political and Legal Thinking: General Resources

Reading and Writing Political Theory

Some Scattered Suggestions on Reading in College

Timothy Burke, professor of history at Swarthmore College, offers suggestions about how to read when professors assign more reading than any student can possibly plough through.

7 Strategies for Reading Difficult Texts

Some useful suggestions on reading theoretical texts from Michaele Ferguson, professor of political science at the University of Colorado.

Some Notes on Writing Political Theory

Helpful suggestions from Mika LaVaque-Manty, professor of political science at the University of Michigan, about how to write papers for political theory classes.

Beyond the Five Paragraph Essay

Thoughts from Timothy Burke on how to avoid common errors and how to write more interesting essays. Although intended primarily for students writing history papers, Burke's suggestions are helpful for anyone writing undergraduate papers.

A Brief Guide to (Avoiding) Plagiarism

Pretty much what it sounds like.

Writing for Reacting to the Past

Writing Advisory 1: On Structure

Essential Preliminaries

Usually you write, or speak, because you have something to say. If you have nothing to say to readers, you cannot write well. Even great writers write poorly when they are uncertain of their message. In Reacting, your victory objectives spell out your purpose, and the major texts on which you base your opinion, for example, Plato's Republic, explain what you believe. Your task is to frame a particular argument and make it persuasive. If, for example, your task is to show that Socrates is a scoundrel who should be punished for demeaning the gods of Athens, you must consider how to persuade the other students in the class to regard Socrates as you do.

How? To persuade others, you must first persuade yourself. Consider what arguments would persuade you that Socrates should be punished. Having sorted the matter in your own mind, you should reflect on your audience. If you wish to address indeterminates, find details about their historical character. (Indeterminates usually have considerable freedom to decide issues on their own, but they are obliged to reconcile their positions with their historical persona.) Consider your previous performances as well. Did an earlier class presentation or paper seem to persuade others? Ask others in the class, and the instructor, what worked and why. Above all, when you write, keep your audience firmly in mind.

Once you know what to say, and have a sense of your audience, your must find the best mode of expression to make your point. The essay form fits most rhetorical purposes; you cannot do well in Reacting, or in most other written assignments, without mastering it. But you may consider alternatives. Perhaps it makes sense to state your point as a hard-biting legal indictment: "I hereby charge Socrates with the following crimes...." Or perhaps you may opt for poetry or a short story. But do not select a genre because of its novelty: poetry can be effective in many circumstances, but probably it is ill-adapted to the task of prosecution; and fiction may not be the best way to persuade readers that a real danger lurks around the corner. Humor is nearly always welcome, but it may not induce readers to take grave action. If you choose an unusual rhetorical form, you may wish to consult your instructor for illustrative models.

For most purposes, the essay will prove most effective, persuasive, and adaptable mode of writing. But of what does the essay "structure" consist? Many students are taught to write an essay according to the following structure:
a1, A, a2; where, in the introduction (a1), you indicate concisely what you intend to say; then, in the body of your piece (A), you say it in extended fashion; and in the conclusion (a2), you remind the reader what you have said. For example:
a1: Socrates, we shall see, offends the gods;
Aa: Socrates offends the gods by criticizing their actions (evidence paragraphs 1-5);
Ab: Socrates offends the gods by inventing alternative ones (evidence paragraphs 6-11);
a2: Socrates, as we have seen, offends the gods!

Many well-meaning high school teachers, and even some college teachers, advocate this type of essay; but the structure is a poor one. It assumes that your reader cannot remember what he has read. If this be true, there is little point in writing anything. In addition to being redundant, the structure is inert: it takes the reader nowhere, thus inducing the laziness it presumes.

The 3-Part Essay Structure: Introduction/Argument/Conclusion

A better approach is to use the introduction to draw the reader into your argument, and a conclusion to suggest your argument"'s broader relevance, as follows:

Intro, Argument, Conclusion; where, in the introduction (I), you set the mood or introduce the issues so as to prepare the reader to enter your argument; then you develop your points in the main body of the piece (Argument Aa, Ab, Ac, etc.). In the conclusion (C), you suggest the larger implications of your argument. Often the conclusion will allude to the introduction, suggesting symmetry and promoting closure.

For example:
Introduction: The gods control our destiny, and that of Athens;
A1: Socrates offends the gods by criticizing their actions;
A2: Socrates offends the gods by inventing new ones;
Conclusion:Socrates endangers all Athens.

This structure, rather like the sonata form in music, can suit diverse rhetorical purposes. It imparts movement and direction to any argument. You will doubtless employ it, or some variant, in most of your work in college.

When you submit your essay, assuming it takes this "classic" form, be sure that it contains a real introduction (I) and a real conclusion (C), surrounding a body (A) in which you develop your main points. In your initial drafts, your instructor may ask you to place an I and a C next to these paragraphs (possibly your introduction and conclusion will require more than one paragraph), and an A [1 through x] for the others. If some paragraphs do not fit into your structure, revise it or discard them.

A clear structure sharpens your message and makes it more powerful. But sometimes you may have nothing to say, or you do not want to reveal your thoughts. In such instances, bad writing may be more effective than good writing. Assume, for example, that you have ended a relationship with a former friend. The friend responds with an anguished eight-page letter asking why you have broken up. Your truthful answer, that you now find that person tiresome or opinionated (etc.), strikes you as unfeeling. You decide, therefore, to respond without saying the truth. Thus you unconsciously adopt a rhetorical structure best adapted to your purpose, namely to avoid stating clearly what you feel. You choose a rambling structure: perhaps you comment on your schedule this year, describe your dorm room, discuss the latest shooting somewhere in the nation. Eventually you meander to the weather, and comment on how it changes seasonally "as might friendships," such as yours with the reader. By the time you get to the point, your prose will have strewn so much confusion you do not need to make any point at all. Politicians do this a lot, as do people ensnared in litigation.

If you have nothing to say, or if you wish to confuse the reader and conceal your real purpose, you should employ a complicated, convoluted structure, or none at all. The reader will fail to follow your argument, grow bored, and give up. She may assume that you have actually said something, and blame herself for failing to figure it out.

But in Reacting, as in life, it is usually best to use words to say something. To that end, you need an effective structure.

More on Introductions

Assume that your reader's mind is elsewhere; this assumption is likely to be true. You can hardly win the reader over to your point of view if you don"'t have his attention. The introduction cited above assumes that your reader cares about the gods of Athens ("The gods control our destiny, and that of Athens.") But what if your reader is agnostic, or what if he is preoccupied with other matters: a faltering relationship, a sick child, a maxed-out credit card? That is to say, what if your reader, like most people, is distracted?

You must reach out and seize hold of him. How to do this is very much a matter of the writer"'s art. Try to anticipate your reader"'s mindset, and then connect with it. Rather than plunge into your argument about Socrates and the gods, you might introduce your essay as follows:

"Each of us has known misfortune: The young woman (or young man) we adore spurns us. Our grapes, despite all due diligence, wither and die on the vine. Our baby becomes grievously ill. When we are in the throes of misery, we look up to the heavens, and ask: '"What did I do to deserve this?"' In such moments, we acknowledge our powerlessness and dependence on the gods. Today, as we walked past the rubble of our once-proud walls and through an agora devoid of shops, stark evidence of the calamity that has befallen Athens, we similarly asked of the gods, '"What did Athens do to deserve this?"' My fellow Athenians, I think I know..."

Here are some other illustrations of how you might reach out to readers in other games:
Perhaps in Ming China: "Fellow academicians: Our lives have been devoted to the words of the Master. We have studied for more exams than we care to recall. We have memorized hundreds of analects, etc., etc.. The Master"'s mind was so fertile, and his words so numerous, that we must sort through passages that may appear to contradict themselves. ..."

Or perhaps in revolutionary France: "We can hear the crowd of Paris outside these walls, calling for the death of traitors to the nation. Some of you may believe that such violence is repugnant, an affront to human decency; and some may hold that revolutionary violence is consistent with the moral principles of Rousseau. I contend that..."

Although a "grabber" introduction is especially suited to Reacting, it applies in most academic contexts as well. For a paper on literary theory, you would do well to also "grab" your reader (i.e., the professor who's grading the paper) by reaching into her world:

"The Iliad is a story of humiliation and vengeance, set in ancient Troy as told by ancient Greeks. But for modern narratologists, who study the art of story-telling, the significance of any work is found not in its literal meaning, but in its constituent elements. Narratologists who adhere to the Russian Formalists will concentrate on..."


If the introduction has succeeded in reaching out to your reader, and your argument has held onto her tight, your conclusion should release her back into "her" world; it should show how your words have somehow changed her. Often it is wise in the conclusion to allude to the introduction, suggesting a structural coherence and closure. Conclusions for essays based on the previous "introductions" might go as follows:

"Before we leave the Pnyx today, and make our way home past the crumbled walls and empty shopping stalls, let us resolve to make peace with the gods..."

"Other Confucian scholars may cite analects that suggest an explanation different from mine. But Confucianism must be conceived as an entire system, not just a collection of sayings...

"Ours is a turbulent time. Angry voices reverberate outside and shake our windows. And even here, within the National Assembly, our debates become raucous. But..."
"The Iliad can be interpreted in different ways, but Russian Formalism"'s neglect of the historical context reveals a failing in that mode of literary analysis. This genre of analysis may not be entirely worthless, as some contend, but..."

Many writers, especially those who complete their written work a few days (hours / minutes / seconds) before the deadline, neglect the conclusion. This is a profound mistake. The last paragraph is the one that readers recall best. Devote special care and attention to it.

Writing Advisory 2: Coherence and Structure

The first advisory considered your choice of writing genre (essay, poem, short story, etc.) and outlined the basic structure for a successful essay (Introduction, Argument, Conclusion). This advisory pertains to the structure of paragraphs, and the logical sequence of paragraphs within the essay. There are two points to recall. Each paragraph should convey a single idea and all of the sentences in that paragraph should advance that idea and no others. If any sentence does not advance the main idea of the paragraph, you must move or delete it. You must then check to ensure that the sequence of paragraphs/ideas proceeds logically. An outline, at least in rudimentary form, serves this purpose.

One warning: because teachers are sometimes unaccustomed to thinking of writing as instrumental --a means of advancing an argument-- they often encourage students to regard an outline in terms of topics. This may be unwise for Reacting. You should write because you have something to say, not because you need to cover a topic. Therefore, the "idea" of each paragraph should not be summarized as a topical entry, but as a distillation of the idea of the paragraph. A topic encompasses a subject; an idea makes a point about a subject. The following illustrates a topical, and for our purposes, nearly useless, type of outline.

Topical-Style Outline
Paper argument: Socrates is guilty of offending the gods
Section II: Argument

  • More useful, both in organizing your paper and checking its coherence, is an "idea-focused" outline, as follows:
    Idea-Style Outline
    Section II: Argument
  • Paragraph 2: Socrates denounces existing gods (provide evidence from The Republic);
    Paragraph 3: He invents new gods (provide evidence from The Republic);
    Paragraph 4: This change confuses and angers the people of Athens;
    Paragraph 5: People who are confused about the gods will do bad things, etc.

  • Much as your paragraph must not contain extraneous or unnecessary sentences, so, too, the sequence of your paragraph-ideas must follow logically. If a paragraph does not fit in the sequence, you should move or delete it.

    Writing Advisory 3: Lethal Predicates -- Not To Be

    Review Writing Advisories # 1 and 2: the points are simple, and for that reason readily slip from mind. This advisory concerns the sentence itself, particularly the predicate.

    We learn the grammatical structure of the sentence at an early age. "Jack and Jill went up the hill." Jack and Jill (subject) went (predicate). In English, the predicate engineers our grammatical logic; it literally energizes the subject.

    But one verb "to be" does nothing and yet functions as a predicate, thereby shifting the "action" portion of the sentence onto parts of speech less qualified for that purpose. For example: "It was up the hill that Jack and Jill went." The predicate ("was") lacks force: without actually constituting a grammatical mistake, it violates grammatical logic. The predicate "was" must shoulder the work of the sentence, yet it lacks the clout to undertake this job.

    All too often, we force weakling subjects like "it," "this," and "there" to do the heavy work of a sentence. For example, "There is one reason why Jack and Jill went up the hill: to fetch a pail of water."

    When editing your papers, look for sentences with forms of "to be" as the predicate; if their subject is "it" or "there," the sentence probably suffers from a serious defect. This can easily be fixed: replace the dead verb with a lively one, and rearrange the sentence so that the subject initiates some real action.

    Sometimes "to be" verbs are unavoidable; but usually a strong verb can take their place. (For example, re-write this sentence: "Sometimes it is hard for a writer who is dependent on "to be" verbs to be expressive of prose which is precise and shows vitality." One solution appears below.)

    You should make lists of good verbs and consciously incorporate them into your writing. Tape the list to your computer monitor. Then, when you are stuck, look at the list.

    (One solution for above: "Sometimes even good writers succumb to inactive verbs and the passive voice. We must embrace sharp, vital verbs." Note active verbs: "succumb" and "embrace.")

    Writing Advisory 4: People and Things, Pronouns and Nouns

    Verbs impart motion and direction to our language. Pronouns and nouns give it substance.


    To whom does your pronoun refer? For example: "The British officials arrested Gandhi and his adherents. Their behavior was appalling."

    The "their" is in unclear referent, applicable either to the British officials or to Gandhi and his adherents. Most writers would spot this ambivalence. The problem of unclear referents becomes more subtle when the issues are more abstract: "Democracy in India is unstable. Its prospects are poor." ("Its" could refer to either Democracy or India.)

    You should regard all pronouns as suspect until you have proof-read them.

    Things You Can See, Touch, Hear, Feel, Smell

    The mind can more easily grasp ideas that relate to the senses. Conversely, ideas expressed in abstract language slip from memory. Abstract language is not always inappropriate. In law and government and philosophy, abstract language is often essential because it is meant to be generally (or universally) applicable. For example, the following is from Rousseau"'s Social Contract (1762). Rousseau is attacking the notion that "might makes right":

    "The strongest [person or party] being always in the right, the only thing that matters is to act so as to become the strongest. But what kind of right is that which perishes when force fails? If we must obey perforce, there is no need to obey because we ought."

    A brilliant stylist, Rousseau understood that these abstractions ("strongest," "right," "force") do not carry much rhetorical clout. So he painted a picture:

    "A robber surprises me at the edge of a wood: must I not merely surrender my purse on compulsion; but, even if I could withhold it, am I in conscience bound to give it up? For certain the pistol he holds is also a power. Let us therefore admit that force does not create right."

    Now the abstractions have concrete references: "strongest" becomes a "robber"; and "force" becomes a "pistol." The abstract becomes tangible. Nearly all important writers master the ability to express abstractions in concrete ways:

    Plato's Republic, the Analects of Confucius, the Bible all have become influential in part because of their mastery of this principle.

    In Reacting, you will often be asked to advance abstract principles -- the merits of Athenian imperialism, the superiority of antiquity in Confucianism, the tripartite concept of the self in Freudian thought, and so on. But you must employ sharp, vivid language to explain and defend such notions (and their opposites).

    The Power and Pitfalls of Simile and Metaphor

    In response to this challenge, writers often compare that which is known with an unfamiliar concept or idea through the use of simile and metaphor.

    Plato"'s Socrates was a master of both. Perhaps his most famous simile compared the sun to an abstract principle, "the good." The sun provided light and activated the most powerful senses, allowing people to see what actually existed; "the good" was the source of truth, which activated the mind"'s quest for knowledge. Another was his justification of including women among the guardians of his utopia, as when he asked: "Ought female watchdogs to perform the same guard-duties as male, and watch and hunt and so on? Or ought they to stay home on the grounds that the bearing and rearing of their puppies incapacitates them from other duties?"

    Among the many famous metaphors, Socrates makes a case for the limited use of deception among good rulers, as a "kind of medicine that should be entrusted to doctors and not to laymen."

    But if writers can often make good rhetorical use of metaphorical language, there is one danger: the imaginative language of the metaphor must not be inconsistent. For example, writers must not assert their desire to "calm the fires of anger" (extinguish fires or calm wild beasts) or to "undermine the airy suppositions" (undermine foundations or perhaps exorcise).

    So, as a general principle, try to enrich your language with similes and metaphors, but check to make sure the images are internally consistent.

    On Rules for Writers: A Final Note

    Writing rules, like rules of musical composition, usually make the writing (and the music) better. But sometimes rules inhibit creativity and must be broken.

    But you must be aware of the rules, and why you are breaking them, if you are to do so successfully.