How to Approach a Politics Paper


Corwin Hall, home of Princeton’s Politics Department, is often the final destination of a politics paper.

This week, I’m working on a paper for Human Rights, a politics class that I’m taking.This course only has one major paper assignment, and it’s very broad. Given that this is a tricky, but not entirely uncommon situation, I thought I’d share my approach to writing this paper. It’s often said that “writing is thinking,” so why not write about thinking about writing?

I started thinking about the paper pretty early in the course. To be fair, this wasn’t all me—my preceptor gently encouraged us to have a topic in mind before Spring Break. The best thing about brainstorming topics early is that you have the time and latitude to allow your idea to evolve. And evolve my idea did.I originally thought that I’d be providing justifications for the idea of basic, universal human rights grounded in multiple religious/cultural traditions. From this idea about arguing for the universality of human rights, I became interested in tailoring my argument to focus on parts of the world where human rights are not fully respected. And from there, I began thinking a lot about the Chinese government’s (terrible) human rights record, and how that government justifies its actions on the international stage.

That’s where I’ve landed for now. Over the course of the process I just detailed, I exchanged emails with my preceptor, met with him a couple of times, and talked with friends and classmates. I’d recommend all of those steps; talking through your ideas is probably one of the best things you can do to help make a paper like this seem more manageable in the planning stage.

After my final meeting with my preceptor, I had a solid list of points I wanted to hit. So, I sat by the Woody Woo Fountain and put them in a notes file, also jotting down some phrases and arguments that happened to come to mind. Serendipitously, just after I finished doing that, I got an email about a talk on China’s One Belt, One Road Initiative slated for later that afternoon. (Isn’t Princeton a wonderful place?). The lecture gave me a better thematic understanding of cultural and political developments in China over the last ten years, and I now have another (unique) source type for my paper.

Obviously, you won’t get as lucky as I did for every paper assignment. But if you keep an eye out, you might be surprised by campus events related to your topic. And even if there aren’t any, you still have a world-class library at your disposal, as well as myriad faculty with diverse specialties who are often happy to meet with you to discuss your research.

Jump cut to the present. I chose my topic, made my notes, and attended that lecture. Now comes more research. This weekend, I’ll be reviewing class notes and pulling out information on the Chinese government, recent Chinese history, etc. Next, I’ll do the same with readings, and then sources from Firestone. In general, I want to radiate outward from the known to the unknown, drawing first from sources I have in my possession already, then from those that I have yet to discover. It’s all about baby steps, friends. Baby steps.

What about the writing, you ask? That will come later, near the end of the process. Of course, I’ll make a lot of notes in the run-up to that moment, some of which may make it into the paper. But I want to get my thoughts in order before I try to set words to paper. (But if you want more information check out this post for some advice on how to begin the writing process)

I hope this recounting of my thought process helps you think about approaching a politics paper!

(For further advice on approaching papers from other PCURs, see this post about how to settle on a topic for open-ended research assignments.)

–Shanon FitzGerald, Social Sciences Correspondent