Michael Kibbe. From Topic to Thesis: A Guide to Theological Research. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2016.
Kibbe lists “the kinds of errors that are most likely to make your professors pull their hair out—what will really drive them nuts!”
- Suggest that your research paper has broken new ground. It hasn’t. I promise. [I disagree: I think it’s possible for a graduate research paper to break new ground.]
- Use terms that are the object of significant debate in your field in ways that suggest you don’t know they are the object of significant debate in your field. …
- Make personal attacks on scholars you disagree with. …
- Discuss how you “feel” about certain issues or viewpoints. It’s not that your professor doesn’t care about your feelings. It’s that they are irrelevant to determining the strengths and weaknesses of your research.
- Commit logical fallacies. You should have a list of these (with explanations) on your desk at all times. Every time you make an argument, check the list to make sure none of them apply. Better yet, take an introductory course on logic in the philosophy department at your institution.
- Misrepresent scholarly viewpoints or arguments. Nothing will drive your professors more crazy than communicating to them that you didn’t read your sources carefully.
- Adjectivize the scholars you disagree with. Wright may be “compelling” while Bultmann is “liberal”; Webster’s account may be “robust” while Frame’s is “reductionistic.” The problem with these words is twofold. First, they’re not arguments in and of themselves. They’re comparisons—they don’t say anything other than where a scholar stands vis-à-vis your position, and unless it is taken for granted that your position is the right one, such descriptions are pointless and distract from the presence or absence of the real argument in your paper. Second, they make a value judgment that has not been substantiated. Is “liberal” bad? Is “robust” good? You must always define your technical terms, but these are terms that you don’t have time to define, so you’ll save yourself a lot of trouble if you don’t use them in the first place.
- Forget to identify your thesis. Your paper has one and only one central point. Make it abundantly clear to your reader what that point is. Do so early, and do so often.
- Ignore the citation style guide required by your professor. Early in your theological research career, formatting footnotes and bibliographies will feel like arbitrary busywork, even with bibliography software to facilitate the process. Why bother with all that? In short: you need to know your audience. A research paper is a communicative act directed toward those who have spent years staring at scholarly literature to the point that a misplaced punctuation mark in a citation sticks out like a sore thumb and a misspelled publisher’s name is nails on a chalkboard. So format your citations properly for the same reason you use the same font throughout your paper: to keep relatively meaningless details from being a distraction from what is important (your thesis). What do you want your readers to remember? Your inability to follow simple directions, or your thesis?
- Plagiarize. If you aren’t sure where the line is, ask. Show your professor your source and your paper, and ask. If you got an idea from a source, footnote it. If you got words from a source, put quotes around those words and footnote it. There is no shame in footnoting!
My turn: #11. Don’t overuse zombie nouns (i.e., nominalizations) and zombie verbs (i.e., passives). (See also the resources at the end of that post.)