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Formal Writing: Making Research Papers "Proposals"

Formal Writing: Making Research Papers "Proposals"


Critical thinking is "purposeful, reasoned, and goal directed" (Halpern, 2003, p.6). To make the traditional research paper more engaging, give students a more engaged, real-world goal to achieve with their writing. This assignment requires students to think and write beyond simply reporting what they have learned--it asks them to use what they have learned to make a convincing argument to a real person or group outside the classroom.

The activity

Beyond doing the necessary research to support their argument, students have to identify the audience they want to convince, and frame their research with a "problem statement" that will be compelling to that audience. This assignment format can be motivating for students because it lets them answer the question "Why do we have to do this?" in a way that is personally meaningful to them.


The following assignment description was provided by UT instructor Michelle Neely. It clearly describes for students the process of identifying their audience, developing their problem statement, and putting it all together. Adapted from Charney, D.H., Neuwirth, C.M., Kaufer, D.S., and Geisler, C.A. (2005). Having your say: Reading and writing public arguments. New York, NY: Longman.

Step one: Select the right audience

Selecting the appropriate audience for your paper is important. This is because you will be writing directly to an individual or committee who: (1) will listen to what you, an anonymous college student, has to say, and (2) has the power to do something about your proposal. As you work to identify the problem that your proposal will address, think also about the audience for your argument. Who would be able to change, or shift, the policy or behavior that you are proposing? It might be helpful to do some research about who is "in charge" of the policy or issues that your proposal addresses.

You'll likely have to do some research to figure out who has the "power" to do what you are asking. Some possible audience options include:

  • Decision makers who would listen to you (you can't write to the President of the USA, for instance) and who could implement your plan directly

  • An advocacy group that is already concerned about the problem

  • A lawmaker, legislative committee, board of regents, superintendent, etc.

  • A segment of the population that could contact decision makers

  • Other authors who have written about the problem

Step two: Develop an argument by finding the "rub"

A. Convince your audience that a problem exists by creating a problem statement.

Problems occur when we need something that we don't have or when we want to do something that we can't do. It involves a clash between what we want and what we have. A clash is a conflict or inconsistency involving tension and frustration; it creates a feeling of lacking or exigency. (Charney and Neuwirth, p. 259)

Begin by drafting a problem statement that outlines goals, values, or desired states that you and your audience SHARE. You should be able to draw on Paper 2 to help you do this. Then describe how the realization of these goals/values/desired states is being prevented by the condition you want to change. Here are some examples:

  • As environmentalists/supporters of outdoor education, we want more people to visit our national park, but we have no more room for camping or parking.

  • As Americans, we all want to make the world a safer place for ourselves and others, preserve our economic interests, and act for the common good. However, the ongoing war in Iraq is causing damage to our nation's economy and solidarity.

  • As student government reps, you work to provide easy access to student services, support student learning through technology, and respond to students' varied needs. However, the UT technology services help desk has limited hours and is often unavailable to students.

  • As our communities grow, we need new energy sources to replace old, inefficient, and dirty power plants to make energy production cleaner. However, many environmentalists want to preserve wilderness and oppose the building of clean energy sources like dams because they alter ecology.

  • As managers of the Castilian, I understand that you have to balance financial costs of staffing with the requests and comfort of residents. However, having only one nighttime security guard is inadequate for the number residents and visitors that occupy the dorm on weekends.

Having trouble finding the "rub?" Try this:

Problem Statement Template

Statement A: Describe important goal(s), desired state(s), or a value(s). The goal is often something that we take for granted, but it is what is ultimately at stake or risk.

BUT: Connect Statement A and Statement B with a conflict term such as "but," "however," "unfortunately."

Statement B:Describe something that prevents the goal, state, or value in Statement A from being achieved or realized at this time. It may be another feature of the situation. Or, it may be a competing goal, desired state, or value.

(From: Charney, D.H., Neuwirth, C.M., Kaufer, D.S., and Geisler, C.A. (2005). Having your say: Reading and writing public arguments. New York, NY: Longman.)

B. Propose a solution that will help solve the problem you've just described.

Doing this involves creating an enthymeme consisting of a claim and reason(s). Note here that the reasons match up with the shared values that you identify in the problem statement. Here are some examples that correspond with the sample problem statements:

  • The Parks and Wildlife Commission should fund a shuttle system for park visitors because doing so will encourage more visitors access to parks, generate revenue for future park projects, and is preferable to building additional on-site parking lots.

  • The student government should vote to increase student fees in order to fund extended computer helpdesk hours. Doing so will make the student service more convenient, enhance the university's reputation of being student-friendly, and better support students' learning through technology.

  • The US Department of Energy should provide incentives to cities who want to build wind and solar farms. These newer energy sources would provide cleaner alternatives, minimize ecological damage, and please both environmentalists and energy consumers.

  • Managers/owners of the Castilian should hire additional security personnel to work weekend nights because this will make residents safer, will make the dorm more competitive with other student housing, and will enhance the dorm's reputation.

The key here lies in the details. A bad proposal is vague and full of pie-in-the-sky ideas about how to solve the world's problems. A good proposal details specific, step-by-step instructions that an audience could follow without having to fill in the gaps. Even more important, your proposal must be FEASIBLE, i.e., reasonably capable of being enacted. Time, money, and labor are your foremost considerations here.

C. Justifications

You'll need to show your audience that your proposed solution will address the problem reflected in your problem statement. You will have already demonstrated that it is POSSIBLE to enact your proposal. Now you must prove beyond doubt that doing so will help solve the problems described in the first section of your argument. How is your solution the best fit for the problem?

Step three: Put it all together

A. Arrangement

Since you'll be targeting a very specific audience for your argument, I urge you to use a letter or memo-type format for your paper. Also, since proposal arguments strive for maximum practicality, they are often arranged under subheadings; I encourage you to present your argument in such a way.

Audience Description

Write a description of the audience you're targeting and your rationale for selecting that audience. What makes you think that this person/group of people can initiate the change(s) you're proposing?

Once you describe your audience, you'll present your proposal. Here are some suggested subheadings for your proposal:

  • Summary: Begin with a short overview of your argument

  • Problem: Provide a description of the problem

  • Solution: Propose your solution here

  • Justification: Demonstrate how your solution, specifically, will help solve the problem

  • Opposition and Rebuttal:Address counterargument(s) that you anticipate from your audience and provide a rebuttal, or answer, to those concerns. For example, you might answer an opponent who argues that the current approach to the problem is fine, or an opponent who argues that a solution other than yours is better, or an opponent who argues that your solution is not substantially different from others that have failed.

  • Conclusion:Provide further exigence and motivate your reader to act
B. Style

Your most important stylistic concern, as always, is with crafting unified paragraphs, which consist of two things: (1) a topic sentence that clearly states the main idea of the paragraph and (2) supporting sentences that cluster around the main idea without detours.

Beyond the paragraph level, your paper should adhere to the conventions of academic/ professional/ public writing. Proofread carefully, and avoid errors in grammar, spelling, punctuation, and mechanics. Use your Little Penguin Handbook as a reference guide for questions about style.

Your second most important stylistic concern should be with adhering to MLA conventions for the documentation of sources. Chapter 22 in Everything's an Argument and the Little Penguin Handbook will help you follow MLA guidelines. For your Works Cited page, make things easy on yourself by using NoodleBib.

Other requirements

  • With your final draft, you must turn in a copy of 1 page from each source you have cited. In other words, if you list 10 sources on your Works Cited page, I want 10 pages of copies. This is non-negotiable and is part of your grade.

  • Any source you can reach through the portal of UT Library Online is approved for use in your paper. You may also use the websites of major news organizations and any ".gov" sites. You may use any other websites as sources, but do so cautiously, paying careful attention to its credibility.

  • If you're unsure about whether a site is credible, send me an email with the link and I'll help you decide. Note that part of your grade will be based on the quality of sources that you select (so don't just go "blog-hopping;" think critically about whether your audience would accept the source.)

  • You'll conduct "primary research" for Research Summary 3, so use this to help you support your argument that there is a problem and/or how your solution is best. Primary sources include include interviews, surveys, questionnaires, etc. To document these sources, include a copy of the email, survey, or the notes you took while talking to the source.

  • You must cite at least 8 sources in your paper. You may re-use sources from Paper 2, but you'll want to consider whether your new audience will find these sources persuasive. Also, you"ll likely have to re-visit the sources for this new assignment and reconsider them in light of your new argument.

  • Begin with a page-limit of 4. If you find the argument you need to make can't possibly fit within that space, you may extend to additional pages, but be careful that you're being concise and staying on-topic.

  • Your paper should be double-spaced, typed in Times New Roman font, with 12 point character size and one inch margins all the way around. Provide page numbers in the bottom right corner.

  • Your first submission should be a complete draft--something you would submit to the named audience, your boss, or to a publication.