The other day I decided to start clearing out the office section of my house. Before I got into it, our office supplies resided in several junk drawers strewn about the three floors of my house, with papers and staplers and sticky-notes and at least twelve workbooks issued by Texas public schools piled into bins and shoved into drawers and cabinets. As I was purging old papers, I discovered two old term papers from my International Relations undergraduate program, titled…
U.S. Humanitarian Intervention: The Legacy of Somalia, and NATO: A Comparison of the Post Cold War, Post 9/11 era and the Importance of the United States for the Future NATO Alliance. Shrug.
I got an 86% and 94%, respectively, on these papers, but thumbing through them I find two things:
1. I did not have many original ideas or opinions on either topic. Most of the sentences in my papers are cited from other authors.
2. I did not use the cited material to build to an argument. Rather, I used cited material as stepping stones to lead me through my planned narrative and conclusion.
I recently submitted a professional paper for publication in the Marine Corps’ professional journal, based on some lessons learned on how we manage civil information and what could be done better. I was eager to write the paper because I had a lot of opinions on how we should do civil affairs work. I had a lot of original ideas and opinions, and I used cited material to support those opinions. But, this can lead to surprises! Through the course of researching and writing, you are testing your conclusion and seeing if it holds up against well established truths. As a result, the intended argument for my paper ended up as something different by the final draft.
I think that anyone could (and should!) submit papers to professional journals or blogs or whatever, if a change in the status quo is in order. And anyone can if they possess original ideas or opinions different from the status quo, and if they are open to rigorously testing those ideas against what’s already out there. Sure, there’s the technical skills involved in writing, but this is less important. Those skills got me As and Bs on my papers, but the content was nothing significant. The skills are the easy part. It’s the other part that’s more tricky.