Motivating and Framing a Paper

I will be leading a workshop on writing at this week's History of Economics Society conference in Toronto, and to prepare for the workshop I solicited advice from several editors and senior scholars in the field. Their advice can be boiled down to this: Make me care.

As one scholar said, many papers simply report what this economist or that economist said without framing it in any meaningful way. In other words, there is no context that might make a reader care.

How do you make readers care? How can you effectively motivate and frame a paper?

Fortunately, there is a formula, if you will, that a lot of good writers follow. The formula, which is discussed in Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace, by Joseph Williams and Joseph Bizup, contains three steps: establish a shared context; introduce a problem with or complication to the shared context, raising the question, So what?; and respond to the problem by stating your main argument or thesis. Let's look at each one in turn.

Establishing a shared context means telling or reminding your reader of something he or she already knows or can easily accept. Let's suppose you are writing a paper on the physiocrats, the group of eighteenth-century French economists. Establishing a shared context might look like this:

Eighteenth-century France saw rich developments in two important areas, political economy and mathematics. Political economy at the time was of course dominated by the physiocrats, while such figures as Alexis-Claude Clairaut and Jean le Rond D’Alembert stand as two famous algébristes and salonniers. 

So far, so good. What we need now is some challenge to the shared context, a challenge that will create a space for the paper's main argument. Something like this might suffice:

The two communities—political economists and mathematicians—were largely unrelated. But that does not mean that there was no connection at all. As we hope to show here, at least one physiocrat--Charles Richard de Butré, the least-known of Quesnay’s collaborators—was, in two texts from 1766 and 1767, using algebra to explain his theoretical concepts.

Notice the word but that begins the second sentence. Problems with or complications to the shared context are usually introduced by words like but, however, yet, and the like.

OK--so we've introduced a complication. So what? Why should we care that there was some connection between the political economists and the mathematicians? Here is how the paragraph might continue--and how it might tell us why we should care:

As such, Butré’s research stands at the crossroads of these two scientific communities, and in his use of algebra as an aid for economic reasoning, the two texts, we argue here, provide very interesting insights into the development of early mathematical economics. 

Why should we care? We should care because Butré’s use of algebra helps us better understand the development of early mathematical economics.

Now, is the thesis statement--"the two texts, we argue here, provide very interesting insights into the development of early mathematical economics"--useful? Well, maybe. If the goal is to establish that Butre’s two texts are important, then this might suffice. If instead the goal is to establish why Butre’s use of algebra matters, then I think not. In that case, to say that something “provides very interesting insights” is vague. What insights in particular? What do we learn about the development of mathematical economics by looking at Butre’s use of algebra?

Here is the paragraph in full:

Eighteenth-century France saw rich developments in two important areas, political economy and mathematics. Political economy at the time was of course dominated by the physiocrats, while such figures as Alexis-Claude Clairaut and Jean le Rond D’Alembert stand as two famous algébristes and salonniers. The two communities—political economists and mathematicians—were largely unrelated. But that does not mean that there was no connection at all. As we hope to show here, at least one physiocrat--Charles Richard de Butré, the least-known of Quesnay’s collaborators—was, in two texts from 1766 and 1767, using algebra to explain his theoretical concepts. As such, Butré’s research stands at the crossroads of these two scientific communities, and in his use of algebra as an aid for economic reasoning, the two texts, we argue here, provide very interesting insights into the development of early mathematical economics. 

I will note, in passing, the economy of the writing. The three steps have been accomplished in a single paragraph.

There are two things you want to accomplish in your introduction: let readers know what to expect so they can read more knowledgeably; and motivate readers so they will read more carefully. To do that, consider constructing an introduction that establishes a shared context, qualifies or complicates the shared context, and responds to the complication by stating its main argument.