Ivory Tower Writing #8: Knowing your enemy – types of papers and what to expect

This post discusses some pointers in distinguishing the different types of papers that you may encounter during your academic life.

At this point, you have some of the basics of structure covered. Before discussing more basics, I think now’s a good time to understand the types of papers you may encounter when you’re in university.

Some general advice first. You ought to always pay attention to the wording of your research question (as I’ve mentioned in post #4), as this determines the general character of your paper. This also applies to questions your professor gives you. If they provide you with a research question, then you actually have your work cut out for you. You may also have to do some work, especially if all they give you is a statement like “Robotics will change the nature of war. Discuss.”

The argumentative essay

This is perhaps the most common type of essay you’ll encounter. I assume this because if you’re reading my blog, you’re in a political science or IR major.

In this essay, you are expected to argue either in favour of or against a certain stance or issue. You are also expected to elaborate why you agree/disagree with that stance/issue by constructing sound arguments. For example, let’s take the issue of regional integration in ASEAN, which continues to be the subject of debate. At the risk of gross oversimplification, I’ll frame the debate in a binary manner. On side A, some argue ASEAN ought to do more to integrate. More extreme standpoints include trying to make ASEAN like the European Union or an Asian NATO. On side B, some argue ASEAN integration is good enough as it is. More extreme positions include the ASEAN principle of non-intervention ought to be more reinforced as to not drag unwilling members into needless affairs.

Which side do you stand on? If you stand on side A, why do you think ASEAN should be more integrated? What are the potential benefits and shortcomings? Would the benefits outweigh the shortcomings? These are some questions that you ought to consider in creating an argument.

More complex argumentative essays directly attack theories and paradigms. One example is the issue of how the state is created. There are the social contractarians, who believe the state comes into being because people want to escape a State of Nature. Utilitarian theory, inspired by Bentham’s philosophy, suggests the state comes into being because the people think it is the only way to increase overall “happiness”. Another example would be Marx’s direct critique of capitalist ideology, in which he deconstructs the tenets of capitalism, argues the system is broken, and then continues to inspire revolutionaries around the world.

In writing argumentative essays, it is important to not commit the strawman fallacy. This means that you intentionally frame the opponent’s argument in the weakest possible sense just so to show that your argument is better. If you really wanted to show your argument is superior, then attack the opponent’s strongest argument.

Your essay will likely be an argumentative one if your exam questions resemble these samples:

  1. “The use of robotics in warfare will change the nature of war.” Discuss.
  2. “The state should provide a universal basic income for its citizens.” Discuss.
  3. “People of low IQ should be killed.” Do you agree or disagree?

The descriptive-analytical essay

This is perhaps the most tedious essay you’ll work on. In this essay, you’re expected to describe and analyze something—which could range from the development of a particular theory, the timeline of a certain war, or the history of a state’s foreign relations since 1700.

Note that you are still expected to have a particular thesis statement/research question when doing this essay (hence the analytical part). Otherwise, you’ll simply be repeating a slew of facts. These types of essays test your research skills, particularly the skill of making sense of data, categorizing, and arranging data so that it is coherent.

Let’s say your professor assigns you the following question, “How has Japanese security policy changed since 1945?” How would you answer that?

Well, you would need the relevant sources first. In this case, it would do you well to look through Japanese history, beginning from their defeat in WW2, the origins of their pacifism, and the development of the JSDF and relevant defense institutions from the 1950s. After you have gone through those sources, you would need to arrange that data into a meaningful narrative. Perhaps you would want to split your essay into three major sections: in Section 1, you discuss Japan’s condition after the war and into the 1960s; then, you continue to discuss Japan’s condition in the 1970s to 1990s; until finally, you reach the current year (or whenever the last Defense White Paper was published).

Is that enough? Almost. You haven’t done the “analytical” part yet. Notice that your professor asked you “how” it has changed. You would need a qualifier then, such as “it’s better now” or “it’s worse now”. THIS would be your thesis. Perhaps during your data gathering, you notice that in the 1990s, Japan’s security policy slightly deviated from pacifism (as opposed to 1950s). There could have been multiple reasons for this, but for the time being, simply noting this trend would be good enough. You would then need to specify which parts of security policy indicates Japan deviated from pacifism.

Some samples of descriptive-analytical questions:

  1. Describe the three theories of military revolutions and their strengths and weaknesses.
  2. How have Indonesian perceptions of Chinese-Indonesians changed since the 1990s?
  3. Analyse trends in voting patterns in Jakarta in the last two gubernatorial elections.

Fun fact: mastering this type of writing is essential for intelligence analysts.

The policy paper

I thought I’d put this up here, just because I’ve had to write some of these through my undergrad and masters. These types of essays can often be found in public policy, political science, and IR majors with a more practical approach to pedagogy.

There’s one thing you need to remember before writing a policy paper (or”memo”, whatever your professor decides to call it): the audience is different. Unlike argumentative and descriptive essays, which are supposed to be read by fellow academics, the policy paper is meant to be read by policy-makers a.k.a the important people who have political power. These are very busy people with whom tend to have general knowledge of the issue at hand. They also don’t have much time on their hands. This means a policy paper should be short and to the point.

The policy paper aims to provide either policy recommendations or solutions to a certain issue. Let’s say that the Ministry of Defense needs advice on whether they should by Main Battle Tanks or naval aircraft. You would then need to conduct a cost-benefit analysis to see which purchase would be strategically beneficial. Based on this, you advise the MOD to purchase naval aircraft. Viewed this way, a policy paper is basically a more “practical” argumentative plus descriptive essay.

Of course, that example is overly simplistic, but I believe it captures the essence of the policy paper concisely. What’s important to remember is that in a policy paper, you are expected to come up with solutions to actual problems.

You may want to pay attention to these types of questions:

  1. Propose recommendations for [insert country here]’s military modernization.
  2. How can the government of [insert country here] increase the effectiveness of law enforcement in countering violent extremism?


As you may have noticed at this point, there are overlapping elements present across different types of essays. If you’re writing a dissertation/thesis/book, you’ll also likely use multiple styles. Your literature review section, for example, is essentially a descriptive-analytical exercise, while your core chapters may largely be argumentative.

However, if you’re an undergraduate student (which I expect my readership to be), you won’t have to worry about mixing and matching styles. The categorization I’ve provided only serves to ease your confusion so you have a better idea as to what your professor expects from you.

Hope you enjoyed this post and if you have additional tips, please write so in the comments!

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