Writing Guidelines & Example Expectations

Writing Survey

This page is divided into two sections. The first outlines basic guidelines for research papers in Social Science disciplines. The second section focuses on specific expectations in various Geography courses as observed from course syllabi found on the internet from universities in the USA, Canada and the UK.

I. Guidelines:

The information from the first section is taken from the fourth edition of A Short Guide to Writing About Social Science by Lee Cuba. This volume is cited on the Sources page, along with all other sources used in this site.

Typically, a major research finding has a review at the beginning of the paper (Cuba 31). This is often a literature review, common in social science papers. A literature review is when previous research applicable to a writer’s thesis is referenced. Doing so allows the reader to see how the writer’s paper fits contextually into the discipline and its past research.

Protocol for references: Encyclopedias, if specifically within the subject, are acceptable for use as resources. Discipline specific and social science specific indexes can be helpful with a literature review (33). Knowledge of indexes such as the Social Sciences Index should benefit any writing mentor or tutor if a writer needs help finding a starting place in their research (34).

Cuba provides a list of the parts necessary within a research paper:

  1. Title page
  2. Abstract (if appropriate)
  3. Introduction/statement of problem
  4. Research methodology
  5. Findings/results
  6. Discussions/conclusions
  7. Notes (if appropriate)
  8. References
  9. Appendixes (if appropriate)


What follows is a brief breakdown of aspects within the main sections listed above which are different in social sciences writings.
  • Introduction: A hint of the paper's conclusions should be present within the introduction, but the main points left for the conclusion section. The researcher's or student's interpretation of certain terms used within the paper should be defined (86). A literature review, as explained above, should be included (88). The introduction can be several paragraphs in length, which differs from the idea of traditional English paper introductions that many students are familiar with. The hypotheses for which evidence is expected to be seen should be referenced (92).
  • Methods: An idea of when and where the data was collected or observation occurred should be present (96). Included, should be an explanation of the tools which were used in the collection of data (97) This is especially relevant to Geography since tools such as maps are frequently used. In more technical measurements such as, for example, pollution levels in rivers for Hydrological topics specific tools must be used. Items considered empirical in nature can also be used. For example: with the Geographic volume Even in Sweden: racisms, racialized spaces, and the popular geographical imagination by Allan Pred. Pred uses his own observations in Stockholm as well as newspaper adds and articles.
  • Results: The research process does not need to be documented chronologically. Rather, it should be thematically applied to the thesis. Organization should follow the order of the thesis (Cuba 100). If the results are in the form of quantitative data, then tables should be used if necessary. Anything that cannot be easily understood in the table should be explained below (102).
  • Discussion/Conclusion: Clearly, the validity of the hypothesis needs to be addressed in this section. Are the findings an example of anything? In this section, generalizations to larger groups can be made. For example: Theoretically, proving that the river pollution of post-communist Czech was quite high in 1994 could lead to the idea that a common problem of all or most of post-communist Eastern Europe was high river pollution in 1994 due to having similar communist policies. The conclusion should also address what can be done with the findings, perhaps with ideas for possible action. Any questions that remain unanswered can be stated and any alternative methods for approaching the problem the thesis sought to answer mentioned (117).

Slightly different from typical protocol of using "Works Cited" or "Bibliography," references used in research papers for the social sciences should be under the title "References," generally (118).
An Appendix can be included if necessary (119). In Geography, this can be useful for attaching maps and other visual aids used in collecting data.

A useful website for information about what sources are available, on the web or in print, about writing in the social sciences can be found here.

II. Course Expectations from Syllabi:

The university websites discussed in this section are also referenced on the Sources page.
The courses discussed below will show that within Geography sometimes a research paper is not what the course requires. Unfortunately, that means that sometimes the information from the first section will not be completely useful. Each division within Geography has its own requirements, and these requirements can change depending on the university.
  • York University, Toronto, Canada: A course on Social and Cultural Spaces states that students must write a review of an article cited from the class text. This does not follow the usual pattern of writing for social sciences. It is somewhat similar to a literature review, however. It would be helpful for the students in this class to know how to write a literature review such as the one mentioned in the first section of this page for this assignment since it would provide them with knowledge of how to approach the article with some idea of a thesis.
  • On the University of North Carolina - Chapel Hill website, an advanced GIS (Geographic Information Systems) course in GIS and Public Health requires a project worth 40% of the student's grade. Aspects of the project are specifically laid out by the professor. The project must have: Introduction, Methods, Results, Conclusions. This coincides completely with the format for writing as explained in the first section of this page. The distinguishing aspect, which makes this specifically a Geography paper, is that the Methods section could be a cartographic model. This may be something a tutor or writing mentor would not be familiar with. Hopefully the definition given will prove helpful.
  • Another Geography course on the UNC - Chapel Hill site has different requirements. The course, also a GIS course, requires both labs and a project paper. The labs, which one would expect from a technical division of Geography such as GIS, are worth 20%. The paper has the same weight, but has a considerably different format. The paper is a group project requiring up to five people to collaborate and investigate an issue relevant to the course. This assignment is easily something that could pose a dilemma for a writing tutor. To begin with, the collaborative nature is complicated. Having to decide who writes which section and how to compile the pieces into a coherent body that flows are certainly problems. Knowing what the professor specifically expects can be helpful to a tutor or mentor. The professor, in this case, lays out clearly specific elements he wants to see in the finished product. These elements still coincide nicely with the elements described in the "Guidelines" section of this page.

"The assignment involves (a) the generation of a set of research aims, (b) design and encoding of a GIS data base to support the project aims for a study area of your choice, (c) design and implementation of a set of spatial analyzes with a bias towards GIS (but not limited to only GIS – e.g., manipulating the GIS data through scientific data visualizations and/or statistical or spatial models may be quite appropriate to your project goals), (d) discussion and interpretation of findings, and (e) documentation of approach, data, methods, analysis, discussion & interpretation, and conclusions by using maps, graphics, statistics, and writing a report."

  • On the University of California at Berkeley website, a course in Social Geography requires two essays. The first is a midterm of 5-7 pages. Lee Cuba of the Short Guide, from the first section of this page, describes a midterm or term paper as serving the purpose of "critically evaluat[ing]" the previous research of others on the chosen topic, as with a literature review (Cuba 79). A 12-15 page paper worth 50% of the grade is to follow the shorter paper. This course's syllabus provides less information on the specifics of the papers than the others, but it appears that Cuba's guidelines are still applicable.
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