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Layers of Meaning in Academic Writing

Peeling Back the Onion: Layers of Meaning in Academic Writing

For many student, the process of learning to write thoughtful, well-argued essays is a difficult task. Not only do you have to be able to read and understand primary and secondary texts, but you also have to be able to analyze those materials and formulate your own idea about what all those words really mean. Then, finally, you need to be able to articulately explain those ideas on paper. To students used to writing personal essays or book reports, this type of nuanced writing can be a real challenge, and many will find themselves wondering how to master this new writing style.

What We Mean When We Talk About Research Papers

The terms research paper can mean many different things depending on who's using it. In the sciences, a research paper is usually a specially formatted analysis of the writer's original research; in the humanities a research paper will be a more loosely structured essay that articulates the writer's original ideas about a topic. While the formatting is very different, what ties this types of papers together is the research-namely, the idea that you, the writer, need to know enough about your topic to accurately place your own ideas among the many others out there.

The Layers of a Research Paper

Think of a good research paper as being like an onion. At its center is a core of information, and then you have to add your own interpretations and analysis on top, layer by layer, until you finish with a well-rounded argument.


The core of any good research paper is going to be made up simply of facts and information. Basically, you need to start by making sure that the reader knows everything they need to know to understand the arguments you're going to make. If you're going to be talking about a novel, you need to give the reader the basic outline of the plot and characters; if you're going to be talking about the affect an insect has on a specific tree, you need to tell the reader a little bit about both that insect and that tree.
Think of this layer as the foundation that the rest of your paper will be built on. Without this information, the reader can't be expected to evaluate or appreciate your ideas, and the rest of your paper will fall apart.


Once you've laid out a topic for the audience, it's time for you to start adding your own ideas. The first step in this process is to analyze what's out there and organize it all in a way that both makes sense for the reader and highlights the important points you want to make. For an English class essay this might mean collecting critical commentaries on a novel, dividing them up into thematic areas, then restating their main ideas for the reader. In the sciences, you might be reading up on a particular species, then organizing the information in such a way as to show the reader where there are holes in the current research.
The key to doing this sort of analysis is to look for trends or patterns. You aren't adding anything that's entirely new yet; instead, you're looking for connections between ideas or patterns in the research that will build the foundation for the next layer of your work.


Once you've taken stock of all the currently available research, it's time to stake out your own territory. What do you have to add that's new or different? What are you going to try to prove in your paper? Now that all the facts and current research have been laid out, you can use that information to start developing your own argument and also offering your own interpretations of the all the research you've read. This section shouldn't be about explicitly proving anything yet-you just want to make your claim.


The last-and most important-layer of a research paper is critical engagement with other people's work. You've carefully built a foundation that demonstrates you understand the nuances of your topic and the scholarship surrounding it, and now's the time to step into that debate as an equal. This is where you look at the work of others and evaluate it. Are there certain theories you agree or disagree with? Why? Are there holes in the research that you think you can address?
An important part of engaging in critical debate is recognizing the many different positions occupied by others in your field. If you just attack a single journal article or use one author to prove a point, you haven't done a thorough enough job of really evaluating the research. Instead, you should be balancing many different viewpoints and offering a thoughtful, well-supported argument for or against them.

How Can You Use the Onion Model?

When working on research papers, the onion model can be used to help build a solid, well-supported argument. Every layer is important-you can't have analysis without factual information, and you can't make a critical argument without first laying out what other scholars have already said. So, as you're writing, you want to make sure that you build up these layers carefully. Start with descriptive, and add more depth until you've reached your critical argument. When making a persuasive argument, make sure that you've included all the groundwork the reader will need to understand it. If you're having trouble with your paper, try making an outline or other visual aid that helps you analyze the purpose of each paragraph or section in your work to see where it fits within the onion.
In more complex papers, particularly those divided into sections or chapters, these layers might not be so literal-you may work your way through the onion several times or circle back around to a particular idea repeatedly throughout your work. But in general, no matter how complex your work is, you want to be sure that every layer is in there somewhere.

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