You’re writing a paper. So what?

Last semester, when I was preparing to begin working on a research paper, one of my professors recommended that I look at a few chapters from a book called “The Craft of Research,” by Wayne C. Booth, Gregory G. Colomb, and Joseph M. Williams. The sections he recommended focused mainly on choosing and developing a topic that would allow for  interesting and coherent argumentation, and had advice about generating ideas, questions, and thesis statements. Of the many helpful tips and ideas that the selection offered, the one that stood out the most to me was a point the text made about asking the question, “So what?”

To ask “So what?” of an idea is to question its greater significance within the context in which it is presented. Why have you presented your topic or research question the way you have? What can others gain from this presentation of your ideas? One way in which “The Craft of Research” encourages writers and researchers to approach the “So what?” question is to frame their thoughts generally in this fill-in-the-blank sentence:

“I am studying/working on _____ because I want to find out who/what/when/where/whether/why/how _____ in order to help my reader understand _____.”

Whatever you fill into the last blank space is the beginning of the answer to your “So what?” question.

The authors provide an example of this model in the text. One could say, “I am working on Lincoln’s beliefs about predestination and their influence on his reasoning, because I want to find out how his belief in destiny and God’s will influenced his understanding of the Civil War, in order to help my reader understand how his religious beliefs may have influenced his military decisions.” In this case, the influence of religion on Lincoln’s military decisions is answering the “So what?” of studying Lincoln’s religious beliefs.

While the chapter on the “So what?” question in “The Craft of Research” was geared toward generating a topic and thesis, the advice applies to all parts of developing a cohesive paper: So what about your thesis? So what about your evidence? So what about the details you include? Personally, I find the question most helpful when thinking about writing conclusions.

It is often easy to get to the end of a paper and find yourself unsure of what to say. Is it best to summarize your main arguments or repeat what you’ve already said, or should you attempt to add in something new? While either or both of these may seem like the best option, their execution is often poor or trite, and they risk adding an element of redundancy or irrelevance to your work. Instead of limiting yourself to these two options, why not ask, “So what?”

A conclusion that answers “So what?” tells the reader why the topic is important and why they should care about it. It answers questions like: Why did you choose to write about this topic? Why was the topic presented as it was? How can this topic and information be used in further research or applied in the real world? What has the reader gained from reading the information and evidence you have discussed? What should they do next in order to maximize the effect of what they just learned?

It can be helpful to think of writing your conclusion as the process of asking “So what?” of your entire paper and providing readers with the answer. Writing in this way makes your paper more than just words collected on a page (or many pages). It supports the argument of the paper by giving reason to the choice of evidence, counterarguments, and analysis, and allows it to become a complete and cohesive presentation that accomplishes a task for both you and the reader. So, what about that?

Mary DePascale ’16 has been a writing mentor for two semesters. 

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