From Thesis to Paper: Tips for Clear Theological Writing

Students in the classroom writing an assignment By Daniel Diffey, PhD Posted on February 07, 2017  in  [ Theology & Ministry ]

I just wrote a review for the “Journal of Biblical and Theological Studies” on Michael Kibbe’s helpful book “From Topic to Thesis: A Guide to Theological Research” (IVP Academic, 2016). The book review can be found here at jbtsonline.org/review-of-from-topic-to-thesis-a-guide-to-theological-research-by-michael-kibbe/

As I was reading through Kibbe’s book and reflecting upon theological writing, I thought it might be helpful to make public some of the things that I tell my classes about writing within biblical and theological studies. Some of the things that I tell my classes were in Kibbe’s book, which focuses on the beginning of the writing process. Some of them are not. But here are a few tips that I like to give students on writing papers that largely supplements Kibbe’s work:

  • Make sure that the introduction introduces the topic and not yourself. I often have students introduce themselves in the introduction instead of the topic. Also, avoid introducing why you like the topic or why the topic is important to you.
  • The thesis should be clear and well-articulated. Kibbe talks about the thesis being the heart of the paper, and this is very true. Also, the thesis can be more than one sentence if necessary, but should not be overly long or complicated. For a shorter paper (less than 2,500 words), your thesis should really be two sentences or less.
  • The structure of your paper should flow from your thesis.
  • Use headings. Every professor in theological studies that I have ever talked to wants their students to use headings in their papers, so use headings. If you don’t know how to do this, look at the style guide – it is easy and makes papers significantly easier to read.
  • Have good topic sentences. The topic sentence is the first sentence in a paragraph that lays out what you are going to argue for in that paragraph.
  • Stay on topic. If you have done the research you should have for your paper, then you know that there is so much to say. You cannot discuss everything that you researched (if you researched well). Say what you need to say to make your argument the best it can be for the limitations of the assignment and move to the next point you are going to argue. Think of it this way: If your professor told you about everything that they had researched on a topic, they would likely never get past the introductory issues within a course.
  • Prove everything that you say. If you make a claim you have to prove it.
  • Research to interact with ideas, not to find great quotes. Research is done to help you think through an issue, not to find nice sounding quotes. As you research, you should be in conversation with the sources that you are reading.
  • Always introduce quotes and explain them in your paper. Are you arguing against the quote? Is the quote helping you prove your point? Don’t let quotes make your argument for you. Instead, you need to advance the argument and let the quote support you.
  • Use the best sources in your research. I can usually tell the quality of a student’s understanding of a topic by the sources that are used within the paper. If you wanted to prove a point, you wouldn’t rely on poor proof would you?

There is more to say on this topic, but if you can do these things when you write, your professor will be thankful and your writing will be stronger.

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Daniel Diffey

Daniel Diffey, PhD

Associate Professor of Old Testament, Grand Canyon Theological Seminary

Dr. Diffey serves as Associate Professor of Old Testament within the College of Theology at GCU. He has his BA in History, completed an MDiv in Christian Ministry, and earned a PhD in Old Testament before becoming a professor. His interests are in the area of Old Testament and biblical theology. He is married to Anne and has three children.

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