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On Writing a Paper Prospectus

Spring 2010
Harvard University

A paper prospectus has three functions: 1) to get you started thinking about your paper early on; 2)
to give you the chance to organize your ideas; and 3) to motivate you to articulate your ideas in a
coherent and formal fashion on the page.

A good way to organize a prospectus is like this:
1. In the first paragraph, you should introduce the topic to your reader and then present your thesis
statement (it can just be a working thesis at this point);
2. In the second paragraph, you should briefly outline the significance of your project, explain what
you hope to find, and list four or five of the central inquiries of your paper. The central inquiries of
your project are different from your thesis statement. Your thesis statement is the claim that you
are making and that you will prove; the central inquiries are the main questions that led you to
develop this project in the first place. They are questions that you will address tangentially in your
paper or that underpin the project itself. You can also think of this part as situating your project or
contextualizing it.
3. In the third paragraph, you will briefly introduce the main primary and secondary sources that
you will draw from in the project and explain why they are important. It helps to cluster books or
articles together here, as you will not have a lot of space. This part may feel a little uncomfortable
to write as you may not have read all of the documents that you are including as sources. This is
okay; you just have to have skimmed them or read some of them to be able to determine if they will
be useful to you.
The whole prospectus should be not longer than one-page. You may single or double-space your
work as you need, but should present it in a single page.
On the back side of the same page, you should include a preliminary bibliography of your primary
(those of which you will perform close readings, i.e.) and secondary (often theoretical or critical
works) sources.

To Keep In Mind
A prospectus is essentially a work of fiction. You are prospecting, much like those who once
panned for gold. The goal here is to be able to conceive of, organize, articulate, and present a
viable project. Your project has to be feasible in scope and rational in argument. Your
presentation of it should be concise, clear, and easily accessible to your audience.
This is a strange genre to write, to be sure. So it may feel a uncomfortable at first. But you will find
the prospectus very helpful when you begin to actually write your paper. It will serve as an
overview, a ballast, and tangible proof that you have a realizable idea in mind.

Good luck!