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Guide to Writing Exegetical Papers

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Students helping students.

By Matthew Patton, M.Div. 2009

The following outline distinguishes the different steps involved in writing an exegetical paper. Following it keeps you from trying to do everything all at once, and instead helps you focus on one aspect of the paper at a time. You may find that writing an exegetical paper turns out to be more fun than you expected!

Note: I try to do each step in one or two sittings to keep my momentum up. After completing each step, I let the material sit for a few days to let it percolate.

1. Study the passage yourself.

Goal: To formulate a well-informed summary of what you think the passage means, along with some crucial questions you need to answer.

In prayerful reliance on the Holy Spirit, use every way you know to seek to understand the text. Do word studies, discourse analysis and so on. In one document (your “notes” document), write down everything you observe, along with questions you have. Don’t attempt to organize these thoughts too much yet.

2. Study the secondary literature.

Goal: To get a sense of what scholars say about this passage, along with specific details that are useful for your paper.

a. In the same “notes” document, make a list of all of the secondary resources that speak to your text. Search the WTS library site, the ATLA religion database, Google Scholar and so on.  

b. Then, order these resources by what you think will be most helpful (high priority and low priority).  

c. Next look up as many of the resources as you can, starting with high priority ones.  

d. As you read through each resource, take notes in your “notes” document under the bibliographic reference for that resource. Mark the page number of each point, and take down any quotes exactly. This frees you from needing to photocopy the materials. You need only rely on your notes.  

e. Don’t attempt to figure out right now where all of this information will fit in. Just relax and try to understand the person you are reading.

f. Determine early on at what level you will read a given text. Is this something insightful that you should read deeply? Or is it a scholarly rabbit trail that you should simply skim to get the main idea and a few details?

3. Outline your paper.

Goal: To figure out what you want to say; in other words, to make clear the “big idea” you want to communicate, to develop a coherent, logical structure for your paper, and to see how your details will fit in this structure.

a. Pray and think about all that you have observed on your own and learned from the scholarship. Peruse your “notes” document and figure out what your main point will be. Write this thesis statement down.

b. Create a new document (your “outline” document). Based on your thesis, figure out what the big points of your paper’s outline will be.  

c. Go through your “notes” document. Put each useful observation or quotation under the appropriate main heading.

d. Go over your outline. Get rid of anything that is not very useful. Cutting content at this stage is much easier than cutting it after you have written it.

4. Write your paper.

Goal: To complete a rough draft of your paper, focusing on how to communicate your ideas well.

a. Create a third document (your paper). Copy in the first section from your outline. 

b. Rearrange the particular points in this first section until you know exactly what you want to say.

c. Write your paper, without caring too much about spelling, exact citation, mechanics and so on. Put all citations in place as you go along, but keep them very rough. If you can’t remember where a certain Scripture passage is, put a “TO DO” message in your footnote and move on. The goal is to keep your momentum up.

d. Repeat this process for each section in your outline until you are finished.

5. Revise your paper.

Goal: To make sure both that your paper clearly says what you intend to say and that it adheres the standards of style.

a. Check your paper for overall coherence, order of ideas, and logical development.

b. Re-read your paper, fixing all stylistic issues as well as mistakes in grammar, punctuation, citation, spelling and formatting.

c. Ask someone to read your paper and tell you if your ideas are clearly expressed. 

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