Franklin & Marshall College Franklin & Marshall College

I See What You're Driving At.

In which academic papers are compared to business plans, with automotive metaphors. Fun!

by Douglas Hill '14

Imagine a nice, new car, something upscale. I will think of a Porsche 911 Turbo. Red. Mmmm. You may think of a Cooper, or a Navigator, or whatever rocks your van. Park it on the screen of your mind. We will call this a business plan. Businesses write them.

Keep watching. Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, wearing white overalls, enter frame from left. They pull out the rear seats. Then the sound system. Then the odometer, the interior lights, the center console, and anything operated with a button. If you imagined leather, they take that. Finally, they spray the outside a flat primer black, dust off their hands, nod smugly, and leave. They have produced the undergraduate academic paper.

Why are the two antithetical? Start here: the paper argues some more or less interesting bit of truth, and fancy stuff just gets in the way of that. The business plan, on the other hand, ask you for lots of money. It needs your attention, and it knows that in any group of people, at any moment, 10% are either anticipating or remembering lunch. The rest are thinking about sex. We can all use a little help paying attention, even those of us not yet on Ritalin. The business plan empathizes with our human limits, and to wake us up it dares to use

Subheads in a slightly larger, bolded font

In order to organize things, as did the center console those guys ripped from your fantasy car. The occasional illustration:

  • nash

A 1925 Nash - with a caption!

Informality is key. E.g., italics, because some things are just more important. And bold, for key words. Yes, a good business plan leans over and says: “Dude! Drive? Spin the wheels?”

Not so the nicely formal college paper, which lets you bring your own coffee. Better, please have it at home. With dry toast. Nothing may be bolded or italicized, except titles and, if you’re very lucky, a foreign word. No graphics, or the captions they engender. Contractions aren’t permitted. And rhetorical questions? Fuggedaboutit.

Oh, right: no short paragraphs, either.  

A little more why.

Let’s go automotive again. It’s July Fourth, and down the parade route comes a clutch of antique (45+ years, like me) cars, driven by people of 65+ years (not like me). Cars like the lovely Nash up above. Gauzy head scarves and flat caps and such. What these rolling metaphors—the cars, not the oldsters—don’t have is all that stuff Stan and Ollie crowbarred out: odometers, leather, et al. What they do have is miles and miles of good old-fashioned credibility. Oh, yes. Why, if Henry and Rose were to pull their Nash over and give you their thoughts on “Mechanical Reproduction and Gender Gradients in the Early Critical Work of Virginia Woolf” (Lateforlunch 937), well, you’d darn well listen.

Just so the academic paper. It can look archaic—closer to a typescript than most other documents in our world. It requires the writer to use language with minimal typographical or graphic. If it’s a good argument, true and expressed well, then it’s playing in the stream of scholarly discourse that goes back a goodly way. And a quiet, orderly document demeanor is appropriate for this venerable conversation. As with Rose and Henry.

The business plan also needs perceived credibility. In fact, a generation ago they looked a lot like academic papers. But lately there’s an inverse correlation between the formality of the plan and the respect (read: money) it receives. If you haven’t had a big win yet, you won’t get the money no matter how fancy your plan is. On the other hand, if you’ve already made three sets of investors at three companies rich, you can afford to be cool and casual. The investors will look for you. The CEO wearing jeans at an investment conference does not put business plans on paper; hers are scrawled on white boards.

Then there’s the b-plan’s need to find an audience. Venture capitalists attract business plans the way a red Porsche 911 Turbo attracts slightly overweight middle-aged writers. They’re buried. The plan has to grab ‘em and keep ‘em, or they’ll just think about lunch, or sex. In which case, forget the two million. So Ralph W. Emerson is out, and Hunter S. Thompson is in. Whatever it takes.

Not so the college paper. It has a guaranteed audience, of one. He or she has to read quite a few of them. A lot, actually. To make this reasonable, and so that the professor can focus on the student’s ideas and writing, the paper must be standardized in form. So no timelines, or cute little informational brushstroke drawings,

  • and definitely no bullet points. 
  • doug hill