One thing that I've learned over the years about writing academic essays, news articles, or even blog posts, is that you don't have to live with the first draft, and in fact, you should be prepared to toss it and start over from scratch if it doesn't feel right, or your examples are drifting into side topics that detract from your main argument.
This is what happened with my first draft (version 092605, see below.) After 1400 words (about six double-spaced pages) of mostly background and a little analysis, I realized that I had gotten way ahead of myself -- the Guide to the ALM Thesis (6th edition, info and download here) lays out a structure which specifically calls for writers to state their research questions and tentative hypothesis in the first page or two. So back to the drawing board I went. This draft wasn't a total loss, though. -- I probably will copy and paste sections for this draft into the "Background of the Problem" section of future drafts.
Writing multiple drafts also gives you a chance to really think through your ideas and reasoning. This is what I learned while crafting my second draft. My study is about China's attitudes toward Vietnam, using quantitative research methods to analyze the Xinhua news agency's output on the subject over a long period of time. But is the main problem the nature of the Xinhua news agency, and how it's currently used by academics, or is it the foreign policy issues that relate to Beijing's views of Vietnam? Looking at the second draft (092805b) you will get an idea of how I initially approached this. Then, looking at the third most recent draft (100305) you will see how I changed my mind.
OK, without further ado, the first three paragraphs of the first three drafts (please note that I leave notes to myself for future follow-up in brackets):
First draft (092605)
Since the death of Mao Zedong in 1976 China has undergone a remarkable political, social, and economic transformation. The changes have not only affected China and its people; they have also had a tremendous impact on neighboring countries. And while many countries share a land border with China, only one has been the subject of large-scale military actions by the People’s Liberation Army since 1976. That country is Vietnam.
China and Vietnam have a long history involving the exchange of cultural and social influences, immigration, trade, political relations, war, and rebellion over many centuries. The fact that both modern nations share ideological and political similarities (both governments are officially Communist, while embracing capitalist reforms) has done little to improve bilateral relations since the mid-1970s. Why is this? Specifically, from China’s point of view, what can explain Beijing’s attitudes and intentions toward Vietnam over the last three decades?
Students of history and government have spent a great deal of effort attempting to answer these questions. Historians have looked at historical animosity between the two countries, as well as Vietnamese resentment over China’s longstanding dominance and influence over Indochina. As for the flare-up in bilaterial relations in the late 1970s, experts point to China’s concern over Vietnam’s treatement of ethnic Chinese living in that country. The pitched sea battle in 1988 was rooted in long-standing territorial disputes in the South China Sea. Academics with specialties in international relations theory often point to Cold War geopolitical issues— China’s and Vietnam’s relations with the U.S. and the Soviet Unions (and later, Russia), and Beijing’s concerns about superpower intentions in the region.
Often, research as been qualitative in nature, and based on the examination of the following factors [long list follows] ...
Second draft (092805b)
Since the death of Chairman Mao Zedong in 1976, reforms have transformed China’s media from drab propaganda to vibrant commercial-oriented press. However, certain aspects of China’s media environment have not changed. State-run and privately owned press organizations cannot directly attack the state, the party, or central leadership, and are supposed to follow the official line on sensitive issues such as Taiwan independence and the status of outlawed groups such as Falun Gong. Additionally, all news reports concerning China’s foreign affairs must be taken directly from a single source: The state-run New China News Agency (NCNA).
Simultaneously, China’s foreign affairs have also undergone a transformation. A policy that in the mid-1970s supported revolutionary movements around the globe and tried to carve an independent way between the United States and Soviet Union has become … [econ, trade, security]. China’s relations with countries that share a land border have shifted as well, although in the case of one country, Vietnam, relations have remained poor through much of the period.
My study proposes to use a quantitative methodology to analyze NCNA reports in oder to better understand Sino-Vietnamese relations under the leadership of DXP, who effectively controlled the Chinese government from the late 1970s to the early 1990s. I will investigate the following questions:
Which of the following issues were most important determinants of Sino-Viet relations?
A) Geopolitical factors -- China’s relations with the United States and Soviet Union, and the two superpowers’ efforts to win over Vietnam.
B) A prominent regional factor – the Kampuchean conflict
C) Bilateral disputes: Vietnam’s treatment of overseas Chinese, and conflicting territorial claims in the South China Sea
My hypothesis ....
Most recent draft (100305)
Between the death of Chairman Mao Zedong in 1976 and the early 1990s [retirement of Deng, or breakup of Soviet Union?], China’s relations with Vietnam were poor. On several occasions during this period — in 1979 along their land border, and in 1988 in the Paracel Islands — the People’s Liberation Army launched military offensives against Vietnam that altogether resulted in thousands of deaths on both sides.
The foreign policy issues most often cited for China’s hostility toward Vietnam include five geopolitical, regional, and bilateral issues. In the ebb and flow of superpower alliances and global power shifts, Beijing was extremely alarmed by Hanoi’s cozy relationship with Moscow. The Soviet Union provided extensive economic and military aid to Vietnam, which gave the Soviet military access to bases in Vietnam and a secure warm-water port a few hundred miles off the coast of South China. China was also suspicious of Vietnam’s regional ambitions in Kampuchea, where China’s Khmer Rouge allies regularly attacked — and were attacked by — Vietnamese forces. Two bilateral issues which concerned China enough to result in the military offensives cited above were Vietnam’s treatment of ethnic Chinese and conflicting territorial claims in the South China Sea.
Even when China’s military was not deployed, Beijing’s propaganda arm kept up the public pressure on Vietnam [rephrase] throughout this period. This was especially true of the English wire service reports of the New China News Agency (NCNA), which is charged with, among other things, broadcasting Beijing’s official view on foreign affairs issues. While a propaganda outlet such as NCNA’s English service could be trusted to disseminate accurate or unbiased facts of news events relating to the issues cited above, it was certainly a barometer of the attitudes of the Chinese leadership and for this reason was (and still is) monitored by diplomats, journalists, and academics all over the world for insight into Sino-Viet relations. ...
I believe this last version is the best way to proceed. Notice how I framed the starting time point (the death of Chairman Mao Zedong in 1976) in the same way in all three versions, but only in the last did I name an end point (the early 1990s). Earlier, I was considering the mid 1990s, to make it a nice round number (20 years) and also include developments following thawing of U.S.-Vietnamese relations during the Clinton administration. However, I realized that I will make my job a lot easier if I exclude the U.S. factor as a primary variable, and instead concentrate on Sino-Viet relations vis-a-vis the USSR, Kampuchea, and the two bilateral issues named in the most recent draft.
Anyway, it's almost midnight, and I need to go to bed. But stay tuned for progress reports ...