Nov 17, 2020
How to Write a Position Paper?

How do you write a position paper and what makes it different from any other essay or research project? Essentially, when tasked with writing a position paper the objective is to pick a side of an often contentious debate, and then present a case. This can be done using different forms of evidence and source materials. In this guide, we will explain the nuances of a position paper, outline its three core parts and describe how to tie these together into a whole piece. We will also discuss how to select topics for a position paper, the importance of preliminary research, and how to challenge differing perspectives on the topic whilst collecting evidence to support your claims.

What Is a Position Paper?

Position papers are often used in government and what industry? However, the most popular  type of position paper you may be familiar with is a simple letter to the editor. These texts, depending on the status of the newspaper, may come from laypeople or those with significant professional interest and can act as another form of feedback on reporting which has already taken place.

In academic circles, position papers are a step-down from double-blind peer-reviewed articles, the specific role of which is to provide an avenue for discovery on topics considered novel, emerging, or ubiquitous at any given time.

Governance, whether political or corporate, has many uses for position papers. For example, political bodies such as the Model United Nations and the European Union use position papers to create channels of discussion, debate, and to maintain a record of opinion on current affairs for posterity and policy-making.

You may be familiar with the terms ‘green paper’ and ‘white paper’. The distinction between them lies in that position papers will in general not extend to laying down concrete perspectives or explicit solutions. White papers tend to have more complexity and weight, green papers are a colloquial British version of a white paper.

In short, a position paper is a way for organisations, individuals and other entities to express initial opinions on evolving subjects or news.

What Are The 3 Parts of a Position Paper?

Introduction

The introduction to the topic requires providing basic background information. First, sketch the large picture. This should be done in a way which builds up to your thesis sentence and which sets out the position you are going to argue. Do not broach the main point of the opposition view just yet.

Body

The body of the paper is for unpacking and expanding the topic and your position. Providing further background information to that given in the introduction should come first. Use facts, statistics and quotations to frame the issue and its significance to the reader.

Then re-state your position, and this time use evidence and source materials to back up your assertions. When it comes to evidence, you do not have to produce your own through experiments, although instances could easily arise if you were, say, a company involved in the production of medicines. Thus, a position paper may also act as a preliminary way to share data currently not in the public realm.

Issues are very rarely clear cut into black and white. Even if the opposition side is deplorable, your desire to eviscerate alternative and opposing perspectives must be expressed by refuting the central and underlying points of the arguments. However, emotion and affect are tools which are more welcome in a position paper than a peer-reviewed article or government white-paper. There is scope and time here to write in a way which appeals to emotion.

Once the counter-argument has been refuted, make sure to check your reply is consistent with the argument you proposed originally. Position papers can, if at a certain length, come down to repeating, with different words and structures, and the key point of your belief. This is always done in response to opposing arguments. Otherwise, it will come across as a press release.

Conclusion

When concluding a position paper, you must end strongly. Restate key points which you feel are most pertinent and persuasive. If it is applicable, desirable or possible, you could also propose how you would resolve the issue. If you are used to writing more in-depth essays or articles, the positioning of this may feel more suited to the body of the text. However, a position paper is just the beginning in most cases, the details and the larger bodies of evidence can come in further papers or projects.

How to Write a Position Paper?

A position paper does not require large amounts of in-depth research or experimentation. This is due to the ‘position’ aspect of the format. Positions can change. That said, it is essential when composing a position paper to have a good understanding of the bigger picture, while the details can wait for further resources to be thrashed out.

For those working in academia or governance, the subject choice is likely to be defined by your pre-existing commitment. Although we do see entities producing position papers on tangential subjects from time to time. This tends to happen when significant events enter the public realm which apply broadly, or even universally. We can consider the climate crisis, the Black Lives Matter movement or the coronavirus crisis as recent examples of topics in this vein. These events and stories have revealed that companies and entities – who are un-related in their primary purpose to social justice or public health – make statements on their position. This tends to happen in proportion to the aforementioned severity and universality of the subject in question.

Select a Position Paper Topic

Choosing the right topic for a position paper requires thought and decision. If writing in a ‘mock’ sense for an educational assignment it will be a good challenge to try and take the opposite side of the argument to which you are naturally inclined. Doing so has the strong potential to make your own, more firmly held belief, stronger and more robust as you take pains to understand the epistemological and ontological basis for the opposite side. You may find ‘opposite’ becomes a less fitting word for those you disagree with, and common ground might emerge.

However, there is also the possibility you are incredibly well-informed, researched, and read on a topic you feel strongly about. Some subjects you may feel are personally too much of a stretch to take a position on. In this case, it is important not to dismiss alternative positions to yours without performing due diligence on your material.

In terms of defining the issue, one must make sure that the issue is indeed real and substantive. If there is intense controversy and ambiguity around the correct way forward, this is also a good marker for scouting position paper topics. Without the to-and-fro, a position paper would merely act as a report of the facts. In an ideal position paper, the facts are perhaps subject to interpretation, and outcomes remain unknown to a certain extent.

 

Conduct a preliminary research effort

When it comes to preliminary research, a position paper example on topics you’re interested in can be a useful source. Other banks of opinions can be found collected together in newspaper letter sections – this is a good way to find companies or institutions who may have their own authoritative position but lack a central and widespread platform to be heard from. There are likely to be many different perspectives collected in these sections, which makes it important for conducting opposition research.

 

Challenge Your Topic and Collect Supporting Evidence

In order to effectively defend and assert your argument, you must be able to address the criticism it comes under. As suggested elsewhere in this guide, newspaper letters sections provide fertile ground to discover opposing and differing positions.

Scouring the internet can be useful when collecting evidence; however, it is important to retain a level of quality when choosing arguments to deconstruct and evidence to support your claims.

Look for reliable sources such as governmental websites, use Google Scholar, academia.edu, and arxiv.org to find quality evidence as well as good-sense Googling.

When it comes to challenging your position, there are two schools of thought. Depending on the context of your audience, you will have to decide which is more effective. On one hand, you could choose one or two of the most important challenges by carefully examining the underpinnings of the logic and simply asserting how there is a deficiency. There is some debate as to whether this approach is more or less emotionally evocative than the next method, which is to go for quantity and list the many glaring errors in your opponent’s position.

Whilst going for broke on all aspects of your opposition is tempting, it is harder to back up when using figures and statistics. It can be done though, and when done well is a way to show broad understanding, rather than a targeted approach which may only negate one or two points.

It is worth bearing in mind this list style may be more persuasive in certain contexts, and for certain audiences. Those with pre-existing knowledge might find it easier to slot your evidence into their conceptions. Whereas newcomers might find your viewpoint and organisation more precise if you only discuss a couple of points.

Do not worry over this, there is always time to produce several position papers on different aspects of the issue – which is one method of building a larger project out of smaller pieces.

 

Position Paper Outline

When writing any form of essay, it is best to first sketch out a plan or outline. You may have intuitive and pre-existing knowledge you wish to factor in. Write these down so you can remember it for further research.

Once a sketch has been made and ideas have been put onto paper, you should refer back to our ‘3 Parts of a Position Paper’ subheading – it explains the position paper format in more detail.

It can be tempting to skip outlining papers of all kinds. The outline, however, requires effort on your part to assign your initial thoughts into a structure. Try and rank each argument by strength, work non-linearly to produce mind-maps and find links between arguments and assertions on both or all sides.

In refuting arguments, it is far better to present the problem seriously and treat it with objectiveness and fairness. If you attempt to ad hominem your way to success, it could come across as lacking in preparation.

Tips on Writing a Position Paper from Our Experts

Hopefully, this article has provided a sense of the context, structure, and usefulness of position papers. Position paper sample websites are easy to find on the internet If searching for ideas on where to start researching, try formulaically searching for “Your Topics” + “debate” on your preferred search engine. You could also check out YouTube for videos of debates and presentations, which often come across as verbally performed position papers.

Another fantastic source which we can’t re-iterate enough for collating a wide range of perspectives is the letters to the editor sections in newspapers. These pages are often published by topic, with a narrative thread running through the content.

Some key takeaways  to remember are:

  1. Writing a solid position paper requires a broad understanding of a topic and the finest details. Definite solutions do not have to be forthcoming in the text. Focus instead on the assumptions underpinning your argument, and those on the opposing side. For instance, a contentious aspect of the climate crisis debate could be the ‘cleanliness’ of nuclear energy as opposed to renewable sources.
  2. Sketching position paper outlines will save you time in the long run as you have a plan to work form
  3. Be sure to cite all sources consistently and correctly; regardless of what citation style you use, stick to it.

Remember: a position paper is a way for you to express an opinion on a subject of prominence and importance. It does require evidence to back up and refute claims, but it does not require original experimental work or novel solutions. Stating your case and laying down a firm marker are the core objectives.