How to Write a MUN Study Guide
The study guides are where delegates get their first exposure to information about the committee and topic they will be discussing. If done right, it gives both information which is not easily accessible, and also clear guidance as to how to interpret the topic and prepare for the conference. However, not every study guide is of the same quality, or use, to the delegates. Some guides have no numbers or minimal data, while others are written in a vague and generalized manner. Those guides do not help, and will often confuse, the delegates that they were meant to inform. The following guide will explain how to write a good study guide and the rational behind it.
Before you start writing
Choose a Debatable Topic
Get the Name Right
Avoid the Obvious
Where to Find Information
The 5 Rules of Study Guide Writing
The Structure of a Study Guide
Introductions (the 3 I’s)
History of the topic
Past action (by the UN or other authoritative body)
Possible considerations for the future
Conclusion / Summary
Block positions (optional)
Questions a resolution must answer (optional)
Optional reading (optional)
Bibliography / References
The Study Guide Test
Before you start writing
Choose a Debatable Topic
A good simulation = Topics with multiple positions
When writing a study guide, the first rule is to distinguish between an idea that would be interesting to read about and an idea that will facilitate a good discussion and make a good Model UN simulation. A good discussion can only occur if it revolves around an issue with more than one side. The sides are distinguished by opposing principle views, or a disagreement as to what practical outcome will be best suited to solve the issue, or issues, presented by the topic. When writing the study guide for each topic, one should ensure that the issue at hand has at least one major “clash,” where different countries are likely to take opposing sides to distinguish themselves and properly represent their countries.
For example, most countries have a clear yes or no stand when discussing the invasion of another country. The clash between the two sides would generally revolve around the principle state sovereignty versus the moral issues that may necessitate foreign intervention in that given situation. Once the two, or more, sides have been established, chairs should compile a tentative country list for the committee. Try to ensure that all of the sides of the case will have roughly equal support in the guide but also leave room for flexibility to maneuver their positions and allow for some reasonable creative interpretation.
Example(Of a way to present a given topic):
Topic: The Destabilizing Effect of Foreign Military Bases in Sovereign States.
One discussion that can develop can be whether countries benefit from the existence of these bases. for example, in the case of the American bases in South East Asia. Japan does benefit, and would thus be in favor of the existence of foreign military bases. China does not, and would thus be against the existence of said bases.
- Based on this clash, the delegates could then ask the following questions:
- How do my country benefit from these bases?
- Am I a host, neighbor or party interested in housing such bases?
- Why do such bases exist? Are the reasons they were initially created still relevant?
- Should bases be removed, reformed and/or increased?
This breakdown shows that there is what to discuss on either side of the clash, and there are many possible clashes to find, and thus directions for the discussion to take. When you write a guide, the history chapters and examples should focus more on the option of removing or expanding bases, and the benefits of such actions, and less on a theoretical discussion about the concept of borders in the modern world.
Get the Name Right
A good study guide will often set the tone already in the name of the topic. A good topic name is usually enough to allow a delegate to begin his or her research, before even looking at the rest of the study guide. For this reason it is important to avoid vague or general titles, no matter how impressive the list of terms stuffed into the title are. If you have trouble, writing the topic title name in the form of a statement or desired action can prove very helpful.“Prevention of an arms race in outer space” or “Improving the situation in Mali” give clear directions of what they mean to discuss. “Social development, including questions relating to the world social situation and to youth, ageing, disabled persons and the family” or “Strengthening the intergovernmental cooperation and the role civil of society” (both real topics) might sound impressive to some people but leave delegate confused and wondering where to start. When it comes to naming, clarity is key and the shorter the better.
Word from the masters:
A common practice at certain MUN’s is for the secretariat to choose the topics for website publication and promotion with the chairs writing them later. When I joined to chair the FAO I got the topic “Fostering food security and poverty alleviation through sustainable development”. I asked the secretariat what if I could change it and they said no. I asked if they knew what it meant and they said they had no idea. I asked what type of debate they wanted and they said “go nuts”. In the end, feeling that this topic was open to many interpretations, many of which was not really debatable, I wrote the following opening to the topic.
In a world where technology can take men to the moon, view the collision of atoms and bend the rules of nature, it is horrific that sometimes the only thing that prevents man from sustainable development is man himself.
Today the world has seeds engineered to grow crops could contribute to recurring food returns. Is it fair that courtiers such as Ethiopia, Lesotho and South Sudan that their ability to improve crop yields is limited by lawsuits from companies with budgets larger than that of certain countries? The GDP of Tuvalu is 600 million USD while the annual revenue of Monsanto in 2013 was 14.861 billion USD. In such a reality, where entities such as international patent law can limit farming ability, it is clear that the road to sustainable development is not only blocked by corporate red tape, and not just obstacle such as limited funds, knowledge of sustainability techniques or a lack of framing tools. The FAO will need to come up with creative solutions to try and help the countries and farmers in need to overcome this significant limitation to sustainable development. This in turn would allow for an improvement of food security and help alleviate poverty in the short term, as well as the long term.
It is true that I took A LOT of creative license to make the name something I felt debatable. It is also true that it was quite a leap from the topic name to the debatable topic I created. Still, the secretariat loved it and it made for an excellent debate. Had I been able to rename the topic something like “Overcoming corporate control over seed patents” it would have been more clear from the start. However, given what we had to work with it worked out pretty well.
Avoid the Obvious
The golden rule for, and goal of, a study guide is to bring value to the delegate. This means that the guide should not only frame the debate but also bring data that the delegates would not be able to find in their first half hour on google.
The purpose of the study guide is then to give additional framing, facts and support to facilitate the discussion. To bring the aforementioned value, the study guide needs to provide information that is not easily found in the form of facts, numbers and hard data. Generalizations are not only found on Wikipedia but in many delegates basic knowledge base (especially for experienced ones) after they see the topic. The rule of thumb is follow the 15 Minute Google Rule.
The 15 Minute Google Rule – If a delegate cannot find the information within fifteen minutes of search engine jumping, it should be in the guide.
The delegates research does not end with the guide, it start there. For that to happen, the delegates need a strong base, which comes from a well researched and unique guide. Also, when delegates see a strong guide they usually research better and put more effort into their position papers and speeches. Avoid the obvious and everyone will thank you.
Where to find information
The first place to look for information for your study guide is to go back to whatever article, or source, inspired it. After that, assuming you do not have much background, using search engines, or Wikipedia, usually helps to get a basic idea. What many Model UNers do not realize is that the resources we use to research before we write a study guide are similar to the ones we use to research as delegates. The full list of the resources we recommend can be found here. Once you have compiled the information, write it out according to the guidelines provided in the following chapters
Conferences have different guidelines for the study guides which should be provided by the secretariat. The instructions should explain the formatting, and often times the secretariat will send a template to fill out.
Example of Formatting Instructions.
The XampleMUN 2018 study guide should be written in Times New Roman font, size twelve. The paper itself should be 1.5-spaced. It should not exceed 20 pages overall between the two topics. The paper should be structured as follows:
The guide should begin with a welcome letter from the chairs, followed by an introduction. Next should come one to two pages of relevant committee history and mandate, followed by information about the study guide topic itself. The main section of the guide (read: each topic) should be six to ten pages. The guide should end with a few guiding questions and a bibliography. What is in between should be written in a manner that you feel makes the guide more effective and works to enhance the goal of the paper that we have described here.
The 5 Do’s of Study Guide Writing
Tailor to the level to the room : For beginner rooms it might be necessary to give more basic information, or a more specific explanation of what to do with the information. In a higher the level committee, the guide can use more nuance and require more specific, and qualitative, examples.
Embrace Numbers and Examples : Use facts, numbers, names and hard data as much as possible. Generalizations and truisms can written by anyone with little to no research. The key is to give information that teaches something new. However, do not just throw facts on the page but explain, and give context, when needed.
Keep is Short and Simple: Try to be as concise as you can without reducing quality. A helpful way to do this is to plan around the length required by the secretariat. If they ask for less pages, make sure what is most important will fit into the space given.
Be Balanced: Remember countries on all sides of the spectrum will be reading the guide. Try and give supporting information equally to all sides and avoid showing bias or favoritism to a side you prefer. (More on this in the Block Positions section)
Don’t Be Stingy With Subsections: Structure and organization is key to a good study guide. If your paragraphs seem to melt together, use relevant headlines and subsections. They will make the guide easier to write, organize and read and are the difference between clarity and chaos.
Structure of a Study Guide
The following sections are usually present in study guides, but not always. When we write (optional) it means this section is not uniformly required at every conference. Also, the length of each section varies from conference to conference. The secretariat should provide you with the guidelines. If still unsure about something consult the respective secretariat.
- Introduction of chair
- Introduction of committee
- Introduction of topic
- History of the topic
- The Current Situation
- Past Actions (by the UN or other relevant body)
- (Possible considerations for) The Future (optional)
- Block positions (optional)
- Conclusion / Summary
- Guiding Questions (optional)
- Optional Reading (optional)
- Bibliography / References
The three “I”s of study guide writing. Introducing yourself, your committee and your topic.
There is no fixed rule for how to introduce yourself. Usually your name, country of origin and what you are doing in life is sufficient for the delegates to know their Chairman / chairwoman, Co-chair, Vice chair or Director. You can also include a personal message, quote you like,or your expectations from the committee.
Introduce your committee
This is the first trap where chairs need to avoid the obvious. While it is easy to simply regurgitate the history of the committee since it was founded in the 1950’s or 60’s, and the other what, where, why, and who (not World Health Organization), what is most important to the delegates is what it is currently doing and the specific rules and abilities it has. Usually from half a page to a page, but can be longer, a committee introduction that gives a clear mandate and powers of the committee is worth its weight in gold.
Introduce your topic
The introduction of the topic should highlights and mean ideas and frame the rest of the guide. This is the only section where the value you bring is not necessarily data but rather clarity. Ideally, the introduction of the topic paragraph, together with the title, should give the delegates a clear understanding of what is expected of them.
History of the topic
When writing the history of the topic focus on what is relevant. If your are discussing farming in deprived communities you do not need to discuss Assyrian or Egyptian farming techniques. If the topic is making NATO relevant to today’s world, do not write about the challenges NATO faces in the 1950’s. If the topic is empowerment of women, do not dedicate an entire page to the hardships women faced before the first World War. You can use a few lines to give context but more than that is not necessary to the challenges of present day. Sometimes the old stories may make interesting reading but are often not relevant to the discussion you want to have. Also, most of the material which can seem interesting, and is not essential, fails the 15 Minute Google Rule.
The history of the topic should have:
- The causes of the problem or issue
- Relevant points in the continuation of the issue until modern times
Start with a few lines about the cause of the issue at hand. There can be a few causes. Next, write whatever highlights you feel should be included to give context. The key in the history section is to lay the foundation for the next chapter by defining important terms and explaining concepts. Keep this section short and to the point and you will have delegates who are both happy and informed.
The Current Situation
Possibly the most important section of the study guide, the Current Information section should cover all important contemporary data on the subject. This is also a very important chapter to include sub sections and appropriate headers. This chapter can begin last week, last month or whenever the natural disaster / political summit / border dispute / drought / other happened. This is a section to fill with numbers, dates, facts and figures. Make sure, as best you can, to bring data that is useful for the many the different sides of the debate.
Elaborate on the pros and cons of the status quo. Make sure that the different challenges that come from the situation are clear. At the end of this section, the delegate should be ready to start researching information relevant to their country’s position and the case they will start constructing. For this reason, if you feel you still did not properly frame the discussion for at least two potential blocks, this is the section to do it.
Past Actions (by the UN or other relevant body)
This chapter is quite self explanatory. Compose a list of the most important actions taken by the body you are simulating. Often, there are relevant and important actions taken by other bodies, which should be included as well. In this chapter, you generally want to look for the most important resolutions and the most recent. This is especially important when they are not the same.
This chapter follows up on the precedents and the limitations of the organ you are simulating, which you wrote about when you described the committee in the introductions section. Make sure the Past Actions you bring are relevant examples. If their connection to the topic is not clear, explain them. Throwing numbers of resolutions or citing paragraphs often has the reader skipping the chapter instead of trying to understand what they see as hieroglyphics.
(Possible considerations for) The Future (Optional)
Some study guides also have a “The Future” section. This usually has open questions about what could happen if certain actions happen, or do not. This section can also be part of the Conclusion section, which summarizes the main points. However, if it is it’s own section of the guide, it can be used to discuss possible futures and what steps will bring them about or avoid them. Also, you can use the same framing as before to show what type of debate you, as a chair, would like to see.
Block Positions (optional)
Words from the masters:
I am personally not a fan of the Block Positions section of a study guide, as it tells delegates what to say. It also mostly focuses on a few prominent countries, like the US, Russia and China, while leaving the other 98% of countries to figure out a position they have enough trouble finding as it is. A study guide should work to help countries like Vanuatu and Belize feel included, not tell the countries who can be most easily googled the policies that they, and everyone else, probably already know.
Many conferences do not require Block Positions. The reasons for this are, but not limited to:
- Conference feel that delegates should do their own research
- They do not want to force positions on delegates
- Some countries do not have clear positions and the ‘bloc positions’ section often ends up being the ‘United States’, ‘Europe’, ‘Russia and China’ and ‘Africa’
When required to write a Block Positions / Country Positions, your goal is to do two things:
- Leave countries with room to maneuver
- Make sure all countries are given guidance
It may seem complex to (1) give a country direction, while also (2) give them room to maneuver and interpret and (3) not tell them what to say and (4) include everyone but it is actually quite simple. The way to do this is to avoid writing the position of any specific country. A good way to create the advised blocks is according to regions, such as Western Europe, North Africa, Central America or South East Asia. Another option is to divide the countries along interest or cultural lines, such as Samuel Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations.
Once you have the regions defined, each of the paragraphs about the different blocks should have:
- A list of the bloc interests
- Justification for the blocs interest (Especially important for non geographical blocks*)
- Policies pursued by the bloc (when possible)
It is within these paragraphs about each block that you can help countries differentiate between themselves. This is done by writing country specific examples within them. These examples can show countries the differences between them and also nudge them in the directions you want them to pursue. Country specific information is especially important for non geographical blocks. However, even in such cases, make sure to give information, in general terms, to the countries you aren’t using as examples.
Like with any essay, this is the place to review your main points and re-ask the questions that you want to have kick off the independent research section. Whether a few lines, or three paragraphs, this section should be written with the intention of giving more general guidelines to help focus the delegates who just finished reading all of the information in the previous chapters.
One thing to be aware of, is the need to write in the conclusion everything we felt was missing in previous chapters. This happens often, as things we find important suddenly occur to us and don’t seem to fit anywhere else. In such cases be flexible. You have many previous sections that provide information, some of which have multiple ways to be written, such as the The Future section. Don’t be afraid of reordering or adding a new subsection and leave the conclusions for the general summary.
To add a bit of flare and style, many chairs often use the last line or two as an open question, though provoking comment or inspirational line. As the study guide is an extension of yourself it is encouraged to finish if off with your own personal touch. Who knows, you two personal lines might be what your delegates need to turn “impossible” into “I’m possible!”
Guiding Questions, or Questions a Resolution Must Answer, are there to make sure that the delegates researched the right points, help guide their country specific research and kickstart their thinking about ideas for their policies and clauses. To that effect, this section may seem easy but often does the opposite of guiding delegates. This happens when the questions asked are very general and don’t challenge a delegate who read the entire guide and now has a deeper understanding. One reason is that some chairs write this section before they write the rest of the guide. There is no order that one must write a guide, so drafting some questions is fine as long as this section is revisited at the end to make sure that the answers to the questions asked actually achieve their desired result.
Guiding Questions should be used to get the delegate to look for specific information and encourage creative thinking. The key is, as the writer, to know what type of information you want to delegate to look for and write the questions to would get them to look for this type of answer. Understanding what would happen without a resolution / if the UN takes no action is a good first step. Questions about the hard data, or about the resolutions in the Past Actions section (which requires the delegate to read the actual document) is a good second step. Questions about detailed policy ideas to solve the issues are also very important to include in this section.
Optional Reading (optional)
Given how much reading the delegates are already doing, choosing relevant optional reading is very important for everyone’s sanity. Some chairs believe that no delegate will read any of the optional reading. This is incorrect, and while some don’t read the optional sections, some delegates read the guide backwards and forwards with a microscope. You want your optional reading to not only be relevant but interesting enough for the minimalists and the uninterested to consider reading.
Words from the masters:
I wrote a brilliant simulation with a surprise twist, zombies! I had a chemical factory explode in Azerbaijan with a quarantined area that no one came out from and a plan to make a plot twist zombie outbreak towards the end. I didn’t want this to be too obvious so I left clues in the optional reading section, expecting some of the delegates to not read it. The surprise was on me cause in the end no one read any of them. The final link even gave instructions on how to kill zombies (the optional reading list was a list of url’s) and no one saw it. My own brilliant plan to keep it hidden as an Easter egg in optional reading backfired and no one prepared for zombies when it happened because because everyone missed what I needed them to see for it to work.
Tips for optional reading:
Don’t put required reading in optional reading – Optional reading, for a delegate, is more work. Also, the reason the reading is optional is because if it was more important it would be have been part of the guide. Optional reading should be something to provides depth but not leave any delegate who does not read it at a loss during the simulation.
Give beginnings and endings – Keep the optional reading from going on too long. For example, don’t recommend a book but rather a specific chapter. If it’s one long article, write which page to start and end at. If it’s a video, follow the same guidelines.
Keep the list short – If a delegate sees 13 books they will skip that section completely. Keep it two or three and they are more likely to read it.
Use Catchy Titles – Posting an exact title can be as much of a turn off as a long article list. Also, your rephrasing may also help the delegates understand what they are supposed to get out of that section. Not all original names are bad but when they are modify them.
It is great that we want every delegate to read everything and put in at least 6 additional hours of research as well. More likely than not they will skim the guide and read what looking interesting or important. If you want the optional reading to be read, make it compelling to increase.
Bibliography / References
This part should be self explanatory. Just as with a university essay, a proper references section is needed to support that you did not make up the material in your guide. They can be in footnotes or a list at the end. Unless the secretariat requires a certain format, your bibliography can be APA, MLA or freestyle. What is important is that they are collected somewhere and written in an orderly fashion. As this part of the guide does not involve any Model United Nations strategy, try to keep it orderly and ask your secretariat if you have any questions or clarifications.
The study guide test
Once your guide is in close to completion it is time to see if it avoided the obvious and can set up a multi sided debate. To test your study guide, scan the contents you just finished writing and imagine it being debated in a room. See that there are at least two sides for the countries to take. Imagine at least two different, and possibly contradicting policies / calls to action that could plausibly get a majority.
If all the delegates flow towards just one policy, without much debate, this means that the issue is presented in a non debatable / off clash manner. There will be no discussion on a topic where everyone agrees and, in such a debate, you can imagine many delegates repeating themselves and wondering why no one disagrees. Examples of this can be wondering why no one is speaking in favor of domestic violence or pro the use of nuclear weapons because the world is overpopulated.
If you see a “way out” for the delegates (Way out = a policy that can get a majority but not include everyone) you succeeded in structuring a guide provides a research base for everyone and facilitate good debate.
Topic – Dealing with the damage of the El Niño in Yemen
Policy A – Food donations from the global community
Policy B – Expedited construction of farming infrastructure
Policy C – Relocating people from the most food depleted areas
Policy D – The resources should go to Ethiopia, who were hit harder
Policy E – The UN should not be paying for natural disasters below a certain threshold
Between these policies, we see multiple points of contention which can emerge from each of these directions. This shows us that “Dealing with the damage of El Niño in Yemen” passes the study guide test as there are many, sometimes contradicting, directions the discussion can go.
Keep in mind that the delegates do not need to choose the policy you imagined during the test. Often times the delegates will go in a different direction and sometimes show creativity in ways you never expected. However, to give them the delegates and blocks a chance to reach creative solutions, the topic needs to have at least two or three sides to chosen from.
To Sum Up
A good study guide is not necessarily long, just well-focused and strategically written. Seventy pages of irrelevant history starting one hundred years in the past and ending in 2010 has no value to delegates. At the same time, a three page in depth look at the contemporary practices of independent weapons manufacturers, or pharmaceutical companies, can be enough to facilitate good debate for an entire conference.
While some experienced delegates skim through the titles, take some facts and research on their own, many delegates, especially first timers, will read the guide cover to cover. This may encourage you to plant Easter eggs in the chairs introduction, or tongue and cheek comments throughout the guide, which can make for more amusing reading. However, it should also remind you to do your best to make the information relevant and presented in a manner that can be used by the various blocks, and to avoid write long paragraphs of data-less text or clusters of open facts with no context.
It is the chair’s job to guide the delegates not only during committee but from the moment they start reading the study guide. This does not mean that the chairs should tell the delegates what to say, or to do their research for them. It simply means that the debate should be constructed to have multiple sides and set up a rich discussion with the option for multiple, and varied, outcomes. For those writing their first study guide, know that we all make mistakes and every awesome chair started somewhere. We need to remember that, as chairs, this is a learning process for us as well, and we should be patient with ourselves.
Our final tip is to not be afraid to ask for help. If you are unsure during one of your first times writing a study guide, ask for feedback throughout the process. If the secretariat, chairing, or academic staff is new, ask a senior Model UNer from your society, or even someone from another society you clicked with at a conference. Giving a second opinion to help a new chair get started is something they should be happy to do. Know that the writing will get faster with time, as will refining the process of how the topics are chosen and your study guides style develops. Keep calm and think of the quality debate that you are going to facilitate. Also, remember that you are not alone. After all, and the rest of the chairing team for the conference you are writing a guide for are going through exactly the same thing!