I promised a few weeks ago that I would blog about how I write a paper from start to finish. I was hoping to have screenshots of every stage of my paper writing, but obviously doing my own research, fieldwork and travelling to academic conferences to present papers (and writing those papers in haste!) didn’t allow me to do this in a much more planned manner. So here are 8 tips I use to write a research paper from start to finish.
1. Create an outline
This tip would be kind of obvious, but I am far from being the first one to suggest that writing an outline allows you to put complex ideas on paper in a sequential, articulate, cohererent form. If you’ve already started writing the paper, then Professor Rachael Cayley’s approach is the best – e.g. create a reverse outline. At any rate, you should have a skeleton of what your paper is going to look like. One way in which I do this is I break down my abstract into the sections that I need to fill out and/or the questions I need to answer to have my paper actually show my full argument. So, the outline comes directly from the paper abstract. What I have found is that often times, my outline doesn’t show the same thing that the paper does at the end of it. That’s fine. At least you answered the questions and/or filled the sections you needed to and refined your abstract and paper on the basis of these responses.
2. Write the abstract and introduction first
The one sure way in which I know I am going to make progress on a paper is writing the abstract and the introduction. Normally what I do is I expand the abstract and write the introduction from the abstract. I also make sure that I develop the structure of the paper as I write the introduction. Often times, this will change and I will have to come back and redraft this section, but at least I have a basic structure for the paper.
2. Break down the paper into separate documents.
I am someone who doesn’t react well to word counts. In fact, I loved a recent blog post by Tseen Khoo entitled “Your Word Count Means Nothing to Me“. I am disciplined about writing every day for two hours, but I don’t really like the idea of “I write 3,500 words every 1.5 hours”. Some days I write a lot, some days I write much less. And some days, I just simply can’t write (though I summarize papers and reflect on them during my #AcWri period those days to keep generating text that I might use at some point, particularly research and reading memoranda).
So what I do instead is, I break the paper down into sections for which I then create separate documents. For example, for my recent paper on environmental mobilizations against Nestlé in British Columbia and in California, I created a separate document for the story around Nestlé in British Columbia and another one for the story on Nestlé in California. To avoid getting frustrated, I just focus on writing on one of the sections at a time.
4. Begin drafting some conclusions as you complete the analysis
As I write my paper, I always make sure to include some early conclusions. For example, for my recent paper on the comparative analysis of 6 remunicipalization cases, as I completed each section and the history of each remunicipalization, I started integrating and summarizing my results in the analysis section and immediately after, I wrote a couple of sentences about the implications of my analysis for the conclusions section. By the time I finished the sixth case, I had 6 paragraphs in the conclusions section of my paper. This is particularly important as it helps me see the light at the end of the tunnel. As I was finishing the table that summarized my paper’s findings, I was able to also have a feeling of completion. By the time I had completed 3 case studies, my table looked quasi complete and I began feeling excited about finishing the paper.
5. Make sure you’ve told all the stories
As I was trying to finish my MPSA 2016 remunicipalizations paper (with a comparative table of 6 cases – Paris, Grenoble, Berlin, Atlanta, Hamilton and Buenos Aires), I got frustrated that I had assembled the paper too early for my liking and therefore I was not sure if I had completely told all the stories. For me, a story is fully told when there is at least 4-6 paragraphs that outline the overall issue and provide some analysis. That’s why at least 4-6 paragraphs would be necessary (history, the issue at hand, why is this issue relevant, what does my theoretical framework say about this particular issue) to fully outline and sketch the story. So, while I recognize that I had assembled the paper early, I used a summary table to ensure that I had already completely told all the stories. This table also helped me finish the paper because I could use the insights gained from this exercise for the analysis section and the conclusions section (see tip 4).
6. Leave text for the next day
This tip sounds counter-intuitive, but this is exactly how I finish papers: I leave myself some room to complete sections, paragraphs and sentences. For example, for my environmental mobilizations paper, I wrote the section on the history of the environmental protest against Nestlé in British Columbia, on the Tuesday, and even though I wasn’t exhausted, I decided to just start the first few sentences of the California case. This tip is particularly important to me because I write in the morning. I start at 4 or 4:30am, wake up, start a pot of coffee, and write from 4-6, 4:30-6:30 or 5-7 am, because those are the hours when I am most productive.
7. Don’t write beyond your physical limits
Recently, I finished a book chapter by inserting 3,500 words that I wrote in the first 1.5 hours of the day into a draft that had 3,400 words. So I finished an 8,000 word paper in about 2 or 3 days. Obviously this only works if you’ve already simmered and thought about the paper for a very long time. I had been spinning my wheels for the past few days when I knew that I had made no progress on this paper in the past 4.75 months. This week, I just decided that I needed sleep and I stopped trying to write (yes, I too try to push my limits and do some “spree-writing”) so I went to sleep early. I woke up on Wednesday at 5 am, and by 6:30pm, I had finished the book chapter.
The reality is that academia has this toxic culture of overworking as though it were a badge of honor. But I can’t do that anymore. I used to work 24 hours in a row, sometimes even 36. Right now I can’t push my physical limits and I will not endorse overwork. So I know for a fact that I improved my writing since I started sleeping at a decent hour and at least 6 hours a day. And that’s exactly why I never write beyond my physical limits even if I am not done with the paper and I have a deadline. I prefer to ask for an extension or simply say “No, I can’t write your book chapter/paper/article” because I will no longer push myself beyond my physical limits.
8. Assemble the paper 80%-90% into the process
When I assemble a paper too early into the process, I end up seeing all the gaps in the paper and this demoralizes me. So now what I do, is I assemble the paper about 80-90% into the process. I assemble the introduction, conclusion, body of the paper and I collect my handwritten notes of what needs to be improved and corrected. And then I go over the paper and figure out if I am missing something. That way, whenever I sit down and work on this paper again, I feel that I am about to be done.
Applying this process helped me complete 3 draft papers (2 for MPSA, 1 book chapter, and two I’m working on) in about 5 weeks, all the while travelling every week and teaching one class every week. This is not to brag, but it’s just to show that if I follow a systematic process, I can move forward even under conditions of relative duress (e.g. when I am travelling). So, every single day I was able to work on research and write for a few hours because I was working every day on a different, single component of my paper and research project. As I have often said, I follow Aunty Acid’s advice: I take life one panic attack at a time.
Posted in academia.
Tagged with academic writing, AcWri, research paper, writing.
ByRaul Pacheco-Vega–April 16, 2016
HOW TO WRITE A PAPER AT THE LAST MINUTE
Return to Clips.
Many students put a lot of effort into not doing their work. As the end of the year approaches and final assignments mount, they'll find they have to try a lot harder to not get the work done.
A week ago, tomorrow seemed a long way off, but the deadline looms: The four- or six- or eight-page paper must be turned in. But what if you've skipped a lot of classes or haven't read your textbook? What if you don't even own it yet?!
Then you're in trouble, but of course, it's not your fault. Life is hard and complicated.
At least that's what your professor will say when you get your paper back marked with a letter from the nether regions of the alphabet.
But it doesn't have to be that way. Writing final papers in a hurry is a skill just like, say, painting a fence. In fact, the two jobs have one common technique: use a lot of whitewash.
Here are five easy ways to write a good paper, at the last minute, with limited knowledge of the subject matter. You canUt be completely ignorant about your topic, but these methods may help conceal the flaws.
1.) Your point
This sounds easy, but it's actually the hardest part of the process. The teacher wants you to answer a question or defend a viewpoint in your paper.
Sometimes teachers give you a specific question, while other times you are given a general topic. Either way, the first thing you must do is think about what the teacher is asking for. Once you know that, you have a point to argue.
For example: What caused the fall of the Roman Empire? or Discuss how the fall of the Roman Empire might have occurred.
Think back on anything you might have read or heard in class on the topic, and try to plug in the missing factor that will turn that question into an answer. That's your thesis statement.
One thing to remember is that it doesn't have to be spectacular, or specific. Write about what you know. Don't try to guess "what the teacher wants," and don't be afraid to take a chance.
Keep in mind that a paper is written to defend a viewpoint. If there weren't multiple viewpoints, there would be no need for argument.
A thesis statement: The invention of the aqueduct caused the fall of the Roman Empire.
Just make sure that you can support whatever it is you're arguing. Don't start something you can't finish, and make sure you have in your first paragraph that one simple sentence explaining the point of your paper. With that, you have created a direction for your argument. Now, all you have to do is follow the path.
2.) For why or wherefore?
Don't try to sound smart. Keep your paper simple. A straightforward, easy-to-follow argument will get you an "A" every time.
Sometimes, when we're not sure what we're talking about, we try to use big words. For one, they fill up space and can inflate a three-page paper by almost half a page. But don't do it.
If length is your worry, then manipulate the type font and margins when you're finished.
When using big words to sound intelligent, the opposite often occurs. Last-minute papers turn into jumbled messes of multiple instances of "Therefore, as to whether..." and "Indeed, it is clear the fact that...." We try to mimic the rhythms of scholarly rhetoric, and end up sounding moronic.
For example: Therefore, the aqueducts of the Romans having been made of lead, the water supply for the city may well have been contaminated and caused many to go mad from lead poisoning.
That sentence fluffs up the paper, but is dull and boring. Too many words. Basic bad writing.
A better example would be: Many Romans suffered from madness brought on by lead poisoning because the city's water supply was contaminated by lead-lined aqueducts.
The latter sentence is precise. Remember, good writing is clear writing. Clear writing should include active verbs and simple subjects. Don't think your argument has to be complicated to be good.
A teacher will read a straightforward sentence as an indication that you know what youUre talking about, and, indeed, you will. The trick is pulling the right information from your mind, and stating it precisely.
Take whatever kernel of information you got from the class and narrow it down into simple statements. By doing that, you've taken the reins of your paper, and the rest is easy.
3.) Last-minute research
After scraping together an argument and writing down everything that you know can support it, you may find you've only got half a page of material.
Don't panic. Take your information and quickly look it up in the index of your textbook. Turn to those pages, and see if there is anything you missed (or never bothered to read) that might support your argument.
If there's any chance that your thesis will work, you should find something. When you do, quote it. That's the best way to stay close to what you know, fill up the pages, and still write a legitimately good paper.
Never plagiarize, but don't be afraid to use other people's arguments to support your own. Just make sure you credit them.
Remember, you have your point. Just pour through the book, finding anything that remotely relates to it. Make things work.
Again, take chances. Even if a particular passage only dimly supports your argument, use it. Just make sure that you explain how the quote relates to your point. That's called "putting it in context.". You have to set the quote up before slamming it down into your paper.
Simply explain why you think it supports your thesis, explain in simple terms what the quote says, and then quote away!
An example of a quote: According to the medical dictionary, "small doses of lead over a long period of time can cause increasing fits of psychosis."
(Then take a chance and make a connection.)
Water rushing over the lead-lined aqueducts carried just enough of the harmful element to slowly drive the entire population of Rome insane. The textbook states that the downfall of the empire began long before the aqueduct came into wide use. But the wealthy began using aqueducts long before they snaked through the city.
(Then, perhaps, another chance and another quote.)
The wealthy held all the political power in Rome, and made almost all decisions affecting the city. As the textbook states, "The ruling class of the Roman Empire was designated by their wealth."
There, you've just made a pretty good argument. Keep digging through the book, and don't be afraid to cheat a little. Remember, the bigger the quote, the longer the setup. You'll fill those pages in no time.
4.) 1-2-3 structure
Now that you've got your thesis, the rest is easy. The next thing to do is plan to write your paper in three parts.
The first is your opening paragraph. That's where you place your thesis statement (either as the first or last sentence.) The rest of the paragraph should be setup; explain your thesis. As a high-school English teacher once told me, "Say what you are going to say." That's step one.
Step two is the long part: "say it." You've got to support the claims you've made in the opening paragraph. Start each paragraph in this section with a straightforward "minithesis," and explain it (see Part 3.)
Here's a good example of a string of minithesis topics:
- The rulers of Rome were wealthy.
- The wealthy had aqueducts before the rest of the city.
- The empire began its decline before aqueducts were widespread.
- [D The fall of Rome is often attributed to poor leadership.
- The leadership was poor because the rulers were crazy with lead poisoning.
There, you've said it. Now comes the third step. "Say that you've said it." A final, wrap-up paragraph should summarize what you said in the second step. End with your thesis statement, but start it with a "therefore."
Therefore, the invention of the aqueduct caused the fall of the Roman Empire.
5.) Don't screw up
Now that you've gone through all four steps of writing a good last-minute paper, don't let stupid mistakes drop your grade.
Proofread. Make sure you cite sources. Manipulate the font and margins a little to meet the page-length requirement, but make sure you don't go too far. If you followed all these steps, you wonUt need to overdo it.
A solid argument is still a solid argument whether it's two pages or 10 pages long. The professor wants to know that you know what you're talking about.
Creating four-inch margins and overlooking obvious spelling mistakes will indicate the paper was a rush job, and may arouse suspicion. Even if there are only the tiniest holes in your argument, the teacher may go back and try to find them.
If you give yourself about five hours to go through these steps, you should come away with a pretty decent paper. Keep in mind that if you had slaved over it for weeks, you probably would get a better grade.
However, the grade you do receive may be worth the time you blew off enjoying the first warm weeks of spring, or the late nights you spent in the bar instead of in the library. Obviously, the more time you have, the better your grade.
Even if you awake and find you have only one-half hour to start and finish a paper or miss the deadline, there is still something you can do.
Go back to sleep.
Rome wasn't built in a day, but it takes a few hours to explain why it fell.