Study Hacks Blog Posts on Tips: Paper Writing

How to Build a Paper Research Wiki

May 11th, 2009 · 42 comments

Beyond DatabasesWiki thumbnail

Back in the early days of Study Hacks, I introduced the paper research database. The idea was to build a database of every quote you might need to cite in your paper. These citations could be sorted by date or type, and be linked to their matching source. The technique works because it helps you build and organize a comprehensive understanding of an event or idea before you start writing about it.

I should be clear: I love this technique. I used it to write two massive art history research papers while here at MIT. Recently, however, when I began the research process for my new book, I found myself drawn to a new strategy: the paper research wiki.

In this post I want to explain this approach, which has the potential to significantly improve the complexity and confidence of your written arguments.

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The Shadow Course: A Simple Technique to Produce Extraordinary Work

May 4th, 2009 · 11 comments

Better AutopilotsThinking by water

As longtime Study Hacks readers know, I’m a big promoter of the autopilot schedule. In case you’re new, let me briefly review: The autopilot schedule is a set of fixed times and locations for finishing your regular work each week. For example, you might decide to always tackle your history reading assignments Monday morning, from 9 am to 11 am, in the study carrels found on the 6th floor stacks of the main library.

The shadow course, described below, is a simple optimization to the autopilot schedule that can generate huge benefits.

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4 Weeks to a 4.0: Create Project Folders

April 20th, 2009 · 11 comments

4 Weeks to a 4.0 is a four-part series to help you transform into an efficient student. Each Monday between 3/30 and 4/20 I’ll post a new weekly assignment to aid your transformation.

Welcome to Week 4Time to Change

This is the fourth and final post in our four-part series 4 Weeks to a 4.0.  Let’s do our review. In week one you gained some control over your schedule. In week two you mastered taking notes in class. And in week three you streamlined your assignments. In other words, we’ve covered all regularly occurring academic work. This leaves us only to tackle the big infrequent stuff. I’m talking about studying for exams and writing papers.

Week 4 Assignment: Create Project Folders

Your assignment for this week to adopt the project folder method, which I describe below. This simple method streamlines the process of studying for exams and writing major papers. I used it throughout my time at Dartmouth, and swear by its effectiveness. You can also see aspects of it in action in our ongoing finals diaries series.

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How to Quickly Capture Quotes from Electronic Sources

February 10th, 2009 · 12 comments

Electronic Quote Bible 2

Electronic Flatness

A reader recently wrote me with an improvement to my flat outline method for research paper writing. The original method asked you to build an ordered list of the topics you want to address in your paper, and then start typing in quotes from your personal copies of the research sources directly into the outline, putting each quote under the relevant topic. By the time you start writing your paper, this flat outline contains all the information you need — allowing you to focus on writing without having to rummage through a pile of sources.

This reader noted, however, that for some papers, she had to read lots of electronic sources, usually in PDF format. It seemed like a waste to print each of these and then manually type the quotes she needed into her flat outline. So she innovated a new approach.

It works as follows:
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Monday Master Class: The Paperback Writer Method

September 8th, 2008 · 9 comments

The Writing LifeThe Paperback Writer

As most first-time authors will admit, writing a book can be daunting. The scale is so massive that it cannot be thought of as a single task; it’s not something that could be completed in one big gnarly push. At first, this induces panic. But as the process continues, the author falls into a more comfortable job-like routine. Day after day, he returns to the manuscript — a little editing here, a little research there — and soon loses touch with the big, scary, massive concept known as “writing a book.”

Months pass.

Then one day, a deadline arrives, and the author steps back to see the results of his longterm efforts; something that looks, strangely enough, quite a bit like a real book. There is no hard finish point. He could keep tweaking or editing or polishing ad infinitum, and he probably secretly wants to. But the deadline seems as good a place as any to stop, and the current draft gets sent off.

This probably sounds nothing like the frenzied last minute pushes that define your own stressful student paper writing adventures, which is exactly why I’m telling you about it. For, you see, this post presents a simple yet outlandish idea: You should consider writing your student papers like authors write massive books.

As always, allow me to explain…

The Paperback Writer Method

To write a student paper like a book means the following:

  1. Start work on the paper immediately.
  2. Make progress in small batches: 1 – 2 hours at a time, on at least 2 – 3 days out of each week.
  3. Finish a full draft of the paper well before the deadline. (It’s okay if these are really terrible, you’ll knock it into shape over time.)
  4. Keep tweaking and editing and polishing, in little batches, until the deadline arrives.
  5. Spend a lot of this time not just writing, but also thinking — thinking hard about what you’re saying, why you’re saying it, and what would be better to say instead.

I started following this method in the spring of my senior year. Not surprisingly, this was the first semester after I finished writing my first (paperback) book. It changed my student life.

Let’s explore why…

Living the Paperback Writer Lifestyle

Here’s the thing about this method: it requires more hours than doing the work in one long push right before the deadline. I admit this. But at the same time this work is a lot less painful. Like the professional author, it’s not about the big scary capital-P “Paper.” It is, instead, about little daily pushes.

The biggest advantage, of course, is that the papers it produces are significantly better than those written the day before. If you use the paperback writer method — and take it seriously, especially the part about putting aside time to think — you’ll score an ‘A’ on every single paper.

The alert reader might wonder how this method fits with my existing paper advice; e.g., flat outlines and the three-pass editing method. Think of these strategies as weapons in the arsenal of the paperback writer practitioner. As you work in small batches over a long period of time, you can use, for example, a flat outline to organize your thoughts and the three editing types of the three-pass method to keep sections tamed.

A Simple Experiment

I know this method is asking a lot, and it might not fit with all types of student personalities. But if something about this pain-free approach resonates, let me invite you to try a simple experiment. Take one paper — a small one — and apply this method. Go from assignment to submission without ever working more than an hour or two at at time. Hand in a manuscript that you thought about and tweaked and polished for weeks. Experience the reaction you get from the professor.

If you get this far, I have a suspicion that, like me, you’ll never look at paper writing the same way again.

(Photo by jefield)

Monday Master Class: How Two Extra Hours Can Make Your Paper Two Times Better

May 5th, 2008 · 11 comments

The Small Paper ShuffleTower Room

When faced with an essay or small paper, most students follow a similar pattern. You glance over the relevant readings, crack your knuckles, sigh loudly, check your Facebook feed once more, just in case some vital change in a friend’s relationship status requires immediate, intense attention, then, with great resignation, start writing. You type a little. You add a quote that makes sense. You glance at that little page count number in the lower left corner. You type a little more. Eventually you hit your magic page count. A couple quick editing passes and you’re done!

The Problem With Writing-Centric Papers

I call this approach writing-centric: it centers all the relevant activities around the core activity of writing. Here’s the problem: it produces mediocre papers of the type that drive professors, over time, to a slow, but ever darkening despair regarding the state of American youth.

For short papers and essays it would be inefficient to completely revamp your style. In this post, however, I describe a simple tweak to your process — requiring 1 – 2 extra hours — that will significantly increase the quality of your paper (and your experience with the writing process.) It will also make your professor’s day.

The Idea Vacation

Let’s rewind our story of typical student writing. You’ve just finished glancing over the relevant readings — we assume, because these are essays and small papers, that you’re responding to class reading, not conducting significant research. You turn to your keyboard, ready to dive in…but wait! Not yet! Step away from the computer…

Instead: take your readings and go for a walk. Wander campus asking yourself questions such as:

  • “What do I really think about these topics?”
  • “What did this writer really mean?”
  • “What are different things she could have believed instead, and why did she choose this particular angle? “
  • “What would I have said?”
  • “What do I really think about this? Why?”

Allow the first, obvious thoughts — the type that fuel writing-centric papers — to come and go. Then push deeper. Keeping asking hard questions. Dig out a tiny gem of thesis that fits your personal take on the material. It doesn’t have to be brilliant. But it should be both: honest and nuanced; something you actually believe. This might take a while. Let it. Enjoy being outside and spending time with your mind. (This is a good step to combine with an adventure studying expedition.)

Once you think you have something, settle down in the most inspiring possible room in your college’s library system. Bonus points for plush chairs, old wooden book cases, and, of course, tarnished old oil painting portraits old solemn looking white men. (See, for example, the Dartmouth Tower Room image at the top of this post; courtesy of Susan Simon.)

Settle in and go back through the relevant readings. Start fleshing out some of the details. Take some notes. Maybe sketch out a simple topic-level outline.

When you finish, you should be at a point where you can give a convincing little speech about your idea. Indeed, in a perfect world, you would take your idea vacation right before office hours, so that you could immediately pitch your idea to your professor.

Time Alone With Your Mind

One of the biggest surprises about the experience of the modern liberal arts student is how little time they actually spend just alone with their thoughts, sifting through, in a complicated inner monologue, what they believe and why. Essays and small papers offer you this opportunity. Most students ignore it and instead just blaze ahead blindly in their comfortable, “I hate papers!” writing-centric approach.

I’m suggesting that you try something new. Take a 1 – 2 hour idea vacation before your fingers hit the keyboard. Not only will you produce the type of paper that can pull a professor out of his low-grade despair, it actually has the possibility of making paper writing something that, if not anticipated, is, at least, no longer dreaded.

A Study Hacks Mini-Crash Course in Paper Writing

If you’re relatively new to Study Hacks and the style of paper writing I preach here and in my book How to Become a Straight-A Student, here’s a collection of past paper-writing posts that will help bring you up to speed:

Monday Master Class: How to Transform Your Professer Into Your Paper Writing Partner

March 31st, 2008 · 8 comments

One is the Loneliest…Partner

Working on college assignments is a lonely affair. It’s just you, a big pile of ambiguously defined work, and that lovely little voice in your head, trying, with all of its devilish might, to navigate you down some of the worst possible work paths — “No,” it yells, “it would be ridiculous to start so early, you have, literally, hours before this assignment is due…let’s go drink.” The result: last minute frenzies; all-nighters; angry conversations with your parents about how they don’t understand the difficulty of your schedule. The usual.

Team Professor

Here is a simple strategy to add some accountability into this process (at least, the process as it applies to writing major papers): Meet with your professor every other week during her officer hours, starting with the week the paper is assigned. Use this time to discuss your paper in progress and refine your efforts going forward.

Worry not. You’re not disrupting the professor: office hours are mandated by the school and this time is open for exactly this purpose — students wanting to discuss issues relevant to class. Indeed, many professors are glad to have any student actually show up.

The question, of course, is what to talk about. Let’s start with the bad…

What Not to Discuss

A few ground rules:

  1. Don’t ask a professor to read a draft. The writing is your job. If you need help, visit your campus composition center.
  2. Don’t list your woes. For some reason, and I haven’t quite figured this out yet, many students ask for help by trying to convince the other person that they are beyond help. Avoid this. Don’t run down your sad sap list about how hard it is for you to make progress on the paper. (“I looked everywhere, and can’t find a single mention of this person…”)
  3. Don’t ask “what’s next” questions. These meetings can be used to discuss specific issues or ideas. Don’t just say, “I don’t know what to do,” and hope the professor will start making decisions for you.

What You Should Discuss

With these prohibitions out of the way, we can turn toward to good. So what do you discuss in these meetings? In general, follow this structure:

  1. Summarize the work you’ve done so far. What sources have you looked at? How did you find them?
  2. Discuss the content, not the assignment. Forget the paper for a second. What interested you in the research you’ve done so far? What surprised you? What was a waste of time? Discuss the current version of the story you are putting together for the paper.
  3. Outline your options for moving forward over the next two weeks. Where do you want to be in two weeks? What’s your plan for getting there?
  4. Ask for advice. Now that the professor understands where you stand intellectually and logistically, she can offer some guidance. She might, for example, challenge you on your story, pushing you in places to develop more nuance. She might also point you toward some sources that you did not know about. Finally, she might have some tips for accomplishing your two week goal. Take it all in…

Make it Happen

Finish what you said you would. When you show up in two weeks, you should have completed what you discussed in the last office hours and have a new set of insights and goals to review.

The benefits of this process are two-fold. One, you’re making regular progress, early on in the assignment. Two, your efforts are being tweaked and shaped by the most useful possible source: your professor. This ensures that not only is your paper going to get accomplished without crazed, all-night frenzies, but that, also, you’re on your way toward producing a sophisticated piece of writing.

In short: Less pain. Better grade.