Study Hacks Blog Posts on Tips: Paper Writing

Monday Master Class: You’re Not Smarter Than a 5th Grader (When it Comes to Starting Your Paper Research)

March 3rd, 2008 · 4 comments

Humble BeginningsScaffolding

The last paper I wrote was a research paper for an art history seminar. When I began the process, I had a suitably erudite topic in mind. I was going to examine a particular piece of installation art and make some interesting connections to information theory; the standard fare of big complicated ideas that form the backbone of these types of papers.

But here’s the thing: I didn’t start my researching looking at these big complicated ideas. Instead, I went back to the basics.

Way back…

The Return of the 5th Grade Research Paper

My first step was to find a handful of basic books about the artists in questions: one was written by their son (it was a husband wife team), and the other two were exhibition catalogs. I then used these high level sources to reconstruct the basics of their life story. Piece by piece — asking the simple questions:

  • Where did they get started?
  • What were there first works?
  • What were their jobs?
  • Where did they live?

I captured all of this information in a carefully dated time line (captured in a table titled “basic chronology” in my paper research database.)

This should sound familar. The technique I used here was exactly how I was taught to research in the 5th grade. You find the big, basic overview sources and carefully write down the facts.

As we move through college we accumulate a disdain for such 5th grade simplicity. Good papers deal with complicated ideas. Facts are boring. Intricate arguments in obscure journal articles and cleverly titled monographs are where to find the real action!

So why did I bother with the remedial time line?

The Importance of the Fact Scaffolding

There was a time when I did not build these basic information time lines — which I now call fact scaffolding. This technique is actually one I learned later in my undergraduate career, as I began to research how straight-A humanities majors consistently churned out top papers.

My early papers suffer due to this omission. They suffer for two reasons:

  1. Lack of Confidence: No matter how complicated your argument, if you’re hazy on the basic facts structuring the events, or people, or ideas in question, it shows. You begin taking exaggerated side-steps around the potholes of your knowledge. On the other hand, when you know, in detail, the storyline on which your argument is located, this understanding shines through. Read a good non-fiction book. Notice the ease with which the author makes asides or little comments (e.g., “interestingly, he had heard similar arguments back in his undergraduate years at Oxford under…”) that give you confidence that he knows what the hell he is talking about.
  2. Undirected Research: Research is hard when you don’t know the world in which you’re searching for your ideas. My early papers miss and misuse all sorts of sources because I was diving in head first without first taking the time to see where I was. Once you know the story, you know both where to look and what you are finding.

Building a Fact Scaffolding

There is no magic method here. Instead, just a simple rule: before you begin your paper research, build a high-level understanding of the people, events, and ideas that are relevant to your topic. And here’s a crucial addendum: Date everything carefully! There’s nothing worst than getting halfway through your paper and not knowing which event happened first or the order in which ideas were first presented — these small bits of information can have a huge impact on your argument!

A few thoughts to help you get started:

  1. Grab Beginners Books: You’ll grapple with the hard stuff later. Right now, you’re in 5th grader mode. Find a textbook or suitably easy introduction to the topic. In the beginning: the more simple, the better.
  2. You Can Use Wikipedia: I’ve written before about avoiding Wikipedia as a cited source. Here, however, is one place where it is really useful: getting a quick, very high-level overview on the topics you will later be researching in more detail. It’s especially useful for pinning down quick bios on people.
  3. Don’t Forget Ideas: Fact scaffoldings are not just about people and events. They also can include ideas. What are all of the schools of thought relevant to the one you’re studying in detail? Summarize each. At a real high-level: how are they different? Who promoted each? What are their relevant time lines?

In Summary

The idea is simple. Put aside a few days at the beginning of your paper writing process to master all of the fact-based information surrounding your topic. Only then should you dive into the deep research on your big ideas. The confidence and insight of this strong foundation will support a powerful paper.

Monday Master Class: How to Edit Your Paper in Three Passes or Less

January 14th, 2008 · 11 comments

“Editing your paper is important, and this shouldn’t come as a suprise…At the same time, however, you don’t want to overedit. Many students fixate on these fixes, and end up devoting hours to reviewing draft after draft.”
Step 8: Fix, Don’t Fixate,
from How to Become a Straight-A Student

The Editing BalancePencil

Paper editing is a tricky task. It has to be done well. Nothing scuttles a paper faster than obvious mistakes or sloppy construction. You must, however, be careful. Too many editing passes can bloat the paper-writing process. In Straight-A, I present a simple three-pass system that finds this balance between effective and efficient. It casts a critical eye on your structure — and your mechanics — without unduly burdening your schedule.

The Argument Adjustment Pass

The first pass of the three-pass system focuses on your arguments. You’ll fix low-level mistakes later, so don’t worry about those for now. The pass works as follows:

Read your paper on your computer screen. As you proceed paragraph by paragraph, ask yourself the following questions:

  1. Is the argument I’m making here compelling? If not, cut the paragraphs. Be ruthless. At least 10 – 20% of this initial draft is probably bloat: the result of trying on arguments for size and worrying about reaching the page limit. This is your chance to atone for your sin of lexographic abundance.
  2. Is this the right place for this argument? If not, move the paragraphs elsewhere. Often, when you first encounter the full flow of the paper, some rearrangement makes sense. Be ready to shuffle to maximize impact.

When this pass is complete, your paper should consist soley of important, compelling arguments, presented in the most effective order. Some significant cutting and shifting probably took place. If it didn’t, you’re probably not doing the process justice.

The Out Loud Pass

Now that your arguments have been whipped into shape, it’s time to ensure that the paper reads like the erudite scholarly effort you want it to be. When you see students obessively reviewing their paper again and again, this is typically the goal they are trying to achieve. Here will explain how to accomplish this in just a single pass through the paper. How is this possible? The key is using your voice…

The out loud pass works as follows: Print out a copy of your paper. Lock yourself in your room. Begin reading your paper out loud, with careful articulation. As you move through the work, sentence by sentence, keep your ears tuned for the following:

  1. Clumsy sentences. Is the wording awkward when you read it?
  2. Bad transitions. Does the movement from one line of reasoning to another seem abrupt or strained?
  3. Mistakes. Is a word spelled wrong? A word missing? A grammer mistake?
  4. Lack of clarity. Is a sentence labored? Is there a simpler way of saying what you are trying to say? Can it be cut all together?

Every time you notice one of these red flags, make a mark on your print out and then keep going. After you finish a major section (e.g., around one or two pages), stop, return to the document on your computer, and fix all the places you marked. Rewind and re-read, out loud, each of these fixes to make sure that the new version reads smoothly. Then continue.

The key to this phase is to ensure that every word gets read out loud in its final fixed form. Something about the act of articulation can root out those subtle mistakes and awkard complexity in a way that reading silently — even dozens of times — will fail to do.

The Sanity Pass

The final pass allows you to answer the key question as you finish up the paper-writing process: “Am I insane, or have I put together a damn good paper?” The goal of this final pass is to experience your work in one uninterrupted flow. To savor your arguments. To experience the work in the same way your professor will.

Print out a copy, settle into a comfortable chair, and read through the entire paper. If you stumble across the occasional stubborn mistake, just make a quick mark and keep moving. Enjoy your efforts. After this pass is complete, return to your document and make any small edits you encountered. You’re now ready to hand in a stand out work.

Timing the Three Phases

The key to the three-pass editing process is to seperate the out loud pass from the other two. The out loud pass takes time. It takes energy. If you do it right after the argument adjustment pass you’ll be too fatigued and sick of your writing to accomplish the out loud portion correctly.

With this in mind, quarantine the out loud pass to its own day. The sanity pass can be done close to the deadline. Indeed, some students do it the morning of the due date to get excited about the paper before handing it in. So the out loud pass can occur as soon as the day before a deadline, with the argument adjustment pass happening two days before. Just be sure to keep the out loud portion isolated from the others and the whole process will transpire with a minimum of pain.

Monday Master Class: The Most Important Paper Research Advice You’ve Never Heard

December 17th, 2007 · 2 comments

The Dark Art of Paper ResearchPaper Writing

You’ve likely figured out how to write a decent research paper. You know how to navigate the library catalog and search through online journal databases. You’ve learned the correct way to cite sources, and are comfortable sprinkling authoritative-soundings footnotes throughout your text.

But what if you want more than a decent paper? What if you want to write the best damn paper your professor has ever graded?

What Top Students Do Differently

In this post I describe five strategies I’ve observed straight-A students use to consistently produce standout papers. The advice is simple, but most students never hear it. Put these tactics into practice and your assignments will reach a new level.

  1. Learn the most possible information about the smallest possible topic. Strong, authoritative writing is born from expertise. The more you know about a topic the more forcefully you can form an argument. Take advantage of this fact. Find the most narrow possible topic to write your paper on. Then: read every single source that has ever been written on that topic. (If your topic is suitably narrow, the number of sources will be reasonably small.) The resulting paper will seem remarkably more confident than what most students produce.
  2. Talk to the reference librarian. Every college has a reference librarian on staff to help students find information in the library system. I’m amazed by how often this resource is overlooked. Ask the librarian for research help and she will guide you to some amazing sources you would have never found on your own. These extra discoveries make the difference between an average paper and one that shines. As an added bonus, this exercise also shaves hours from your research time.
  3. Start from existing conjectures. A cool thesis will excite your professor and push your paper to a new level. A simple strategy to side-step boring questions is to stop making them up from scratch (what do you know!?) Instead, search recent journal articles for open questions or conjectures about the general topic that interests you. Set out to answer the question or confirm the conjecture. A kick-ass paper will follow. (For example, in an art history class I took as an undergraduate, I came across an article that mentioned, in passing, that two artists with no known direct connection had developed remarkably similar styles. I set out to find out some reasons why — it turns out they had mutual friends — and ended up with one of the strongest papers of my student career.)
  4. Construct a fact timeline. Before writing a single word, you need to understand what happened and when. If you don’t have an unshakable grasp of exactly when everything happened, this clumsiness will poke through in you paper. Your first research step should be to consult basic sources (text books, general overviews) and write out a detailed timeline of all events relevant to your topic. Only once you understand the basics can you confidently deploy the advanced nuances that will structure your argument.
  5. Talk to real people. Students often fail to look beyond what they can find on a library computer. The best sources, however, are often found in the real world. If there is a person out there somewhere who knows something interesting about your topic, contact them! Explain you’re a student, and conducting research, and you’ll be surprised how often they are willing to chat (on phone or e-mail.) The resulting interview material adds dynamism to your paper, and catapults it past the dry citations of your peers. (For example, for a paper I wrote last fall for an Art History seminar, I ended up chatting with the curator of the Bell Labs archives, who helped me reconstruct the circumstances under which a certain event, that figured prominently in my paper, might have occurred.)

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Monday Master Class: How to Use a Flat Outline to Write Outstanding Papers, Fast

November 5th, 2007 · 36 comments

The Outline OrthodoxyPaper Writing

For decades, students have been held captive by a rigid paper outline orthodoxy. It is first ingrained in elementary school and then reinforced, year after year, until college graduation. Visit the web site for your school’s academic skills department and you’ll find some variation on the following advice:

The basic format for an outline should use an alternating series of numbers and letters, indented accordingly, to indicate levels of importance.

This leads to examples such as:

  1. Rothko Chapel in Houston
    1. Architecture
      1. Letter to Philip Johnson proposing idea
      2. The three concepts suggested in first conversation

…and so on.

Here’s the rub: this format is nonsense! It’s way too confining. It’s impossible to figure out every detail of your argument before you sit down, look at your sources, and actually try to write. Most students abandon their hierarchical outline soon after their fingers hit the keyboard. Those that stick with it end up producing dry, forced-sounding arguments.

I want to show you a better way…

Introducing the Topic

Forget hierarchies. Your outline should capture the topics you want to discuss in your paper. A topic is more general than a specific fact or observation, but less general that a multi-argument discussion. For example:

  • “Letter to Philip Johnson suggesting chapel idea” is too specific to be a topic.
  • “The conception and construction of the Rothko chapel” is too general to be a topic.
  • “Rothko’s Courting of Philip Johnson” is a perfect topic.

Topics are what you’ll capture with our outlining process. You do so as follows…

Step 1: The Topic Skeleton

During the story crafting stage of the paper writing process (discussed in detail here), you’ll start determining, based on the sources you’ve discovered so far, what topics you want to cover in your paper. Start recording these in a word processor document.

As you work on your argument, you will begin to order these topics into the order that you want them to appear in your paper. Once this ordering is complete, you have constructed a topic skeleton. It describes, at a rough granularity, what you want to talk about and in what order.

Step 2: Fill In Research Gaps

Once you’re happy with your topic skeleton, consult the sources you discovered during your research process. Make sure you have solid sources for each of the topics in your topic skeleton. If you discover a topic that is lacking in information, go back to the library to find more information to fill in this gap. (Remember, make personal copies of your sources for easier handling.)

Step 3: Dump the Quotes

Here is where our process really challenges the outline orthodoxy. Stick with me here. This works…

In the document containing your topic skeleton: start typing, under each topic, all of the quotes from your sources that you think are relevant. Label each quote with the source it came from.

We call the final document a topic-level outline. Unlike the compact, hierarchical outlines promoted by the orthodoxy, a topic-level outline is huge (close the size of your finished paper), and flat in structure (no reason to use 18 different levels of indentations here.)

Step 4: Transform, Don’t Create

When you write your paper, don’t start from a blank document. Instead, make a copy of your topic-level outline and transform it into the finished paper. For each topic, begin writing, right under the topic header, grabbing the quotes you need as you move along. Remember, these quotes are right below you in the document and are immediately accessible.

Over time, each topic gets transformed from a collection of quotes into solid writing using those quotes. During this writing process, there is no need to ever leave this one document. This approach allows you too:

  1. Write much more efficiently, without the delay of consulting sources.
  2. Craft better arguments, because the raw material is already in front of you, reducing your task to simply to employing it in your rhetorical assault, no seeking it out.
  3. Avoid the pain of facing a blank screen. The writing task is now one of transformation, not creation, which is much easier to tackle.

In Summary

To summarize the advice in this post:

  1. Don’t build a hierarchical outline. Instead, list the topics you want to tackle in the order you want to tackle.
  2. Revisit the library to find sources for the topics that still need support.
  3. Dump all relevant quotes from your sources under the topics.
  4. Transform your topic-level outline into your paper. Don’t start from a blank screen.

This process is different from what most students are used to. But it works. It is optimized for exactly the steps needed to write an outstanding paper. If you face a lot of writing assignments in your classes give this approach a try. You’ll never look back…

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Monday Master Class: How to Schedule Your Writing Like a Professional Writer

October 15th, 2007 · 95 comments

[UPDATE: 2/18/08] Welcome new readers! If this is your first time here, Study Hacks is a blog that focuses on hacks to help you do better at college (and in life) while spending less time. If you like this article, you might also like related productivity posts on: accomplishing more by doing less, using a productivity-free day, implementing a Sunday ritual, and calculating your churn rate. If you like what you see, consider subscribing to the blog’s RSS feed.

The Pain of Writing

Students hate paper writing. It’s not the writing itself that’s horrible, but instead, being forced to write when you don’t want to. Is there any worse feeling than staring at a half-completed term paper at 2 AM?

The solution is simple. Schedule your writing better. But the specifics can be tricky. What’s the best way to schedule writing? Clear out a full day? Do it a little bit at a time? Work at night once you’ve finished all of your other work? I could give you some answers that sound right, but (for now) forget about me. Let’s see what the pros have to say…

How Professional Writers Write

Professional writers spend most days of their adult lives writing. For those among them who specialize on long form non-fiction, their writing is not that different from the types of research papers that plague college students. Assuming that these writers do not want to spend most of the days of their adult lives hating what they are doing, it stands to reason that, over time, they have figured the least painful possible way to schedule a large amount of writing.

With this in mind, I dug up interviews with the following masters of long form non-fiction:

  • Ted Conover
  • Richard Ben Cramer,
  • Jonathan Harr
  • Jon Krakauer
  • Michael Lewis
  • Susan Orlean
  • Richard Preston
  • Eric Schlosser
  • Gay Talese
  • Calvin Trillin.

I went through each interview extracting any discussions about the writer’s habits. I’ve aggregated and analyzed this data to provide you with a snapshot of how professional writers schedule their writing. At the end of this post I will discuss how to apply these observations to your own student writing assignments. Notice this advice is applicable beyond just students. Anyone who has to regularly churn out writing — be it a blogger or a part-time freelancer — can benefit from the habits of the pros.

When During the Day Do Professional Writers Write?

Nine out of ten writers discussed when during the day they write. All nine worked in the morning. Four also worked during the afternoon. Three worked during night. Only one worked in all three times. Several writers described the afternoon as a mental dead time useful only for exercising and, maybe, editing.

When During the Day Do Writers Write

At What Time Do Professional Writers Start Writing?

Five out of the ten writers provided a specific start time. The latest was 8:30 am. Four other writers who didn’t give a specific time said, in so many words, “in the morning.” No writer described starting their work in the afternoon or evening. Several did mention that they might also be efficient working very late at night (and sleeping through the day), but that this seems incompatible with being a productive member of society.

When Do Writers Start Writing

Where Do Professional Writers Write?

Six out of the ten writers answered this question. All six described a silent, isolated location, free of distractions. Specifically, they provided the following answers:

  • Office in the garage with no window
  • An old tenant farmer’s house
  • A 9×9 cubicle in the basement
  • A small redwood cabin, 100 yards from the main house
  • A bare office
  • A home office with no phone or Internet

It should be noted, however, that the magazine writers among our sample admitted to being able to write in almost any environment — a trait learned from crashing deadlines on the road. Jon Krakauer also mentioned that his dream was to write in the morning in an isolated cabin, and then spend the afternoon’s climbing. He is yet to realize this dream.


The most striking observations from this study:

  1. The writers work in the morning. They often start very early in the morning.
  2. Five out of ten of the writers described a little ritual before starting their morning writing. A surprising number of these rituals focused on The New York Times.
  3. The writers drink coffee. Lots of coffee.
  4. The writers write in isolation. If they didn’t have families they would push this even farther. Many discussed having no e-mail or phone in their workspace. One purposefully used a “shitty old laptop” to avoid temptations like solitaire. Gay Talese rigged his home office so it could only be entered through a separate outside door.

How to Apply this Advice

If you are a student — or an amateur writer or blogger — here are some simple rules for emulating the habits of the professionals:

  1. Spread out work on an assignment over several days. Coming at it fresh increases its quality.
  2. During these days, get up early. Probably earlier than you are used to. Say, around 7 or 8 am. (This means these days will be weekdays, probably early in the week so you can avoid temptations to party the night before).
  3. Have a mini-ritual to jump start the day. It should probably involve coffee. Breakfast. Maybe the morning paper. Don’t take too long.
  4. Go to the most isolated place possible.
  5. To get your mind ready to think, review the last pages you wrote.
  6. Work for two or three hours. Then stop.
  7. Follow this habit regularly. Don’t write during other times. Don’t write in public places. Don’t start writing the day before.

Interestingly, without knowing it, I stumbled across many of these same scheduling habits during the fall of my senior year at Dartmouth. At the time, I was balancing my normal student responsibilities with the writing of the manuscript for my first book. The method I used: I got at 8 AM, every weekday morning, brewed a cup of coffee and wrote for 1.5 hours at my desk — all without leaving my room. After I was done, my real day could begin. It worked beautifully.

What writing habits work for you? What habits do you need to abandon?

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Monday Master Class: How to Build a Paper Research Database

October 1st, 2007 · 51 comments

Author Taylor Branch

How a Pulitzer Prize Winner Writes

A few years back, I watched a CSPAN2 interview that changed the way I write major papers. The program was Booknotes, and the guest was Pulitzer Prize winner, Taylor Branch. What I like about Booknotes is that they sometimes venture into the author’s office to get a feel for how he or she actually tackles the grimy business of research.

Branch did not disappoint. To research his three-volume biography of Martin Luther King Jr., he made use of a massive Microsoft Access database. In one table, he had a row for every source he read. The row contained all of the relevant bibliographic information and was labeled with a unique source identifier number.

In another table, he entered every quote from these sources that he thought provided insight. These might include, for example, a few lines from a letter he found in the Martin Luther King Jr. archives, or a provocative conclusion made in one of the myriad existing biographies. Each quote got its own row in the table. The whole text of the quote was entered, along with the date it was made on (or referred to), and, most important, the source identification number that links the quote to the relevant source in the source table. (This is called a relational database because the different tables connect on specific columns. Click here for a tutorial.)

When Branch finished his research, he had over 18,000 quotes and hundreds of sources. When it came time to write, he sorted his quote table by date. This allowed him to move chronologically through Dr. King’s life. During important periods, Branch sometimes found that he had dozens of insider quotes for each day!

The key here is that the writing process had been simplified. It was just Branch and his database. As he moved through the important periods of Dr. King’s life, he could efficiently and comprehensively consult every last relevant piece of information about that period, and then, with this background solidly in mind, begin to weave together his own, highly informed version of the story.

From a Pulitzer Prize Winning Book to Your Term Paper

This is how you win a Pulitzer Prize. Imagine, then, what this technique would do for an undergraduate research paper or your senior honors thesis. In this article, I’m going to teach you how to build a simplified Branch-style Paper Research Database using Microsoft Excel. I’ll tell you how to format it, populate it, and use it to structure your writing. Throughout, I will use the case study of an Art History research paper I wrote last spring to illustrate the process.

When to Use a Paper Research Database

A paper research database is an advanced tactic. For small papers, it’s too time consuming. You are better off with the standard advice from the Straight-A method.

If, on the other hand, the assignment is a major research paper, then this technique becomes relevant. You can identify these papers because, typically, they are assigned in upper level courses, they are the only paper you have to write in the class, and they are worth a significant portion of your grade. This technique is also well-suited for senior honors theses.

In general, if you expect to work more than two weeks, and read more than 3-6 sources, consider this approach.

Step 1: Construct a Source Table

Most students don’t have Microsoft Access. But they do have Excel. So that’s what we will use.

The first step is to create a table for the sources you consult. Create a new workbook for the project. On the first worksheet label the following columns:

Source Index for Quote Database

  • ID :: A unique number you use to label each source.
  • Year :: The year the source was published.
  • Type :: The type of source; e.g., book, journal article, interview.
  • Citation :: If possible, add the full citation for the source in the style required for your paper. This will save time down the line when you’re writing the paper as you won’t have waste an afternoon formatting citations.

The screen shot included here is of my source table from an Art History research paper I wrote last spring about the husband and wife artist/designer team, Charles and Ray Eames.

Step 2: Quote Tables

Taylor Branch had one giant table for all of his quotes. This is fine. I found it more useful, however, to have one worksheet in Excel for each major type of information I needed to look up during my research. For example, in my paper on the Eames, I had a worksheet for quotes about a particular installation piece I was focusing on. I had another worksheet for quotes on chronology of the Eames involvement with the film world (which was relevant to the paper). Etc.

You should label each quote worksheet with the following columns:

  • Source ID :: This is the number that describes what source, listed in your source table, this quote comes from.Header of Quote Database Page
  • Date :: What date does this quote refer to, or, depending on the information, what date was it made on.
  • Pages :: The pages where the quote was found.
  • Type :: It’s helpful to describe what type of quote it is. Does it clarify chronology? Is it a primary source? Is it a secondary source doing an interpretation? As you’ll notice in the screen shot to the right, I introduced a numeric coding system for the relevant types.
  • Quote :: The information itself.

The screen shot included in this section shows the headers used in one of the quote worksheets from my Eames paper.

Step 3: The Research Process

The research process begins with the construction of a source queue. This is a list of sources you need to review for your paper. At first, this list will be small. Maybe a few obvious books and articles that popped up from a simple search.

The process proceeds as follows:

  1. Pop a source off your queue. Add the relevant row to your source table. Quotes Page from Quotes Database
  2. Begin processing the source. As you read through the relevant sections, mark quotes that seems important. After each section, go back and enter these quotes into the relevant quote worksheet.
  3. As you read, you will probably come across new sources that seem like they will be relevant. Add these to your source queue.
  4. Repeat until the source queue empties.

The screen shot to the right shows the population of one of my quote worksheets during my research process. At first, this process can be frustrating. Your source queue will grow faster than you can process its elements. But, eventually, you’ll stop encountering sources you haven’t seen before and the queue will, slowly, drain to empty. At this point you’ll have gained comprehensive coverage of the field.

This is time consuming! So start early. This work is best accomplished in little 1-2 hour chunks spread over multiple weeks. I know it’s a pain. But it’s a prerequisite for writing an outstanding research paper.

Step 4: Writing

When you write, it’s just you, your word processor, and your paper research database. The big advantage this tool gives you is a comprehensive understanding of all the relevant issues. You’ll be astonished by how this legwork will change the feel of your writing process. You’ll approach the page with confidence — which is a novel sensation for most non-professional writers. This confidence allows you to write strong, declarative sentences. It removes that sense of straining to connect paragraphs and eat up space that plagues undergrad papers and disappoints professors. And it allows you to make well-reasoned, original arguments.

In Conclusion

This is how real non-fictions writers work. If you follow their lead, you can produce writing that will blow away your professors. For research papers that matter, give this advanced tactic some serious consideration.

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Beyond Wikipedia: 15,731,298 References You Can’t Do Without

September 17th, 2007 · 9 comments

Gideon over at recently posted a great article titled Beyond Wikipedia: 20 Online Resources You Can’t Do Without. It listed 20 useful online information sites to help people move beyond just Wikipedia when searching for a crucial factiod. As usual for Gideon, terrific stuff. Well-researched. Immediately useful…

This brings up, however, an important question regarding student study habits: what role should web sites play in the writing of a college-level paper. The answer — and I think this is important for new students to hear — should be: basically none. A serious college-level paper should not cite any source that begins with “http”. There are, of course, obvious exceptions. Some contemporary primary sources, for example, exist only online. But the general rule is important.

Beyond Wikipedia for Serious Paper Research

Where should your paper information come from? The library. Specifically, books and scholarly articles. These have survived the rigors of editing and peer review, and they follow conventions of sourcing and citation that ensure that the information contained within is substantiated. More importantly, this is what your professor wants. A Wikipedia reference will annoy him. Trust me.

Finding these sources can prove a tough chore. The title of this post comes from the fact that Harvard’s Widener Library — the second largest library in the world — holds over 15,731,298 volumes. This provides some sense of the immensity of the archive in which you are searching for your narrow subject. It can be daunting.

To help in this process, here are a collection of strategies, first reported in Straight-A, that real students have developed for finding the perfect source within the vastness of your college library:

5 Tips for Easily Finding What You Need in the Library

  1. Start general then move one layer deeper.
    Begin with a book that broadly covers the topic area you are interested in. You can find these on the course reserve shelf or listed in your recommended reading list for the class. Once you have the general book, flip to the references cited by the author. Here you will discover the otherwise hard to find, highly-focused journal articles that dissect your topic with a level of specificity that will prove research gold in your paper-writing process.
  2. Ask your professor.
    Learning the intricacies of the body of published knowledge surrounding a niche topic requires years of immersion. This is time your professor has already invested. Take advantage of this reality. Early in the paper writing process ask her for some recommendations. Use these as a starting point, following the references, as described in (1), to move even deeper into the topic area.
  3. Befriend the reference librarians.
    One of the most sadly underused resources on campus are the reference librarians. These library professionals have been trained in the dark art of teasing forth that perfect, hidden source from the convoluted vastness of the library system. More importantly, they are there to help you! Start your research process by checking in with the reference librarian. He can help you quickly turn up a variety of targeted sources you may have otherwise never stumbled upon. Pay attention to how he conducts these searches. The skills will ease your search pains in future projects.
  4. Browse by subject in the library search interfaces.
    When searching for a book in the library card catalog, or a journal article in an online database, notice the official list of subject keywords that accompanies each returned result. (In the card catalog, these are the official Library of Congress subject descriptions assigned to the book, in a journal database these are typically assigned by a proprietary scheme unique to the journal or organization that publishes the journal). When you find a source that seems useful, click on the subject keywords to have the database return all resources tagged the same. This is a quick way to turn up relevant sources that would have been hard to identify through a direct search.
  5. When in doubt, Google.
    For some esoteric subjects, it may prove near impossible to find relevant sources simply through searches of the card catalog or journal databases. In these cases, consider turning to the more advanced search algorithm of Google. First, attempt a search in Google Books. With an increasing number of titles indexed by this search engine, you have a good chance of finding what you are looking for. Once you have a title and author you can then retrieve the book in your college’s library. If that fails, do a standard Google web search. You can often find an obscure book or journal reference this way from some long forgotten syllabus, or auto-archived copy of an academic article that failed to escape Google’s pervasive grip. Once you have a title and author, again, you can turn to your regular library to find a hard copy.

Monday Master Class: Downgrade the Importance of Writing in Paper Writing

September 10th, 2007 · 11 comments

The Mystery of the Paper Grade

When you sit down to take a test, you likely have a good sense of the grade you will earn. It may be off by a “+” or “-“, but, for the most part, reflecting on how much you prepared, you know where your scholastic fate will ultimately fall.

The same doesn’t hold true for papers.

The experience is common: You dash off a paper the night before and are pleasantly surprised to receive an “A.” A week later, you labor for days on your opus, only to receive a disappointing “B-“. Something unknowable and unpredictable seems to lurk behind that final grading decision. But it doesn’t have to be mysterious. What is it?

Your story.

Your story — the collection of arguments you make and tie together in your paper — is all important. If, when dashing off your paper, you stumble into a good story, you can receive a surprise “A.” Infinitely more disappointing, if you labor for weeks over a poor story, the effort remains wasted. The grade will be mediocre.

Does this make papers unhackable? Of course not. You simply must learn how to give the story its due.

Focus on the Story, not the Writing

If you follow the Straight-A method, when you finish the research stage of paper writing you should have a collection of annotated sources. For the uninitiated, these include: a photocopy of every article and book chapter relevant to your paper; a cover page attached to each photocopy that highlights the important info contained within (see here for more details).

With these annotated sources in hand, do the following before you type even a single word of your paper:

  1. Put aside at least one day to do no work on your paper except ponder the story. If the paper is large, set aside more time.
  2. Start with a high energy block early in your day. Use the tmie to browse through your annotated sources. Start to swap in the information — get comfortable with the different arguments, facts, and interpretations you have available.
  3. Go walking. For a while. Somewhere quiet. In a park (if you attend an urban university), in the woods (if you attend a rural university), on an iceberg (if you attend a university inexplicably located on the Antarctic continent). Just walk and think. Let the information sieve through the various processes of your mind. Play around with different lines of argument.
  4. Throughout the day, during little pockets of time — while in line or, even better, the shower — revisit the story. Mentally manipulate the pieces. Begin to rehearse the parts that seem to flow.
  5. At the end of the work day, right before dinner, sit down to capture the results of your efforts. Make a topic-level outline. This is simply a list of the topics you want to cover in your paper, presented in the order that you want to present them. In essence, it’s a skeleton of your story. Don’t get super-detailed yet. Keep things at the topic scope (e.g., “Pre-war arguments against a European trade agreement”, or “Evidence that Senator Jenson had influential ties to agriculture lobby”, not quote from page 6 of the Richardson article.”).
  6. For every 10% of your final grade the paper is worth, talk to another person about your story. Get his or her feedback. Refine the outline.

When you put in this time — which, by the way, is not that painful , unlike writing, creative thinking is generally an enjoyable activity — the result is a solid story. This is what the professor wants to see. Even if your writing is, ultimately, imperfect, he will reward the thoughtfulness of your arguments.

The Secret

If you want to know how straight-A students perform so consistently high in humanities courses, this is a big part of their secret. By taking just a little bit of time to figure out what you want to say, you immediately vault past the majority of your classmates in terms of the quality of the thinking you capture on paper. And this, in the final assessment, is what the assignments is really all about.