This is the third in a series of posts aimed at helping you through the process of writing your research papers. Read the first on creating an argument here. Read the second on using good research well here. I have already addressed forming your arguments and using good research well in previous posts. This post will be focused on easing some of your drafting anxieties.
Tip #3. Research papers take time
A number of you have expressed anxiety about how you aren’t clear on your argument yet or you are still struggling to make all the pieces fit together. This is TOTALLY normal and to be expected. At this point in the process, you are likely trying to refine your own argument, pick out primary texts, locate secondary texts, read those sources and incorporate them into you argument, while choosing which parts of those sources should be included in your paper and how to balance them with your own ideas and the information from your primary texts. Whew. Here are a couple of tips for you to cope with some of this juggling act.
Just keep writing: if you feel stuck, or are having trouble getting started, try a technique called “Freewriting.” Grab an egg timer or use the timer on your phone: set it for 15 minutes. Get comfortable in front of your computer or a pad and pen. Start the timer, and then start writing. The goal is to keep writing, no matter what. If you get stuck, keep typing “I’m stuck I’m stuck I’m stuck” until you think of the next thing you want to say. You are not allowed to pause, you are not allowed to hit the backspace button, and under no circumstances are you allowed to start editing or really thinking about what you have written until after the timer stops. This exercise will help you to break through that “writer’s block” and will hopefully allow your subconscious to shine through and write down what you are really thinking about. This is a really great exercise if you feel self-conscious about writing or if you feel really stuck at any point in your paper.
Move: the more blood that goes to your brain, the better. If you have been stuck in front of your computer for hours, you are likely feeling and thinking sluggish. Get up, go for a walk, go to the gym, run up and down a few flights of stairs, anything to get your blood pumping. At the very least, pick a place to go get lunch that is a few blocks away. By the time you come back, you will likely have some new ideas. In general, the advice to take a break is also a good one: a good strategy for me is to make myself work, totally focused, for 45 minutes, then give myself 15 minutes to get up, get some coffee, check Facebook/voicemail. It is like a mini-reward for working hard.
Outline: Back in high school, writing an outline for a 5 paragraph essay felt like busy work, because you could easily hold all of that information in your head. Now, however, you are looking at 8 pages instead of 3. Try writing an outline, brainstorm or idea map, then be prepared to revise that outline as you continue to research, read and write.
Get audio/visual: Everyone has a different learning style: the most common are visual, auditory and kinesthetic. If you are someone who learns best from lectures, podcasts or discussion, you are likely an auditory learner: the best ways for you to get unstuck would be to have conversations (with me in office hours, a classmate, a friend), or to literally talk through the issues you are trying to figure out. Auditory learners often find it easy to say out loud what they are trying to express, but have difficulty writing it down. Using a tape recorder to dictate your ideas and then playing it back while you type might help you a lot. If you are a visual learner, you might benefit from drawing an idea map, laying out all your ideas on a cork board, or writing each of your ideas on an index card or post it, then moving those ideas around into groups. Using color, like different colored highlighters to mark different themes, might help you more. If you are a kinesthetic learner, you need to move around a lot (see above): talking to a friend about your paper while at the gym might help you get unstuck. You are also likely to benefit from more hands on approaches: using the index card technique above, or cutting up your draft into paragraphs to rearrange them, might help you get a better handle on your paper.
Ask for help: UF has a number of really great resources for you, especially when it comes to research papers. If at any point you feel stuck in your research, Library West employs some wonderful librarians. Take the elevators to the third floor and walk straight out to the “Research Assistance” desk. Bring your outline or whatever you have started working on, and tell these lovely librarians where you are stuck. They know all kinds of resources, databases and information that might be able to help you. For less complicated questions, there is also the “Ask a Librarian” chat function on the library homepage.
There is also the Reading and Writing Center, located on the 3rd floor of Tigert Hall. Bring the assignment sheet for the paper and whatever materials you are working on with you: the tutors there can help you brainstorm, organize, and improve whatever you have started on your own. (You will likely want to make an appointment, as they are usually swamped at this time of the year!)
We will do a peer-review in class, but you should also rely on one another during finals week. Agree to meet over the weekend for a study group and exchange feedback. Help one another stay on track. You can use the blog and the Sakai chat function to ask for feedback or to get in touch with others in the class. My guess is you will likely be able to share ideas, point one another to quality sources, and help each other refine your ideas through conversation. (However, PLEASE don’t actually collaborate on papers, as that violates the honor code. Everything that you write and turn in should be your own unique work, written by you and only you!)
Then, there is always me. I will have office hours. I am accessible by email. I am happy to take a look at outlines, brainstorms or a random collection of thoughts. If you aren’t sure if a source is acceptable: ask! Remember, I am constantly writing these same kinds of papers and I have developed (or tried and rejected) a lot of techniques that I can pass on to you. Remember, just because one technique works for your classmate, friend or roommate, doesn’t mean it will work for you. Writing is a constant process of trial and error (and frustration!).
Whatever techniques you try, remember to be patient with yourself. Keep up the good work!