Reid Elsea, consultant
The weather is not the only sign that spring is finally (kinda) here. The schedule at the University Writing Center is booked solid most days, and the pressure of the “final paper” is nearly palpable. First off, you got this! Secondly, I thought it might be helpful for all of us if I use this the blog to offer some advice on getting through the crucible of finals.
The first step, and one of the hardest (especially for me) steps, is getting started. One useful strategy for getting into to the process is setting aside time for purposeful writing. In her article on writing your first research paper, Elena Kallestinova suggests to “choose from 1- to 2-hour blocks in your daily work schedule and consider them as non-cancellable appointments” (182). For me, the best time to do this is in the morning. Its important to try out a few different times in order to figure out what works best for your personal schedule. Another way to do this is to make University Writing Center appointments. You can use these as personal deadlines for papers, which can help your time management. Having a set schedule, one that works for you, does not only help you to avoid the dreaded “all-nighter,” but it can also make the writing process more enjoyable, which helps to improve your writing as a whole.
Now that you have your time scheduled, you have found a place that feels good to be and write in, its time to start. The first step is often outlining. Kallestinova notes, “This outline will be similar to a template for your paper. Initially, the outline will form a structure for your paper; it will help you generate ideas and formulate hypotheses” (182). The outline described here is different from the traditional idea of an outline. Often we think of the outline as just a plan for the paper. This outlining is more active. It allows you a space to brainstorm and take notes. One way I like to do this is through “double-entry note taking.” While this sounds like some complex method, it is just the process of taking notes with a couple extra pens. The way this takes shape for me is I use three pens (three different colors): one for page numbers and quotes, one for why these are significant or how I plan to use them, and finally one for questions I have or tangential ideas. Some of the time these notes make their way directly into my writing.
So, you have all your outlining and note taking done, your writing schedule (rather than a chore) has become comfortable, and so now it is time to get that paper written. At this point, I sometimes find myself not feeling ready. I have pages and pages of notes, I have written and rewritten my outlines, but nevertheless I just cannot get the words on the page. Typically, I have the feeling that I just haven’t read enough, or that I still need to read, or find, that one (more) perfect source. It is important to remember all the work you have done up to this point. You have put in the time and are ready to write that paper. The process of research and writing research papers is an act of joining the “scholarly discussion.” As the writer, you become a voice in the conversation that you have been listening to (in research) and forming your ideas about. Your goal is to make your voice heard in the conversation, not to end it. This means that, at a point, you have to realize that your paper will not be perfect, or answer every question. You are helping a conversation continue, contributing new and exciting ideas, and providing fertile spaces for others to respond to your ideas and questions.
PS: You can do it!
Kallestinova, Elena D. “How to Write Your First Research Paper.” Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine, vol. 84, 2011, pp. 181-190.