On Writing (Things You Don’t Really Want To Write)

It’s that time of the year again. The wastebaskets are overflowing with empty coffee cups, the library is so quiet you could hear a pin drop, and every student at any given university is sleep-deprived, grouchy, and would probably pay anyone a significant amount of money to write their papers for them. Personally, finals are not my least favorite part of the semester – research papers are something I have never really struggled with, so I am not quite as stressed as everyone else sitting around me (I only have one, and it’s due Friday). I might, however, be a freak of nature. I also find a weird kind of comfort in the crowded, coffee-filled library – a unique camaraderie that only comes with broke, hungry, over-caffeinted college students suffering in unison in one place together. Doesn’t that sound delightful?

And that's just after a few hours.

However, this year, I have a paper that is stumping me: I have to write about 20th century American political thought, and I am so frustrated that I just had to go take a walk to calm down. I did all the readings, I know my history, and yet I cannot for the life of me figure out what to write about. So, to help myself and anyone else out there struggling with papers, I thought I would lay out my own personal paper-writing process that has been highly effective in the past 3 years (I don’t think I’ve ever received below an A or A- on a poli sci paper, but that doesn’t include papers I had to write in different languages). I hope this helps any stressed college students out there 🙂

1. Create a kick-ass playlist, or find a quiet space without any noise. Add coffee and/or tea. This applies to all of the following steps, especially the “look stuff up” part.

Yes, I know this sounds weird, but I think that the first step is getting in the zone. I usually clean my room before doing any kind of homework, then sit down with my massive headphones and blast Lady Gaga, Benny Benassi, and related workout-esque music that gets me pumped up and ready to go. Sometimes I prefer low-key music like Lykke Li or Phoenix, but during finals I go for stuff I can jam to while I bang out paper after paper. If you’re one of those people that needs utter silence, find an empty room and sit. Get away from your friends and teammates, and just go for it. The hot beverage just adds a level of authenticity – sipping on a coffee as a write helps me channel Hemingway. The writing part, not the womanizing part…

2. READ the question. ALL the parts of the question. ALL OF THEM. 

Maybe your sixth grade teacher did this to you too: handed you a really long sheet of instructions that were kind of ridiculous. At the very bottom of the sheet of instructions, it said something idiotic like, “Don’t actually do all these stupid instructions!” If you were a dumb kid like me, you probably attempted to bake the cake or whatever it was, only to realize that the assignment was just to read the freaking sheet of paper. Don’t be that kid. Read and comprehend the question, and make sure you understand what the professor is asking of you. Professors have different expectations depending on the class and their teaching method in general.

3. THINK. 

Shaun's thinking repose. See? It looks relaxing, doesn't it?

So assuming you’ve done the readings, and you have a thoroughly comprehensive grasp on the subject, think about what you want to write about. For some people this involves brainstorming on a piece of paper – i.e., blurting stuff out on a piece of paper until you find a coherent thought – but for me this just means thinking. I find a question, or a problem, and narrow it down to something very specific that I am curious about. It helps if you have a genuine interest, but if you don’t, pick something easy – then at least you’re guaranteed a good grade.

For example, for a term paper last year in a class called “US Foreign Policy”, I had a strong interest in the many human rights atrocities of the 1990’s and how America dealt with them (or didn’t deal with them, really). I looked at the chronology of the 1990’s, and realized that we had refused to intervene in many genocidal conflicts, but then conducted air strikes in Bosnia to take down Milosevic. After over 10 years, and a disastrous situation in Rwanda, we had suddenly turned to an interventionist policy. My question was, what changed that made us want to intervene? My theory was that it was Madeleine Albright’s promotion from UN Ambassador to Secretary of State that made the difference. Other times, a statement or quote is good inspiration. For example, my paper that was recently published was inspired by a quote from Arne Duncan (former CEO of Chicago school system, current Secretary of Education to President Obama) in which he stated that there were no winners and losers when it came to charter schools. I was pretty sure I disagreed, so I made that my research question. When the option is there for creating your own research question, find inspiration and then run with it.

It also helps to talk it over with a friend, especially if it’s more of a philosophical question. Sometimes just letting your mouth run wild for a few minutes helps flesh things out, and you can get a second opinion on your ideas. I don’t think my paper would have been published without a good Skype sesh I had with a friend while I was in Paris and he was studying in Boston.

4. Look stuff up.

For me, this is the hardest part. Take advantage of the library, and don’t be afraid to ask the librarians for help. They’ve saved me many times. Honestly, the best strategy is to go to the online catalogue, find ONE book that pertains to your subject, then go to that section of the library and see what you find. Actually looking at, physically holding, and flipping through a real, live book is often more productive than reading 10 articles. I promise. Make sure you know where you’re looking, too: for example, don’t look in a History database for sources related to Economics. You won’t find anything. JSTOR, for example, doesn’t have sources from anything published in the last 5 years (or something like that), so if you want to write about Libya’s recent turmoil, that wouldn’t be the place to look. Make sure your sources are scholarly, blah blah blah.

Most important advice: if you’re pressed for time, or it’s just a paper that doesn’t serve some larger purpose, don’t read the whole book. Find what you need, find some quotes, and put post-its on them. Quotes are important. Find some. Use them. As you look through your sources, think about your research question, and find information that directly correlates to that question. For a recent art history paper, I wrote about a Greek sculpture, so I found a book about Greek sculpture, found the one I was writing on in the index, and found a quote directly addressing how the artist represented the human body in the sculpture.

This part is so important, don’t skimp. For a 10 page paper, you should have at least 5 sources, and for a 15 page paper I have used, well, 15. If you use more books, you could use less sources because books tend to have more information and it’s more comprehensive. Articles are very specific, so if you use mostly articles you should have many more. Make sure you write down quotes, post-it the important parts of books that you need, and generally create a sufficient knowledge of your sources and how they relate to your subject: this will help you be able to write without looking everything up every 5 minutes.

As you look through sources, it helps to keep track of what they are: I usually do this by keeping 1 sheet of paper with all of my sources on it, in MLA or Chicago-Turabian style citations, so that when it comes time to type up my Works Cited Page, I can just copy it into Word. It sounds excessive, but it helps in the end. You don’t want to be scrambling to put together your sources after 12 hours straight in the library and 4 cups of coffee. Trust me.

5. Create an OUTLINE.

Map out your ideas. Even if it’s not formal, just creating a general map of what your paper will look like organizationally is extremely helpful. This is particularly helpful in political science, where you often have to reconcile a significant amount of history with analysis and argumentation. When I create outlines, I usually include authors or works that I will use in each section, as a way of organizing not just my thoughts, but the arguments of other scholars who I will use to support my own statement.

6. Okay, so you have a general organization, and you’ve got all this information – so what does it mean? It means you get to THINK SOME MORE.

What is your thesis? By now you should have compiled a solid theory that you can support with lots of evidence. For example, I had a theory that charter schools actually created winners out of the elite class in Chicago, and losers out of poor and/or minority students because of social and cultural capital disparities (don’t worry about it). I found research to support that argument – and luckily, a lot of evidence that it was true – and developed a theory as to why this was the case, and how it had come to be that way. I had a solid grasp on the history of charter school reform, and understood the circumstances around which I was forming this argument. I knew many scholars who supported this argument, and had my own theory to contribute. So I created an outline, and inserted my thesis after I had developed it fully. A thesis can be one paragraph, or two if it is a loaded question. Don’t shy from making it longer than a paragraph – we’re not in middle school anymore.

Still very relaxed...sometimes it's helpful to change thinking poses. Helps the blood flow.

7. Sit down with that awesome playlist, hot beverage, and start writing.

I usually start with the context, then go into analysis/my own theory, and then a conclusion. I save the introduction and thesis for last, so that I make sure it encompasses everything I have written about. I can’t really say more about this – we all have our own style, but what’s important is that you just write everything you can. If you are using footnotes or in-text citations, make sure they all follow one format. Make sure your quotes are supportive, of appropriate length (nothing more than 2-3 lines usually), and directly related to the argument that they are placed in the middle of. Explain them fully!! Use them, don’t abuse them.

8. Give your paper to someone to read. Mom, Dad, a friend, even professors sometimes help with this. 

Get thoughts, get some red pen on that thing, and read it over a few times. Find where your flaws are – grammatically or theoretically – and think about how to fix them. Don’t get discouraged, this is the most important part of the process, and usually the most helpful.

9. Make those corrections. 

Use your discretion. Not every correction your friend provides needs to happen – sometimes we have very different writing styles, and as much as they want to make your paper in their own style, it’s important that it has your invisible signature on it. I prefer to go through on paper, but when pressed for time (and pay-for-print) I tend to just correct on-screen. Make sure it’s within the page limit, too. Read through it several times, and use spell check. Trust me. I almost didn’t do this before sending a paper off for publishing, and I am so glad I did. There were like, 10 typos that I missed just because I had read it over about 3943943098 times and was so familiar with it.

10. CITE!!!

Seriously. A works cited page is not that hard. EasyBib.com will do it for free if it’s MLA (it generates citations), and you can even type in a URL or book, and it will pull up a citation that has already been created. Or you can go old school like me and type them out by hand. Alphabetical order is imperative, blah blah blah. Just make sure you do it.

11. Crossing your T’s and dotting your I’s

  • Include a TITLE that is compelling and tells the reader something about your paper: “The Charter School Game: Gentrification and the Fight for Equal Education in a Neoliberal City” – informative, interesting, and makes it clear what I’m going to talk about, even if there are lots of big, confusing words
  • PAGE NUMBERS!! Just do it.
  • Double space. Double space. Double space.
  • Margins = 1 inch, and Times New Roman is the most generic font EVER.

12. Print that baby.

Best feeling in the world. Print it, staple it, hug it close to you. You have completed a monster of a paper, and how good does it feel? So good.

I hope this has been helpful. As for me, I’m still stuck on this paper. I’ll get there though…

Helpful Resources:

  • The OWL at Purdue – a very helfpul source for how to cite, pretty much breaks it down so it’s impossible not to understand. Helpful for MLA and APA, as well as Chicago-Turabian (I’ve used C-T for poli sci as well as Art History)
  • EasyBib – citation generator, super helpful
  • UC Berkeley Chicago-Turabian guide – because sometimes it’s just really confusing

6 thoughts on “On Writing (Things You Don’t Really Want To Write)

  1. Great review! You actually overviewed some interesting news here. I came across it by using Yahoo and I’ve got to admit that I already subscribed to the site, will be following you on my iphone 🙂

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