Thursday, July 16, 2009

Richardson's Rules of Order, Part VIc: Tips for Writing Research Papers for a College History Course

Heather Cox Richardson

Writing the Paper:

You’re ready to write your paper. You have a thesis: “Custer led his men to a slaughter because he was determined to regain the favor of his Commander-in-Chief, President Grant.” Write that thesis on a sticky note and put it over your workspace, to guarantee that everything you put in the paper supports that thesis. When you get tangled up in your writing, and can’t decide what to put in, that paper will be the judge. Does whatever you’re writing advance your thesis? If not, it stays out.

Plot your paper out. If it’s a ten page paper, you can plan on using a half a page at both the beginning and the end for your introduction and your conclusion. So you have, essentially, about nine pages to make your argument. In your mind, divide those pages up into sections of relatively similar length. You have about four sections of two pages each, or three of three, to make your argument. (Section numbers and lengths will vary depending on the length of the paper and the nature of your material). For your Custer paper, you’ll need to explain to a reader what happened at Little Big Horn and then make your argument, which really doesn’t leave you much room. What are your most important points that prove your thesis? They should be the subjects of your different sections. Within those sections, each paragraph should support the section argument, which in turn supports the thesis. Make sure you have a plan, and that you stick to your section limits. This is sort of an outline using space rather than headings (although outlines are still useful). Your “section breaks” are not literally different pieces of a ten-page paper (which would leave it looking a bit like a long poem!), but are places where you will change to a different aspect of your presentation. Do not make the common mistake of just starting to write, hoping you end up somewhere. Do it this way, and you will almost certainly use most of your space on your first point, and end up being forced either to rewrite or to rethink the paper, neither of which you want to do at this stage.

Sit down to write, but leave your “writing hat” on the rack. The most common error students make is to assume that they won’t sound smart unless they use complicated sentence structures and long, scholarly words. If you generally talk like that, go for it. Your writing will sound quite natural. But if you normally talk like the rest of us, don’t try to sound like a nineteenth-century professor of rhetoric. Just tell us, in your own words, what you’ve discovered. You can correct grammar and structure later, although if you write naturally there will not be as much to correct as if you try to work with words and structures you don’t know well. My rule is the dinner table test. If you could not read the paper at the dinner table without your friends cracking up, it’s not written in a believable way.

If you find yourself stuck staring at a blank screen (or paper), stop writing a “paper” and write your material as a letter or an email to a friend, usually someone older who is interested in history but who doesn’t know much about your topic. (Don’t worry, you don’t have to send it!) You will find the story falls into order fairly easily. Humans are naturally storytellers, putting material in where the listener needs to know it, so mimicking a conversation in an email or letter often is a big step toward getting material down for your paper.

You cannot write a good paper in one sitting, but you want to continue the flow from one writing session to another. One way to do this is to leave the paper just when you know exactly what you’re going to write next, and are eager to do it. That way, when you sit down to it again, you’ll start right in and move forward easily, rather than staring at the screen (or paper) wondering what on earth to write next.

If you can’t face writing a certain piece of the paper, or can’t recall exactly what you want to say there, it’s okay to mark that section with a note to yourself to come back later. Use something a search will pick up easily: a “XX” or “TK” (which doesn’t show up naturally in English). Then go back later and do it.

Never, though, write funny/angry comments in a document—either yours or a friend’s—thinking that the writer will certainly find them all and delete them before handing it in. Those comments do, sometimes, slip by, and the embarrassment of explaining them and recalling the essay is excruciating (for the professor as well as the student!). Better to make a lifetime rule that you will never mess with any document that will go to a third party. (You don’t want to do it in your career, either).

BACK UP YOUR WORK DAILY AT LEAST. HOURLY IS BETTER!!! Keep a copy of each day’s work in two different locations. Get a flash drive, use your school’s server, use your own machine, use the Apple back up system, buy space with a commercial server (about $5 a month or less). BUT DO NOT THINK YOU WON’T LOSE THINGS!!!! If you learn nothing else from this tip sheet, learn this! YOU MUST BACK UP YOUR WORK!!!! IT IS INEVITABLE THAT DISASTER WILL STRIKE EVERYONE AT SOME POINT HAS THAT UNFORTUNATE EXPERIENCE!!! BACK UP YOUR WORK!!!!

As you write, enter in your endnote information in correct form. In Word, you do this by pulling down the “insert” menu, and clicking on “reference.” Then click “endnote” and, under “options,” click the 1, 2, 3, format. When you move text around later, the endnotes will move with the text, and you won’t have to worry about lost citations.

You should have a draft of the paper at least a week before it’s due. Now it’s time to leave it alone while someone else looks at it. Hand it to an interested bystander—a roommate, someone at the writing center, an instructor—and take their comments seriously. They may not tell you how to fix something, but when they comment “I don’t get this,” it means you need to rework something.

Give yourself a few days away from the essay, checking a few last sources if you need to, but ignoring it, otherwise. Check to make sure you have paper and toner for printing; buy it if you don’t. After a few days, reread the essay CAREFULLY—I reread out loud, which means I catch many errors—and note changes you want to make. Combine them with the comments of your reader(s). Revise the essay.

Do not forget the “who cares” question, but don’t make the common mistake of overreaching. It’s unlikely your ten-page paper will force us to rethink all of American military history. Don’t be ridiculously general either. “Custer’s failure was important because understanding the West is critical to understanding our nation’s history,” doesn’t tell a reader much. It may be that you don’t need to address the “who cares” specifically. It might be apparent through your explication of your thesis. But if you need to put it in, make sure it passes the dinner table test.

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