How Can I Avoid Last-Second Research Papers?

Breaking Down Big Papers

An Overview:

One common theme promoted by composition scholars is the importance of revision in the communication process. In his book Engaging Ideas John Bean describes an ideal process where a college student becomes aware of a problem or question, engages in a patient period of exploration and reflection, writes a rough first draft---perhaps with the aid of an informal idea map or outline, and then commits to a long process of reformulation and revision---often partaking in multiple drafts, an examination one’s audience and purpose, multiple visits to the library, formal outlines, and an engagement of outside readers. Only then should a student worry about sentence-level edits and proofreading (30-31). Unfortunately, this type of engagement can be rare among undergraduates, especially for those courses that don’t have a series of process-based deadlines to ensure students aren’t simply pulling all-nighters to complete that 15-page term paper. Last second efforts might allow for a quick proofreading job but are unlikely to engage in the type of research and revision processes that would allow students to present their best work. Such rush jobs can result in sloppy finished products that present a dull chronological summary, an under-explained “data dump”, or an unfocused general description of basic facts (23).

The following worksheet provides a step-by-step checklist that will help undergraduate students break down research papers in manageable chunks throughout the semester. It is designed in the hope that they will be able engage in a process full of exploration, revision, and good research and communication techniques, ultimately producing a focused, informative, and interesting read for their audience. It envisions a final product that is thesis-governed and part of an on-going academic conversation, but also the result of an organic process that allows for exploration, experimentation, questioning, and critical thinking along the way.

The Step-by-Step Process:

Give Yourself Target Due Dates and Check Off Each Task As Completed.

1) Think About a Few Ideas for the Paper. Jot down a few problems or questions that you would find interesting enough to research for two or three months. Look over your syllabus and see if there are any future readings and/or activities in the course that spark your interest.

Target Date: ______ Completed _______

2) Do a Few Free Writes to share with fellow students, the professor, or just to look over on your own to help you organize your thoughts.
Think about…..

* What problems have come to my attention through this course?

* Is there a hypothesis I want to test or an assumption I want to challenge?

* What research methods would I use? * Is the paper topic important and relevant to the course?

* Why do I find the topic interesting?

Target Date: ______ Completed ________

3) Visit Your Professors within the first month of classes. Such an initial meeting is a perfect opportunity to discuss research ideas and the writing process. You might compile a rough idea map following your discussion.

Target Date _______ Completed _____

4) Meet with Campus Research Staff. The library staff is ready to help you use dozens of databases that can guide your search for popular and scholarly sources and can direct you towards other gems like archive collections or datasets related to your research interests. They can also give you guidance on the types of sources you’ll need, how to use those sources, and how to independently take additional steps with your research.

Target Date _______ Completed _____

5) Complete Primary Research. This will take some time. Make sure to use a wide variety of scholarly and other reliable sources. Be sure to take good notes while reading through sources---this will be important when it is time to make citations. Use the works cited page of your best sources to branch out to new materials. Don’t forget to engage with course texts and think about how your project will build off of the on-going scholarly conversation on your topic. Be cognizant of other scholars' assumptions, research methods, and argumentation techniques.

Target Date _______ Completed _____

6) Create a Working Thesis and some sort of basic outline: Once you’ve completed your primary research you’ll probably have some idea about what you want to achieve with this paper and the argument that you are going to make. It makes sense at this point to get a working thesis down on paper, along with an initial outline or more formal idea map that explains how you will lay out your claims and evidence. It's OK if your working thesis or outline change later due to further research or revision; at this moment, these tools will provide much-needed structure as you compose your first draft.

Target Date _______ Completed _____

Note: How Do I Know If My Thesis Is Good? St. Lawrence’s Professor of Economics addressed this question recently in a column in the Washington Post:
“Whether your paper involves outside research or not, you need to have a thesis statement. Once you have an idea of what you want to say, and have some grasp of what others have said, you need to make your ideas more concrete by coming up with a thesis sentence(s). A thesis indicates the main argument of your paper. The point of any class paper is to persuade your reader that you have something to say that he or she should care about. A good thesis should be debatable, specific, and concise.”

7) Write the First Draft. Follow your informal outline or idea map, have your research notes accessible, and cite your sources as you go. Don’t worry if your first draft is a bit of a mess. As John Bean points out, the French word for first draft is brouillon, an apt description of what should be healthy, creative disorder at this point (19).

Target Date _______ Completed _____

8) Revision: The revision process is very different than proofreading (that will come later). Revision means thinking deeply about a paper’s objectives and overall aims and wrestling with 'big picture' or 'global-level' questions regarding your project.

You might ask yourself:

Are there parts of my paper that I need to reconceive?
Are there especially promising sections that beg for more development? Are there other portions that should be scaled back?
Is the text appropriate for my intended audience?
Am I using good evidence to back up my points? Do my claims fit with my thesis?
Can I see myself in dialogue with other scholars in this field?
Do I need to tweak or change my thesis?
Have I avoided fallacies? Am I making a reasoned argument?

Important Notes: During the revision process you will end up writing at least one additional draft and perhaps more. Leave yourself plenty of time to reflect on your ideas and your communication plan during this time. This period is also an idea time to engage in peer review or use the Word Studio.

Target Date _______ Completed _____

9) Do Any Additional Research that proceeds from your revision process.

Target Date _______ Completed _____

10) More Revising: Professional writers often revise their work a half-dozen times or more. A second, shorter period of revision would be very helpful in making sure your adjustments worked.

Target Date _______ Completed _____

11) Ensure That Your Citations and Bibliography Are Complete: You always need to give credit to other people’s work, and citations demonstrate the credibility of your final product and provide a road map for your audience. If you have questions about this process, you can ask your professor, the library staff, or the Word Studio.

Target Date _______ Completed _____

12) Proofreading: Many typographical and grammatical errors will be addressed during the revision process, so you should leave formal proofreading to the end. I recommend reading your entire paper out loud (or use a computer program that can do this for you) to ensure that no errors have snuck through. You can also consult the Word Studio about any nagging grammatical or structural questions. Be aware the spellcheck won’t catch everything (e.g., misplaced homonyms)

Target Date _______ Completed _____

13) Submit the Assignment.

Due Date _____ Completed: ______

Next Steps: If you're looking to see a graphic representation of this division of labor throughout a hypothetical semester, please take a look at the Academic Support attachment titled, "Gantt for Big Papers". Gantt Charts can be extremely useful in helping one organize his or her time. They're easy to create on Microsoft Excel and anyone is welcome to drop by Whitman Annex 16 to receive help in setting one up or in using this worksheet as a whole.

Works Cited:

Bean, John. Engaging Ideas. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1996.
Horwitz, Steven. "A Guide to Writing an Academic Paper". washingtonpost.com. The Answer Sheet Blog by Valerie Strauss. 20 Jan. 2012. Web.

Written by Matt McCluskey, Coordinator of Academic Support