Friday, December 10, 2010

writing papers

Having written two papers in the past week, both of them 15 or more pages, and having experienced it as something like a trip to the 9th circle of hell, I thought I would write down some of what worked and didn't work and how I want to do this next one (due on Friday, but I want to turn it in on Wednesday so I don't have to drive to UTown again).  Then I was so happy to be done with the second one this afternoon that I forgot about it.  But fortunately there was a link on Nathan Bransford's blog today to a discussion about editing tricks in his forums this week, and it reminded me, so here goes.  Editing is an entirely personal thing, so this may not work for anybody else, but it will help me to type it out.  If you have any great suggestions based on the way you do it, let me know, I'd love to hear it.  Of course, academic writing is different than writing fiction, but some of it will apply.

Anyway.  As I'm doing my research, I type stuff into a Word document called "Notes" using a table with two columns.  I drag the column over so that the one on the left is only about half an inch wide, and the one on the right takes up the rest of the page.  Then--did you guess-- the page number goes in the left column, and notes in the right.  If it's an exact quote, I type it exactly the way it will go in the paper including the quotation marks, because then I can just cut & paste it when the time comes.  There's a new table for each source, although they're all in the same file.  And I put the complete bibliographic reference above the table, so if I end up using it, I can just cut and paste into the Works Cited page.  Something I haven't done before that I want to do this time is to summarize each source in addition to the page-by-page notes.  With these longer papers, I've read so much stuff while researching that when I come back to it, I can't remember what the article was about.  If I only have a couple of quotes in the Notes file, I have to drag the article back out to get the big picture.

The other thing I do while researching is keep another Word document open that's called "Ideas."  I type stuff that is either a direct paraphrase or a direct quote into the "Notes" file, and type ideas for what I want to say in my paper in the "Ideas" file.  I used to just scribble this stuff on the back of pieces of paper, but it became so useful that now I type it.  The "ideas" file is the one that is the life saver when the paper is due in 24 hours because you had another one due the day before, and you've done all the research but you can't remember exactly what you were going to write about.  I can't tell you how many times I was able to just cut and paste stuff out of the "Ideas" file into my paper and make it work with just a little bit of editing.  Saved my butt last night, for example.

Then when I start writing, I just go.  I try not to worry too much about word choice or phrasing things exactly right, but just get the general flow of the argument.  Word choice is easy to fix later, and fleshing out an argument is easy to fix later, but the thing that makes me practically insane is trying to get that flow, that line of movement, that goes through the text and gets you from one end to the other.  And obviously I do a lot of cutting and pasting here from my two other documents into this one (which is called "Draft," in case you're wondering).  This is the stage that takes the longest--it can take a day or two to get through this for a 15 page paper, maybe 12 hrs or so.  So while I'm doing this, I have three files open.  It gets a little complicated sometimes, but for the most part, it works pretty well.

Then, when the draft is done, I do "Save As" and make a new copy called "Final," and edit it--usually from a printed out copy of the draft, but not always.  Preferably this is done after a good night's sleep so that I'm looking at it fresh.  That takes an hour or two, and then it's done.

But the other thing that's worth noting is the process.  Always, always, always at some point I become convinced that I'm not going to be able to do it.  It's too hard.  In spite of the fact that I've always finished every paper I've ever started in my life, I become convinced that this time it's not going to work.  Actually, this usually hits twice--the first time, toward the beginning, is more about feeling overwhelmed by the amount of work there is to do.  the second one, around the late-middle, is because I'm convinced that it's the worst paper anyone has ever written.  It depends on the paper which one of these is worse-- with the paper I wrote on Romeo and Juliet this past week, the second one was worse.  About halfway through, it was the dumbest, most obvious, least interesting paper anyone had ever written.  But with the Kafka paper, the one I turned in today, the first crisis was worst.  I couldn't get started because I was so overwhelmed by how complex the ideas were and how hard it was going to be to figure out what I wanted to say (and I was right, but procrastinating didn't help any at all).

Hmmm.  Seems like there's something else I was going to add here, but I can't remember what it was.  I may come back and edit this later (speaking of editing).  But I wanted to write this out so I could come back and refer to it when I hit the crisis moments because the next paper starts tomorrow.  (Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow-- we finished with MacBeth yesterday.  Classes are now officially over.)


  1. I copied this post to edit so I can hand it out (or at least hit the high points) for my writing students.

    The most useful thing is the 2 moments of being overwhelmed. I knew that, but I'd never thought of it in such clear terms.

    Thank you Aunt Bean!!

  2. Having handed this out to my 1st year writing class I am happy to report that you have transformed (with your 3 document approach to research) the way several of my students now write their papers - Congrats Professor