How to Write a Research Paper - Part 2
Writing was a spiritual exercise for my father, the only thing he really believed in.
Mark Vonnegut, writing about his father, Kurt.
LAST TIME, I POINTED OUT that the traditional method for writing a research paper has some flaws, and began working my way through a list of worst practices for research writing.
"The student is now at the point of having to combine a thesis which may or may not fit the research with an outline which may or may not fit the thesis..."
The first of these was the practice of coming up with a thesis at the beginning of the project. I outlined some of the reasons why this was counterproductive.
Now we're ready to consider the remaining worst practices:
- In the worst possible scenario, the next step is to turn in an outline.
Luckily, this is one of the rarer mistakes, but it's just as fatal as the thesis step when it occurs.
The idea that an outline should be manufactured out of the student's brain before the actual research is done is silly. How is the student to guess the breakdown of information he or she doesn't yet possess?
Sometimes teachers will vary this theme by having the student do some preliminary, or even all, of their research before writing the outline. That's much better, but whether it causes similar problems depends on the details of how it's carried out.
- If an outline is required first, the student is then assigned to do the actual research.
With this approach, the idea of the research is to fill in the outline, which was written to support a thesis, which was chosen before any research was done.
The net effect is that the student now goes out looking just for the information which will fill out the pre-conceived outline.
When the research is done before the outline, the outline may be better, but it will seldom be as good as it could be.
The main problem, in the latter case, is that the student has had to create the outline intuitively, even if he or she has done the research already.
- The research is collected, at some point, on three-by-five cards.
This is a retreat to the stone age, for no reason.
These cards are a throw-back to a day when the research process required hand-written notes, followed by a hand-written or typed rough draft, followed by a very careful, and virtually un-editable final draft.
They were an easy way to keep notes in sortable form, allowing the student to mess with the order, make decisions about what to leave in and what to take out, without having to recopy or retype the same information over and over.
But today the same system creates drudgery. Almost any student can now type as fast or faster than they can write. Once typed, notes can be easily cut and pasted in any order, sorted into outlines on most word processors, deleted if necessary, copied if necessary, and, in general, used much more efficiently than note cards.
- Finally, the student is asked to combine the outline and the research on the note cards by writing the paper.
There is little to be said here that hasn't already been said above.
The student is now at the point of having to combine a thesis which may or may not fit the research with an outline which may or may not fit the thesis and bits of research into a final product.
There's an easier way.
I'll explain it next time...