Aphorisms on the Research Process

When we think of “writing,” we usually think of putting words on a page with pen in hand (or, increasingly, by click-clacking away on a keyboard). “Writing” a research paper is not so straightforward. It involves advanced forms of thinking, reading, writing, and revising done recursively, not linearly; that is, there is never a straight line that leads from selecting a research topic to writing a research paper. The process is a messy, often exhausting, yet rewarding cycle of reading, questioning the text, reexamining it, questioning oneself, writing, rewriting, starting all over, and so on. The thinking, reading, writing, and revising that go into a research paper must be done over and over again in a cycle that could never be nailed down absolutely because no two papers and no two writers are the same.

It is probably more useful to think of research projects than of research papers; this shift in terminology emphasizes the procedural nature of research. To speak of a research paper is to speak of a product, a material object; to speak of a research project is to speak of a process, a collection of actions. Obviously, the point of the process is the product, but the writer who tries to produce the product without going through the proper process will suffer. To ensure the quality of the product, one must buy into the process.

What follows is a sequence of actions that provide a sense of what a good research project looks like. As stated above, it would be neither possible nor advisable to create a checklist which, if each action were ticked off in order, would always produce a quality paper. Not all of the actions that go into a good research project are listed below, but these will give you a sense of the procedural nature of academic research and writing.

Note that about half of the following sequence is devoted to coming up with a good idea to write about, and about half to actually writing that idea out in an effective paper. Be aware that having a good idea and having a good paper are two completely different things. It is possible to betray a good idea with a poorly written paper, and it is possibly for a sparkly paper to hold nothing inside.

Also note that there is an inverse relationship between the order in which things happen in the process of academic writing (i.e., interpretation) and the order in which they occur in the product (i.e., a paper). That is, the thinking that happens last in the process is the writing that usually should come first in the organization of a paper. In the process, you work from reading evidence to generating analyses to formulating an argument to understanding what’s at stake in your argument. In contrast, in the product, you first identify what’s at stake, then state your argument, and then get into evidence and analysis. From this perspective, it is a colossal mistake to try to start writing a paper at the beginning.

Read your texts (multiple times): Read them first to enjoy them, and again to start analyzing them.

Select a topic: Using your own academic and personal interests, select a general subject of investigation that will hold your interest over the course of an extended research project.

Specify a text: Identify the specific manifestations of your topic – whether they are books, plays, poems, ideas, everyday objects, cultural events, statistics, etc. – that can provide you with concrete information to interpret.

Write some research questions: Ask yourself why the topic and the text(s) you’ve selected need to be interpreted, and produce some preliminary questions about your topic and text(s) that you’d like to explore.

Identify the information you need to find: Make a list of the primary texts you need to collect for interpretation, as well as any relevant context (e.g., historical events and statistics or social histories).

Find and collect your information: Using both public and academic resources – that is, both the internet and the library – search for, find, and collect your list of needed information. Buy, download, print, or make copies or scans of all texts so that you will always have access to them.

Organize your information: Take your collection of gathered information and organize it in some way that makes sense, for example by making a chart or graph of some statistics, or by making a timeline of specific examples and social histories.

Analyze your information: Using your charts, graphs, timelines, or whatever, analyze the information you have collected and organized, for example by making a conceptual map that weaves explanations into the sequence of events in a timeline.

Organize your analyses: Bring together and consider all at once all of the information you have gathered and the preliminary analyses you have conducted, looking for patterns, relationships, discrepancies, etc.

Narrow your topic: Based on your work with the topic thus far, identify some aspect that is particularly problematic or in need of interpretation. Allow this more focused aspect to become your new topic.

Pose an analytical question: Working off of your earlier research questions, but keeping your recently narrowed topic in mind, select and articulate the specific problem or question you plan to address.

Re-read your texts: With your analytical question in mind, return to your texts and do a directed reading – i.e., one that has your analytical question and developing argument in mind.

Draft a working thesis: Looking at your new, more narrowly focused topic, take your first crack at writing an argument that interprets the information you have collected and analyzed, perhaps using the research questions previously written as a point of departure (are you now able to answer any of them?).

Identify the scholarship you need to find: Make a list of the aspects of your topic that are particularly problematic, or that you still don’t understand, and the questions you have about your information that you still cannot answer.

Find and collect your scholarship: Using purely academic resources – that is, the library, not the internet – search for, find, and collect your list of needed scholarship. Buy, download, print, or make copies or scans of all works so that you will always have access to them.

Read the scholarship: Read through the scholarly books and articles you have collected, looking not to find people to agree and disagree with, but to find additional information you did not know about, and to enhance your understanding of the issue at hand.

Create an annotated bibliography: It may help you read the scholarship on its own terms – as opposed to being solely concerned with how you might incorporate it in your paper – to create an annotated bibliography that summarizes the argument and evidence of each of the scholarly sources you examine.

Analyze your scholarship: Consider the relationship between your understanding of your topic and its treatment in the scholarship, not in order to change your ideas to match those of the published scholars, but in order to mark out the places in which you might make a contribution to the academic conversation on the issue at hand. Is there consensus or dissent in this conversation? Are there any gaps in the scholarship?

Reconsider your information and analyses: Based on your collection, reading, and analysis of the scholarship on your topic and text(s), revisit the information you have collected and the analyses you have conducted in order to make your interpretation as complete and accurate as possible.

Revise your thesis: Based on your revised information and analyses, revisit your working thesis, revising it so that it is as complete and accurate an account of your interpretation as possible.

NOTE: Everything up to this point has been about how to have a good idea to present in a paper; everything that follows from this point is about how to present that idea effectively in a paper.

Draft a basic outline: Once you have an idea that is good enough to write a paper about, the next step is to draft a basic outline for what that paper might look like. In its organization, this outline should introduce the issue at hand, review the scholarship on it, justify the need for another voice in this critical conversation (your voice), possibly address your method of interpretation, but certainly and clearly state your argument, before going on in the body of your paper to give the evidence for your argument, and discussing the importance and implications of that argument in your conclusion.

Write your body paragraphs: Using your collection of information, your analyses of it, your working thesis, and your basic outline as a guide, draft the body paragraphs of your paper (that is, the presentation of your evidence as organized by your claims about that evidence).

Revise your thesis: In the process of actually writing your body paragraphs, you will probably come upon new analyses (and possibly new information); revise your working thesis yet once more on the basis of these fully developed analyses.

Draft your introductory material: Write an introduction that identifies the topic and text under consideration, reviews the critical conversation on them, explains in some way the insufficiency of this conversation, perhaps discusses your method of interpreting your topic and text, and clearly and forcefully states your argument - that is, the most recent version of your thesis – which should be fairly refined if you have followed all of the above steps.

Draft your concluding material: Based on the analyses you wrote for the body of your paper and the framework you set up in the introduction of your paper, write a conclusion that considers any worthwhile counter-arguments to your claims, responds to them, and discusses the importance and implications of your argument for a specific field of academic inquiry.

Synthesize your introduction, body, and conclusion into a first draft: Rather than simply copying and pasting the three parts of your paper together, start fresh with a blank word document, and manually type in your paper, working from those earlier drafts. While doing so, you will find that you are revising for both language and ideas as you type (which wouldn't happen if you just copied and pasted your previous writing together).

NOTE: What follows is the first step in the “cycle of revision”; revision is not something that happens just once, but again and again.

Have others read your draft: Ask both your peers and your professors (current and past) to read over and comment on your paper.

Based on these comments, create a plan for revision: Some of the comments you received from peers and professors will simply be edits to your language; those are quick fixes. More importantly, carefully read their comments on your ideas, and rather than just diving into a revision, consider what it is you need to accomplish in your revision, and create a plan for doing so.

Create a detailed outline: Revision is not about fixing your earlier draft; it's about writing a new paper. Based on the comments you've received, and your continuing thoughts on your project, create a new outline, not a revision of your previous outline, but a new outline based on what the completely new paper you would write today would look like. Create first a basic outline (which covers the ideas you’re addressing and the order in which you're addressing them), and then a detailed outline (which adds the claims you're making about those ideas).

Reread and incorporate the scholarship: Having developed your ideas, your argument, and your paper into a fairly mature form, go back and revisit some of the key sources from the scholarship regarding your topic; you'll find that your enhanced understanding of the issue allows you to judge more effectively which critics get things right and which get things wrong. Incorporate your new insights on the scholarship into your detailed outline. Acknowledge and compliment those who have gotten the issue right; take down those who have gotten it wrong.

Draft your outline into a paper: Based on your detailed outline – not on your previous draft of the paper, but your outline for the new paper you've conceived – write out your paper.

Edit your draft: Read through your paper, from start to finish, several times, to fix any language errors, to increase the clarity and concision of your language, and to ensure that your style and formatting are correct.

Repeat the cycle of revision as needed: Go back to the first step in the “cycle of revision,” having your peers and professors read your paper, and repeat the cycle as much as necessary until you arrive at a paper you’re happy with.