I’m big on outlining. It’s a great way to make sure that everything in your paper fits together and works toward the same goal. If you have stray elements, things that don’t really contribute toward your argument, they’ll really show up on an outline.
So, I think the first step of writing a good research paper is putting together your outline.
It can also be very effective as one of the last steps.
Here’s an interesting article on reverse-outlining: going back over your paper and outlining it as you’ve actually written it. It’s amazing how far your first draft can slip away from your original outline. So, reverse-outlining is a tool you can use to see if your argument still hangs together and if every section/paragraph still works toward that end. It can take a little time, but it’s well worth the effort.
Here are all of the “Tips for the Th.M.” that I’ve posted so far. If anyone has suggestions for further posts, please let me know.
- Tips for the ThM – part 1 (journal articles)
- Tips for the ThM – part 2 (strong arguments)
- Tips for the ThM – part 3 (concise arguments)
- Tips for the ThM – part 4 (criticism)
- Tips for the ThM – part 5 (concise answers)
- Tips for the ThM – part 6 (I don’t know)
- Tips for the ThM – part 7 (summarizing research)
- Tips for the ThM – part 8 (writing proposals)
- Tips for the ThM – part 9 (the proposal process)
- Tips for the ThM – part 10 (picking a topic)
- Tips for the ThM – part 11 (finding a topic)
- Tips for the ThM – part 12 (writing a big thesis)
- Tips for the ThM – part 13 (writing the perfect resume)
- Tips for the ThM – part 14 (good quotes)
- Tips for the ThM – part 15 (over-research-itis)
It’s been a while since I’ve posted one of my Tips for the ThM. But, as I’m looking back over the papers from our recent philosophy and theology class, I’m reminded of a problem that I suffered from throughout my graduate programs: over-research-itis. This debilitating illness manifests itself in a tendency to spend almost the entire semester researching, leaving yourself with precious little time in which to actually write the paper that all of the research was supposed to be for.
If you’re not sure whether you suffer from this unfortunate syndrome, just ask yourself whether you tend to be frustrated with your papers because you don’t think they really reflect the quality of research you did for the project. If so, you probably suffer from over-research-itis.
I was finally able to defeat over-research-itis in my doctoral program by realizing two things. First, there is always more research to do. You will never have done “enough” and you’ll probably never be satisfied with what you actually have done. Get over it. Give yourself sufficient time to do good research and just get used to the feeling that you really should check out just one more book/article. Second, all that research isn’t terribly helpful if you don’t leave time to write a good paper. Research is just a bunch of interesting books and messy notes until you take the time to put it all together in a well-crafted, well-argued paper. That’s when you really take ownership of your research and make it available to other people. That’s the payoff. If you’ll remember that the paper is the goal and not just the onerous task waiting at the end of the semester, it may help you not put it off to the bitter end.
Realizing these two things, I decided to set firm deadlines for when I would (mostly) stop doing new research and begin writing my paper. And, the key here is to set that deadline far enough out to leave yourself sufficient time to write a quality paper (i.e. not the week before it’s due). Know that it’s going to take a few weeks to do a good job writing up all of that research and commit to giving yourself the time in which to do it. You’ll get less research done, but you’ll end up with a better paper, and you’ll probably learn even more from the experience.
And, by the way, be careful that you don’t swing the pendulum in the other direction and end up suffering from under-research-itis. I like well-written papers, but the best prose in the world can’t disguise the fact that you haven’t done the work.