The Dark Art of Paper Research
You’ve likely figured out how to write a decent research paper. You know how to navigate the library catalog and search through online journal databases. You’ve learned the correct way to cite sources, and are comfortable sprinkling authoritative-soundings footnotes throughout your text.
But what if you want more than a decent paper? What if you want to write the best damn paper your professor has ever graded?
What Top Students Do Differently
In this post I describe five strategies I’ve observed straight-A students use to consistently produce standout papers. The advice is simple, but most students never hear it. Put these tactics into practice and your assignments will reach a new level.
- Learn the most possible information about the smallest possible topic. Strong, authoritative writing is born from expertise. The more you know about a topic the more forcefully you can form an argument. Take advantage of this fact. Find the most narrow possible topic to write your paper on. Then: read every single source that has ever been written on that topic. (If your topic is suitably narrow, the number of sources will be reasonably small.) The resulting paper will seem remarkably more confident than what most students produce.
- Talk to the reference librarian. Every college has a reference librarian on staff to help students find information in the library system. I’m amazed by how often this resource is overlooked. Ask the librarian for research help and she will guide you to some amazing sources you would have never found on your own. These extra discoveries make the difference between an average paper and one that shines. As an added bonus, this exercise also shaves hours from your research time.
- Start from existing conjectures. A cool thesis will excite your professor and push your paper to a new level. A simple strategy to side-step boring questions is to stop making them up from scratch (what do you know!?) Instead, search recent journal articles for open questions or conjectures about the general topic that interests you. Set out to answer the question or confirm the conjecture. A kick-ass paper will follow. (For example, in an art history class I took as an undergraduate, I came across an article that mentioned, in passing, that two artists with no known direct connection had developed remarkably similar styles. I set out to find out some reasons why — it turns out they had mutual friends — and ended up with one of the strongest papers of my student career.)
- Construct a fact timeline. Before writing a single word, you need to understand what happened and when. If you don’t have an unshakable grasp of exactly when everything happened, this clumsiness will poke through in you paper. Your first research step should be to consult basic sources (text books, general overviews) and write out a detailed timeline of all events relevant to your topic. Only once you understand the basics can you confidently deploy the advanced nuances that will structure your argument.
- Talk to real people. Students often fail to look beyond what they can find on a library computer. The best sources, however, are often found in the real world. If there is a person out there somewhere who knows something interesting about your topic, contact them! Explain you’re a student, and conducting research, and you’ll be surprised how often they are willing to chat (on phone or e-mail.) The resulting interview material adds dynamism to your paper, and catapults it past the dry citations of your peers. (For example, for a paper I wrote last fall for an Art History seminar, I ended up chatting with the curator of the Bell Labs archives, who helped me reconstruct the circumstances under which a certain event, that figured prominently in my paper, might have occurred.)
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