Let’s be real here – you’ve got a 2,000-word essay due in less than 24 hours and you’re watching a YouTube video. Look at your life, look at your choices. But wait to do that until this video’s over, because today I’m going to help you become a literary genius.
Or, at least, write a paper that doesn’t give your teacher more ammunition for wastebasket free throws. Simon Peyton Jones, a researcher for Microsoft, once gave a talk at Cambridge University about how to write a great research paper. In this talk, he advised the audience to start out the paper writing process with a pre-writing phase.
Only once that’s done should they go to research. Most people do this in the opposite way. They get their idea, they go do a bunch of research on it, and then write their paper.
But I like Jones’ advice to go through a pre-writing phase before doing any research, because it does a couple of very important things. First, pre-writing will dredge up things you didn’t even think you knew about the topic. This is something that professional writers know really well; when you spend some quality time writing in a focused state, your brain will make connections and serve up memories you didn’t even know you had. As a result, you’ll come up with lots of great questions and preliminary arguments that might just make it into your final draft. And this leads directly to the second benefit, which is more focused research. When you go into the research process armed with questions and arguments from your pre-writing phase, you’ll have a much better idea of what you’re looking for, and you’ll spend a lot less time going down pointless rabbit holes.
Now, the first thing to understand about the pre-writing phase is that it’s not about cranking out a polished paper on your first try. For one, you haven’t even done the research yet – but more importantly, a paper is a big project. And with big projects, you need to just jump in and make a mess at first. It’s like an artist creating a sculpture out of a solid block of marble. Any good artist knows that it’s much easier to hammer out the basic features right away instead of trying to jump right into the detailed work. And at first, the result will be a mess, but it’s much easier to hone a mess into something great than to turn a solid block of marble into a masterpiece on the first pass.
So let’s get into the details. Personally, my pre-writing phase usually takes the form of a brain dump. Now, this is not an attempt to write a coherent paper.
Instead, it’s just a chance for me to get all of my thoughts onto a piece of paper or into a document in my note-taking app. When I do a brain dump, I’ll open a new document, set a pomodoro timer for 25 minutes, like we talked about in that procrastination video, and then I just start writing. Specifically, I’m looking to pull basically everything I know about the topic out of my brain, as well as identify any questions I might have.
I’ll also list out any main points that I think will be important to cover, and finally try to think of any specific external resources that might be useful to look at during the research process. Once you’ve done a brain dump, it’s time to move onto the research process. Now, the biggest pitfall that most students deal with here is the tendency to get stuck in this phase forever. The author Cal Newport calls this “research recursion syndrome” – you get stuck in a loop of constantly looking for yet another source.
In his book How to Become a Straight-A Student, Newport lays out an algorithm of sorts for ensuring you don’t get stuck in this loop. First, you find your sources. Now, you’ll probably find most of these at the library or on the internet, but it’s also possible that you’ll find them in the burial room of an ancient temple full of booby traps. Pro-tip: Most teachers agree that being impaled by hidden floor spikes is not an acceptable excuse for turning your paper in late. Just so you know. A safer place that you might actually want to start with is Wikipedia.
Now, some of your teachers are gonna say that Wikipedia isn’t a good source – and they’re right. However, the citations section at the bottom of each and every Wikipedia article is actually a really great place to find good sources, since Wikipedia holds their articles to high standards and requires high-quality source material – like scientific studies published in reputable journals. Aside from Wikipedia, though, you’ll also find lots of good sources through Google Scholar, journal databases like EBSCO, your school library, and – one place you might not have thought of before – the notes or bibliography section in most popular science books. For example, Bill Bryson’s book A Short History of Nearly Everything contains 48 pages of citations and references to other works. Once you’ve found your sources, make personal copies of them – create photocopies if they’re in books or other paper formats, or add them to a note-taking app if they’re digital. This ensures that you’ll always have them available to you when you’re writing without having to go look them up again.
Next, you wanna annotate the material. Skim each source, highlight the sections that you feel are specifically relevant to the arguments you want to make, and add any notes that might help you hammer out the details of those arguments when you’re actually writing the final draft. Finally, consciously ask yourself if you’re done. Cal’s ballpark suggestion here is to have at least two sources for each main point in your thesis, and at least one for any tangential or non-crucial points.
Of course, this is a general suggestion, so you’ll have to make the final call. If the answer is no, repeat the process. If the answer is yes, then it’s time to write your first real draft. And this should be an awful first draft.
There’s a popular adage that’s often attributed to Ernest Hemingway which goes, “Write drunk, edit sober.” Now, there are a more than a few things wrong with this quote. First, Hemingway never said it – it’s actually a pithy re-phrasing of a passage from a novel called Reuben, Reuben by Peter De Vries. Secondly, Hemingway definitely didn’t write this way – even though he was a guy who definitely drank a lot in his spare time.
However, it’s still a useful piece of advice as long as it isn’t taken literally. What’s it’s actually getting at is the usefulness of letting the initial act of creation be free of scrutiny and restraint. And this is important, because one of the most difficult problems that writers deal with is perfectionism. To the Thought Bubble!
Let me get real with you for a second. This video you’re watching right now? Creating this has been a dream of mine for years. Crash Course was one of my biggest inspirations for becoming a YouTuber in the first place, and ever since I started, one of my biggest aspirations was to be a host on this very channel.
I wanted to be a part of the project that inspired me to start creating videos on my own. So I’ll be honest, sitting here, talking to you, being an animated character – this is awesome. But it was also intimidating, because I felt like the series had to be perfect, and that made it really hard to write the scripts that you’re listening to right now. However, once I reminded myself that they didn’t have to be perfect the first time, the writing became much, much easier. I knew that my fantastic editor Meredith would help me hone each script into something truly great before I actually had to deliver it on camera. And once I acknowledged that fact, the first drafts became so much easier to do.
This same mindset will speed up the completion of your own first draft as well. It’s ok if your first draft is awful, because future you will be there to edit it and shape it into something great. Thanks, Thought Bubble.
Now, one technique that I’ve found to be helpful during this process is to write my first draft in a different place than where I intend the final draft to go. This might be a separate document, or it might be an entirely different app. For instance, I write the first draft of almost every one of my blog posts and video scripts in Evernote. Later, I’ll polish them up in Google Drive. Using a separate app helps me to truly believe that it’s ok to make a mess.
Of course, that mess has to get cleaned up eventually! Now, I did say a minute ago that cleaning it up is future you’s problem, but eventually future you becomes now you. So let’s talk about editing.
I recommend editing your paper in two separate stages. Stage one is the content edit. Here, you’re looking at your paper as a whole and asking yourself the most important questions: Does each argument support the thesis? Does the paper have a good narrative flow? Is each argument properly fleshed out and backed up with research or external sources? What can be removed or written in a clearer, simpler way?
Essentially, this stage is all about making sure the paper communicates your message to the reader as effectively as possible. It’s not about spelling errors. Those you should save for stage two – the technical edit.
At this point, you’re ready to go over your paper with a fine-toothed comb to identify any problems with the structure or syntax. Things like: – Spelling and grammar mistakes – Poorly structured sentences – Formatting errors – Sentences that just don’t sound right I find that the most effective way to do a technical edit is to print out the paper and go over it by hand. It’s just easier to catch mistakes when you’re editing the paper in its final intended medium. Plus, by using pen and paper, you’re prevented from making corrections on the fly.
Doing so would require switching contexts from editing to writing, which can be fatiguing and makes it easier to get sloppy near the end of the paper. In addition to printing out your paper, you should also take the time to read it out loud. This forces you to slow down and prevents you from unconsciously skipping over any words, and it also helps you identify any sentences that don’t sound good. Finally, remember that one set of eyes isn’t good enough – especially when they’re your own. To make your paper truly great, you need to let other people look over it and get their feedback.
Simon Peyton Jones has some more good advice here: First, realize that each person can only read your paper for the first time exactly once. Just like I can never experience the magic of Zelda: Breath of the Wild for the first time ever again (single tear), nobody can read your paper with fresh eyes twice. So be strategic with your reviewers. Let a couple people read the first draft, and keep other people on deck for the final one. Secondly, make sure to explicitly ask for the kind of feedback you actually want. When people aren’t given direction, they’ll naturally gravitate to looking for spelling and grammar errors – which aren’t nearly as important as the big elements, like whether your arguments even make sense.
Finally, after you’ve gotten your feedback and finished both stages of editing, print out your final draft and give it one final read-through from start to finish. If everything makes sense and nothing sticks out as glaringly wrong, give yourself permission to be done. In all likelihood, you’ve just crafted an excellent paper. Congrats!