Because I am in the middle of the semester, it is prime time for beginning to work on some research papers. In our PhD program at Faulkner University, every class is finished with a research paper. There is a little bit of variation in the length depending on the amount of coursework for the rest of the semester, but it is enough to say that they are pretty lengthy endeavors.
As those of you who have followed this website for a while might remember, I transitioned to writing one long post per week rather than three short posts. I largely made this decision because I wanted to improve my longform writing. I have written many short articles, but getting over 1000 words can be a challenge for me. It is not that I am not capable of it; anybody can write at length. Rather, it has always been a question of quality for me and actually a question of questioning.
As far as quality, I normally have something that I want to write about. Once I discover my main idea, I am ready to run. I want to start getting things down on paper. However, my topics tend to be highly specialized and very specific. For example, my temptation is to suggest that this article will only be about my propensity for writing short articles. That would be true, but it doesn’t make for a very engaging longform article. After all, if I tried to remain with such a specific topic for thousands of words, it would get pretty dry. There is only so much that you need to know about such a highly specific topic.
That is always my first hurdle I have to get over. I want to make sure that I don’t ramble unnecessarily or start trying to draw out a point that does not need to be drawn out. When I am writing about a hyper-specialized topic, it is easy for me to want to just start drawing out I topic and saying more than really needs to be said. You might remember doing that in elementary school. When you had to write something with a word count, you only had so much that you wanted to say, but if you hadn’t quite hit that word limit yet, you just continued rambling to try to get to that point where your paper would be long enough to turn in. I get that temptation. Maybe some of you think I am doing that right now.
Sometimes I have an excellent topic, but if it is too specific, I know that I am going to have to broaden my perspective a little bit more, or I am going to end up in a trap where I have to brutally extend my topic, say too much about too little and therefore decrease the quality of my paper. I learned that lesson early in my high school career, but it is still a temptation now. If I don’t choose my topic well from the beginning, I’m going to run into major difficulties, and quality will be the victim.
That relates to my second point about questioning. It is certainly possible to choose a question that is far too narrow for a 20 page paper. “What is the purpose of life as described by the first page of The Cat in the Hat?” Man, that would be a brutal paper to have to write. At the same time, you can go way too far in the other direction. “What is the purpose of life?” People have written books on that question, and it is still very difficult to answer in that format. To try to find the perfect answer to the purpose of life in just a few thousand words is also a very tall order.
I know this is a ridiculous example, but I think that you can see how the best answer lies somewhere in the middle, and it is a matter of choosing the right question for the project you have at hand. If I am writing a 500 word blog post, I am going to get very specific. I might try to answer the first question if it would even be possible (probably not, but you never know). The only way to actually know the right type of questions to ask is to begin writing and to gain experience.
That was the difficult part for me. I have spent most of my writing career on the Internet talking about sports and more recently religion, politics and culture. Because of my focus in that form of media, I have written with pretty tight word restraints. People have short attention spans in general, and their attention spans are even shorter online. As a result, I had a lot of practice writing short things. I had a lot of practice choosing one, highly specific point, hitting that point on the head and moving on.
I didn’t have much experience putting down 30 pages on very much of anything, so I needed to get my eyes off of the types of questions I had been asking previously. I couldn’t just get by with one very specific question. Of course, there had to be a great deal of focus, but it needed to be a question that I was able to explore in a variety of different ways. Rather than say that J. R. R. Tolkien demonstrates a monotheistic universe through the opening scene in The Silmarillion, it would be more appropriate for me to explore how Tolkien demonstrated a monotheistic universe in The Silmarillion as a whole or even the entire canon of his work depending on the length of the paper I had to write.
That is the portion that I am still trying to learn and am still developing. I think that is the secret to all effective research. We need to learn to learn how to ask the right question for the job at hand. If you start with the wrong question, then the entire project is going to go off the rails.
It can develop into a problem of quality as I suggested before because I may try to do too much with too little content. However, it may just be a bad question to ask all the way around. If I start with a question that has no answer or an uninteresting answer, that’s not really going to be a very successful paper either. It is again the question of questioning. Even if I resist my temptation to try to stretch a bad question by decreasing the quality of my response, it may not even have to extend that far. Even if my question is perfect in terms of scope and allows me to answer the question with just the right word count, some questions just don’t have very interesting answers.
I know that some people may say that there are no bad questions. That’s entirely false. There are plenty of bad questions. From a cost-benefit analysis, if you are writing a research paper and spending lots of time on it, the very least you can do to maximize your benefit out of the rather substantial cost it takes to produce a paper of a decent length. If you’re going to spend all of that time on a paper, you might as well have said something worth saying.
Consequently, I hope this helps to a little bit as you think about research papers that you may be writing. It is, of course, a challenge to get the things done. Getting the first draft on paper may take several hours, but you will probably spend at least as long, if not more time, in the revision process. I find that I rarely entirely overhaul my paper. I have made it to a complete first draft, then I normally don’t start from scratch again. That being said, the finished product is probably going to look different than what you began with. As an interesting side note, in a recent paper I just drafted, I am seriously considering major structural changes and rearrangement. I like the parts of it, but I may want to put them in a different order. I’m really not sure. I guess we will see how I feel in the coming weeks. I have a while before it has to be turned in.
If you want my advice, and perhaps you do since you clicked on this link, I guess I would say that the best thing you can do for yourself before you write a research paper is find something you actually enjoy talking about, writing about and thinking about. That will address my two major concerns from above. First, you will have enough interest in the topic to keep your quality high. You will be willing to read more, learn more and question more. Because of the increased level of questioning, you will then be able to figure out the best question you can ask for your assignment. If you need a broad question for a long paper or a specific question for a short paper, you will have the excitement you need to get this job done. I tend to be a rather practical person, so that is naturally my target. The job has to get done. You don’t want that paper to be halfway done. Find something you are excited about, or it is going to be a rough process for you.