Much of what experienced researchers learn is how to narrow down their questions to something they can study. Sure, we might be motivated by the big questions: "How can we cure cancer?" or "How did the universe begin—really?” Research that is doable, however, begins much more modestly. Half the battle in starting a research paper is recognizing an undoable question, and then deciding not to pursue it.
The short answer: Yes.
But please keep reading.
“Can I use ‘I’ in my paper” is probably the number one question I hear students ask their college composition instructors. And the response they receive is always a version of the one I’ve given above. Yes. Yes, you can refer to yourself as “I” to demonstrate your authorship of your college paper.
You may have heard that when you’re writing an introduction for a paper, you must start with the general and go to the specific. In reality, the best introductions start specific. After that, they get even more specific.
Just how specific? Imagine, for a moment, that you have heart failure, and that you will die in a matter of days unless surgery to replace a faulty valve in your aorta succeeds.
There is only one way to write a strong thesis: Write a strong paper.
Strong words in a thesis do not make it strong. A thesis that is controversial is not necessarily strong. No one can tell you your thesis is strong just by reading it unless they have read the rest of the paper because no thesis is inherently “strong.”
We all have pet peeves—those tiny vexations to which we are peculiarly sensitive. Maybe for you it’s people who take up two parking spaces. Maybe it’s loud gum smacking. But think for a minute about those pet peeves you have about language. Maybe you hate it when people use “impact” as a verb. Maybe you don’t like contractions (sorry). Go ahead and make a list of your language pet peeves. It feels soooo good to write them all down. Then review your list. Then realize that everyone you know has a list that’s just as long, but completely different.
Your instructor is no exception.
Every instructor has either a written or mental list of things they hate to see in student papers. And every instructor’s list is different. Think of instructors as if they were Starbucks customers: Each one likes their coffee—and their student papers—a specific way. One instructor might be a Grande-Decaf-Chai-Latte. Another one might be a Venti-Iced-Soy-Cappucino. One instructor might be a Passive Voice-Generalizations-Split Infinitives, while another might be a Colloquialisms-Rhetorical Questions-Wikipedia. So how do you know which is which?
Instructors kind enough to publish their preferences in their syllabi and assignments are giving you fair warning. If they announce a pet peeve ahead of time, however, they may be more likely to grade your paper down for ignoring it. Often, though, you only find out what your instructor’s pet peeves are when your paper is handed back to you with corrections. To avoid losing points on pet peeves, imagine that you are the Starbucks barista, and your instructor has just approached the counter with assignment in hand. But rather than ask them, “What can I get started for you today?” ask them if there’s anything in particular they do not like to see in student papers.
If you want to be extra careful, seize the initiative by studying style manuals describing common pet peeves. Chances are your instructor may be sent up the wall by at least one of the following:
Split infinitives (“to boldly go”)
Hyper-nominalization (“utilization” instead of “use”)
Homophone Screw-ups (Their, there, they’re; its and it’s; to and too; your, you’re)
Nouns as Verbs (“impact”)
Citing the Dictionary
Stereotypes (“Women prefer…”)
Generalizations (“In society…”)
Starting Sentences with a Preposition
Ending Sentences with a Preposition
One Word Sentences
British Spellings (if in America)
American Spellings (if in Britain)
“To be” Verbs
“Since” used as “Because”
“While” used as “Although”
No Page Numbers
Sans Serifed Fonts
Paperclips instead of Staples
Staples instead of Paperclips
As the last few pet peeves indicate, one instructor’s pet peeve can be another instructor’s requirement. It will not help you to remind your instructor of this fact. Pet peeves are not about correct or incorrect, (though, really, get those homophones and sentence boundaries down). They are matters of preference and, as such, are not subject to outside arbitration. Seem unfair? Yeah, it probably is. But before you judge, the next time you’re in a Starbucks, force yourself to walk to the counter and order just “coffee.” We all have pet peeves.
If you have found your way to this blog, you have probably at some point learned how to write a five paragraph essay. You know how it goes: You begin with your introductory paragraph presenting the thesis, proceed to three body paragraphs that give supporting points in order of strength, and end with a conclusion that restates the thesis and offers a concluding remark.
The funny thing about the five paragraph essay is that nobody likes it, but nobody can kill it. Most teachers hate it, but they have to teach it because it helps their students succeed on standardized tests that are used to assess their school’s performance. The people who design the standardized tests don’t like the five paragraph essay because it games the system, producing too much of a standardized response. Students don’t like writing the five paragraph essay because, well, it’s bad writing. But nobody hates them more than college composition instructors who have to un-teach them so that their students can learn how to write papers that meet university level expectations.
Why does the five paragraph fail to work in college? It generally contains little to no research. It has no clear audience. It is usually voiceless, or if it has a voice, it is that of an opinionated robot, say, C-3PO. It presents complex problems as though they were simple. It says nothing new, and it says it more than once. For this reason, it fails to inform. Worst of all, it appears to be harder to kick than cigarettes.
Did the five paragraph essay teach you some skills you might use in college? Some. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t jettison it now. Trying to write a college level paper in five paragraphs is like trying to balance the chassis of an SUV on tricycle training wheels.
So how do you kick the five paragraph habit?
Write the sixth paragraph.
I’m not talking about another body paragraph that adds one more point to support the thesis. I’m talking about the sixth paragraph, the one after the conclusion. The one where you say, “Up to this point, I’ve described how the mainstream media typically portrays this issue, but here at universities where we do research, we understand that that’s hokum.”
Then, you can begin your real paper. The real paper will take one point, and one point only from your five paragraph essay, and rigorously examine it. For example, if your five paragraph essay was on why you forgo the cinema to watch movies at home, you might re-examine your one point that movie theater behavior has become distracting, with patrons checking cell phones and teenagers giggling and throwing popcorn in the front row. Well that’s an observation. But what hard evidence do we have that watching a movie in a cinema is any more distracting than watching a movie at home, where the doorbell can ring, siblings can come in arguing, or the Internet can go belly-up, disrupting your Netflix stream? Do we have studies—real academic research—that would measure the level of distraction present in cinemas versus at home? Virtually every phenomenon has some researcher studying it and publishing about it an academic journal. Find the research.
Next, consider your audience: Who would most readily accept as true your point that movie theater behavior is too distracting? Who would challenge it? Maybe teenagers like giggling in a place away from the watchful eyes of parents. Perhaps some patrons are checking their cell phones because they like sharing details of the movie on social network sites. One person’s annoying distraction is another person’s enhanced experienced.
Change your question. Instead of asking yourself, why have I stopped going to the movie theater, ask instead, why is it that so many people do continue to pay a ridiculous price for a ticket, sit through previews and now commercials, only to place themselves 100 feet and several knees from the nearest bathroom when they could watch virtually any movie they want for much less money at home? What is the continued draw? If you can’t find any research on the subject, perhaps you could conduct your own, surveying and interviewing people as to what brings them to the movie theater.
That sixth paragraph is your invitation to break the mold of the five paragraph essay. It is your door into a paper that can succeed in a college environment. Write the sixth paragraph even a few times, and you’ll never have to write the first five again.
Your friend has handed you their paper and asked what you think of it. You feel nervous because you know that you have to find something to praise. All writers want you to love what they wrote. They want you to see their brilliance. Even if they wrote this paper in two hours for a class they don’t care about, they will have something invested in their work. So what do you say?
It was great. It flowed. You had a strong thesis: These are the kinds of comments I hear when papers are passed around for peer review in college composition classes. Such comments are well-meant, but they rarely make the writer feel better about what they wrote. The writers can tell that the praise is empty and perfunctory. “You had a strong thesis” is the “Hi, how are you” you throw out to people as you pass them on the sidewalk and don’t even stop to listen to the answer. Such comments don’t make the paper any better, either.
Even worse is when this faint praise is used to cushion the blow of specific criticisms—the proverbial “praise sandwich.” I’ve never understood the praise sandwich. Sandwiches are defined by what’s on the inside, not by what’s on the outside. A PBJ on rye or on white is still a PBJ sandwich. So even if you couch you critical shit in praise, you’re still giving a shit sandwich.
In order to be useful at all, praise must be as specific as criticism. A former mentor of mine, Chet, gave me advice that as a teacher I’ve never forgotten: “You can always find something specific to praise in someone else’s paper.” And he should know. I sorely tested his skills when he attended the worst presentation of my life. The paper I had prepared was awful: I’d written it in a psychic fog after finding out my father was dying of lung cancer. Still in the fog I stepped up to the podium. Words fell out my mouth in monotone and hit the floor. After it was over, Chet came up from the audience and said, “Well, you stuck to the time limit!”
I hardly thought it possible for me to feel worse at that moment, but that comment did it. Knowing his philosophy, that he had probably been straining through the whole second half of the presentation for something specific to praise, had come up empty so far as substantive attributes to praise, so went quickly flipping through his mental Rolodex for last-ditch praise for the truly hopeless (font choice, etc.)—with all due respect to Chet, the nicest guy in the world, who has taught me so much, and I know this would kill him to hear this, so Chet, wherever you are I hope you stop reading now (love ya, big guy!)—I can say that his comment put the coffin nail in my already weak will to live that day.
When you are reading a paper solely to look for what you are going to praise, or criticize, you’re not really reading the paper. You are not reading to be convinced. You are not hearing what the paper is saying. Instructors often read a paper twice (if they have time), sitting on their hands through the first read so they don’t go into “critique” mode on little stuff that doesn’t matter. They want to see what the paper has to say first.
So here’s a full-proof tip for what you can do for your friend, the writer, that will be helpful: Restate their argument in one sentence. This trick works even better if you have several people read the paper at once and give their own one sentence summary. Then you can all fight like cats over who is right.
Maybe you’ve read the paper three times and you still can’t figure out what the paper has to say. Nothing’s happening. You can’t even get a pulse. Just give the writer a brilliant idea that you’re not using. It’s allowed, and it is, unlike faint praise, truly generous. It’s not like you’re writing the paper for them. If they really are undeserving, they won’t be able to make anything out of it anyway.
If you want to help another writer, whether you’re in peer review in class, or in your dorm room reading the paper of your best friend, don’t think first about what you can say that will make them happy. Don’t think about meeting your quota of criticism either. In fact, just forget about evaluating altogether, either thumbs up or thumbs down. Remind yourself that this writer already has a teacher. You don’t have to say the “right” thing. Just say the true and kind thing. You are connecting with another human through the page, finding their humanity within their writing, and showing it to them. It is in there, as surely as it is in all of us.
When you’re looking for sources it pays to be choosy, because a bad source is death to a paper. No lie, when your instructor is reading your paper, half of their assessment as to how much effort you put into it is formed by examining your works cited page. A good paper is not the one for which there are the most sources. It’s the one with the best sources.
How do you find the best sources for your paper? Do you thumb through the back issues of Newsweek at your dentist’s office until you find some articles that look like what you’re writing about? Not so much. Do you run a Google search and click on the first three links? Not if you want an A. Do you go to the library, find the shelf with roughly the right material and start scanning titles? Well, that’s how we used to do it, but that was before databases put refined search capability at our fingertips.
Writing a good research paper starts with being a savvy searcher. Serendipitous discovery as a research process is overrated. The percentage of academics who “stumble” onto a great find is misrepresented in modern movies, where everyone seems to pick up the right book out of a pile just at the moment they needed it. Real academics don’t “stumble” into their best discoveries. We stumble over to our nearest librarian the moment we feel ourselves stumble at all.
I can’t give you a foolproof series of steps for finding the right source for your paper, but I can give you these tried and true guidelines:
First, look at the assignment to find out what kind of sources you should use.
There are different kinds of sources: Secondary sources are sources written by other people about your topic. Primary sources, however, are witnesses to history: artifacts, interviews you collect, materials you find in the world or in an archive. On your assignment sheet, your instructor will likely have explained what sources are to be used in your paper. Does your instructor want you to look for peer-reviewed academic articles, newspaper articles, or to draw from only the texts used in class? Do they want you to do primary research? If the assignment doesn’t specify what sources are acceptable, ask your instructor.
Second, know what you’re looking for before you search.
Every paper you write in college begins with you: your interests, your questions, your hunches. If you don’t have at least some sense of what your paper is about before you search, you’re not going to find answers in someone else’s book. Make a list of what you need to find out before you start searching, and you’ll maintain some sense of your own voice in the paper. Go out clueless, and you might wind up presenting your instructor with a disconnected pile of quotes.
Third, look in the right place.
You can’t find bread in a hardware store. And you won’t find academic journal articles in a library database that only covers newspapers. Make sure you’re searching in the right place for the source you need.
Fourth, the source has to answer your question.
This seems obvious, but it’s easily forgotten once you get into the details of writing the paper. Too often what’s available takes over. You forget your purpose. The source you collect must help you answer your research question. If it doesn’t, don’t include it. If your question is about why the campus dining hall went trayless, for example, you can’t find that out by asking students, even if students are standing all around you. They don’t know. Get an interview with an administrator in dining services.
Lastly, some sources are just bad.
Sure it depends on your purpose, but no one really wants to see a quotation from Newsweek in an academic paper, unless your paper is about the death of print magazines, citing Newsweek as an example. You need to go where the story is. The story is never in Newsweek.
If you remember nothing else after reading this post, please remember: The story is never in Newsweek.
It’s the first couple of weeks of classes and you’re not even close to thinking about writing papers. You’re not even sure you’re staying in this course. Believe it or not, it is still not too early to begin writing your first paper—even if you haven’t even thought about what to write about, much less considered what sources to use. You can start collecting information for that paper right away, because the most important source you draw upon for your paper, no matter what that paper is on, is not in the library. It’s not even on the Internet. It’s your class.
Writing a paper begins in your classroom, starting from the very first day. Even if the only thing you walk away with on that first day is the syllabus, you’ve walked away with a wealth of information. The syllabus the instructor hands you is one of the most important sources that you will need to write your paper. As you read through it, you’ll probably notice the numbers first: due dates, number of pages required, office hours of the instructor. But take a moment to look past the numbers. Often overlooked at first (if ever read at all) is the course overview, the instructor’s description of the course. It’s that paragraph below office hours and contact numbers, but before due dates. The course overview might seem like boilerplate that you read as carefully as the terms of service for a software download, but it’s not. It will tell you how to write your paper, because it reveals what kind of course you are in and what your instructor hopes you will learn while you are there. It will tell you what kind of writing the instructor values. If your writing class is organized around a topic, such as sustainability, or popular culture, the course description will likely indicate what the pressing issues are with regard to that topic, and who cares about them. In short, the course description gives you a quick portrait—an Instragram, if you will—of the audience to whom you will be writing all of your papers.
So now you’ve read the syllabus thoroughly. But don’t neglect an equally important source in your classroom: your fellow students. Your class discussions are the source that shape how you read any other source you pick up for your paper. The students you sit in a room with three hours a week will affect what you write about every bit as much as your instructor. Instructors project an arc for the course through their syllabi, but the students ideally take it from there, molding a new course the instructor may not have imagined. While their students are talking, instructors are thinking, “Dang. I have to include something on that in the syllabus next semester.” Don’t neglect to listen closely to your fellow students, because the moment that tilts the whole class on its head could come from anywhere—the guy who talks too much or the woman in the back who never talks at all. And a great moment it is when a class is upended. In such moments, papers are born. For this reason, I encourage my students to cite their peers in their papers. So listen to your instructor and peers, make your own contributions, and take notes about what was said class meeting to class meeting. I guarantee you that when you’re searching around for inspiration as to what to write about, those notes will help you.
Of course, when you do write your paper, your own unique paper, it will draw on sources from the library and the Internet that you alone have collected and read. But as you assemble those sources, remember: Every source for your paper is also an audience. That includes the sources you find in the library, the sources you find on the Internet, and the living ones you sit in class with week after week. Information is not static—out there waiting to be found. It lives in the interchanges between people, whether face to face, or across time and space through the medium of the page. Everything you read you should speak back to in your paper. Every paper you write should give your instructor and your peers in your class something to think about. Write your paper as if you expected it to be added to your instructor’s syllabus the following year under “Required Reading.” Write like what you are—a source of knowledge for another.
You already know that your paper is done when it is due. But let’s say you’re sitting there with a full draft that you’ve worked on and revised, and the due date is still days away. How do you know your paper can’t get any better? How do you know that you’re done and can now move on to studying for that calculus final?
The signs that you are not done are very clear:
Do you have trouble thinking of a title? If so, not done.
Do your peers have trouble summarizing in one sentence the main point of your paper after reading it? If so, not done.
Did your instructor or peers or tutor raise concerns about earlier drafts that your final revision did not address? If so, not done.
Was the last time you saw your paper when you turned off your computer at the end of a five-hour writing marathon? If so, not done. Take a break and go back and proofread your work.
Look back at the assignment. Is there an element required that you did not address? If so, not done.
Did you learn anything from writing the paper? If you did not, you are not done.
Did you surprise yourself by you spending more time on this assignment than you thought you would? If not, probably not done.
Unlike the signs that you are not done, the signs that you are, in fact, done are subtle. If you miss them your paper probably won’t suffer, but you may. Here are some signs that you are done:
You changed the wording of one sentence back and forth three times.
A peer read it and said, “Wow this is the best paper I’ve ever written.” And then they copied it word for word.
The librarian has run out of things to give you to read.
Your instructor has politely requested that you stop stalking them in office hours.
You are contemplating going to graduate school in this field.
Your cat has given up scratching your rug for attention and now is coughing up hairballs on your quilt.
Aside from these indications, there is one less subtle, nearly foolproof sign that you are done: You hate your paper, yourself, and your life. You have lost all faith in your ability to write. You can’t possibly imagine who would want to read this piece of crap. What an idiot you’ve been to give it all your time.
Stick a fork in it. It’s done.