by Sydni Hammar
Like most students, I have found myself faced with a writing assignment that I simply didn’t feel interested in doing. Oftentimes, this apathy stems from the fact that I don’t feel inspired to write because I’m not excited about the possibilities of my topic. However, I have discovered that I am inspired to dig into a topic when
- my research is guided by my own questions, and
- I feel that there is a real possibility that all of this questioning might lead to a new discovery or understanding.
Digging into new material or questions is inherently satisfying because I get to have fun in the process of uncovering a mystery. Annie Proulx shares this delight in the essay “Inspiration? Head Down the back Road, and Stop for the Yard Sales.”* Proulx explains how she sees the potential for discovery in virtually everything she encounters in life. She discusses a “need to know” which enables her to conduct research driven by curiosity. Simply put, she is in touch with her curious nature, and she has made a habit of indulging it. This “need to know” attitude exists because she asks questions, and she has to find answers.
As writers, we must approach our research with the same authentic curiosity and openness to discovery. One of my English professors once told me that the biggest mistake students make in research is to go into it already knowing what they are looking for. I have found this to be very true, since for me, this approach limits my research, and it’s boring! There is no room for discovery (which is what makes an exciting paper) if you already know what you are looking for.
Therefore, you can’t make a discovery without the desire to know or question. Below are a few strategies for developing a curiosity for your research.
- Ask yourself (and your resources) questions!
- If you find an article you like, see if other scholars have cited it. It can be very helpful to see what other scholars are saying about your topic! This strategy is called bibliography mining, and Google Scholar is a great tool for this.
- Look for buzzwords or patterns. Scholarly articles often have subject terms listed above or near the abstract, and you can use these to see connections between different ideas in various articles, which can create a roadmap of discovery.
With these tools, you are equipped to dive into meaningful and exciting research!
Sydni Hammar is a junior majoring in English, and works as an editor for Mistake House, a student-run literary magazine at Principia College.
*Proulx’s essay appeared in Writers on Writing: Collected Essays from the New York Times (2002).
by Katya Rivers
So you are in college, you are having the time of your life, and then Sunday comes around and you have a paper due Tuesday. You haven’t even gotten to the point of opening Word and writing your name and the date. And the worst part is that right next to you is a stack of books, journal articles, and essays that you haven’t even looked at. You estimate the pages of dense reading that await you—well over a thousand—on this gloomy Sunday afternoon. It’s okay. We’ve all been there. You aren’t doomed.
Sure it’s doable to read all of that information, but it’s not necessary! That’s right…you do not need to read all the text. You are saved. The important thing to realize in this situation is that there is a way to get through all of that reading material and write one heck of an essay. Let’s get started.
My Perfect Strategy—from a senior who finally figured it out.
- Read the title—Help your mind prepare for what you are about to read and digest.
- Read the introduction and/or summary and the conclusion—Gather the most important points.
- Take notice of boldface headings and subheadings—This helps create a structure in your thought to organize the information you are receiving and absorbing. This will help you deal with the details to come.
- Make sure to take full notice of graphics—Charts, maps, diagrams, pictures, etc. are there to make a point. DO NOT OVERLOOK THEM (take it from someone who’s done it too many times and suffered).
- Notice reading “clues”—Italics, bold face, print, clearly stated objectives.
- Question—Develop your own questions as you read. This is where your thoughts begin to connect to the text in front of you, and you begin to form your own opinion on the topic or issue. This is also where magic happens, and these questions may become the birth of your thesis.
- Always annotate and make notes, highlights, symbols, etc. —This is for future reference when you are actually writing your paper. It will help you find and reference your information and quickly access major points you related to. This is also your way of contributing to the scholarly discussion you’re in college to join.
Remember good writing always starts with good reading. Have fun!
Katya Rivers is a senior majoring in religion.
by Clayton Harper
In order to be a good researcher, you must be a good reader, or at least a diligent and strategic one. Maybe this sounds obvious, but I’ve noticed that students struggle to use ideas from their research to strengthen the arguments in their writing and participate in demanding classroom discussions. Let me say a few things to address that.
Reading scholarly articles and academic sources is hard. Writers will often dress up simple ideas in complex language. Many will throw as much jargon at their readers as they can. Name-dropping can be frequent and disorienting. Some of this complexity is important to understand. Some of it is unnecessary.
In order to “get something” out of your sources, you must read as a writer. That means reading a scholarly article by identifying the elements you use yourself to write a paper. Generally, this means separating the content of an article into claims and evidence. Scholarly articles tend to be composed of claims, which are statements that argue a broad concept, trend, or idea; and evidence, which includes specific examples that support or illustrate each claim. When you read, underline or note on a separate piece of paper (or a Word document, if you prefer working digitally) all the claims you find. Sometimes a paragraph contains only one claim. Sometimes there will be more. For the most part, though, an article has much more evidence than claims.
By focusing on the claims of an article, you will remember more of its content. When you read an article to understand its claims/evidence structure, the content will condense into a handful of main ideas. Now you understand what you have read, and it’s much easier to remember 5-10 general ideas than 25 pages of wordy stuff. If you can discipline yourself to do this, you may also remember important bits of evidence that are linked to each claim. And if you don’t, because you underlined or took notes as you read, you will know exactly where to look to refresh your memory.
Don’t be discouraged by the reading process. No one flies through this stuff nodding their head and walking away with complete comprehension. Good readers are workmanlike. They take sources one piece at a time and slowly assemble the larger picture from the bits they understand. Don’t get hung up on the desire to master a source. Do take the steps to extract something that is understandable and useful from what you read. That’s the point of research, isn’t it?
Clayton Harper is a creative writing major and writing tutor at Principia College. He never doodles during class and isn’t known to daydream about crazy adventures to write about later.