Refining Techniques and Writing Papers

The idea of writing papers was, early in my academic career, a process far more complex than I originally thought. Given my recreational writing in previous blogs and my tendency to carry on at length on Facebook posts, completing assignments involving my two passions – history and writing – would be easy… Right?

WrongwrongWRONG.

My first papers are painful for me to re-read. Incorrect or hybrid formatting (I shall call this citation method the “Modern Chicago Psychological” format), typos, loss of solid focus… All of which I had originally considered “pretty darn good writin’…” Much of the blame is my own lack of focus. I tend to actually get sucked into the material I use, and the early days were filled with me either reading too much and not having enough time to write, or creating a separate Word document several times larger than the required word or page length required by the assignment. Even trying to sort the notes collected tended to be a challenge: elaborate color codes for sources… chronological order… alphabetized by source… you name it, I tried it. Yet, more often than not, the resulting paper – though academically sound and worthy of the good grades received, still had the odor of chaos to them. We are our own worse critics, after all.

In the process of writing a recent assignment, I have learned a couple of things that I thought worthy of passing on:

First, make a “reference library” or some other document saved in a folder where you keep all research projects. Over the last two years, I find that I tend to orbit around the topic of submarines in the Second World War, and it would have saved me hours if I had come up with this idea earlier, given that I tend to use a lot of the sources more than once. By copying the bibliographic entry and footnotes, it saves a little bit of time and allows for you to remain focused on the research. This idea has subsequently expanded for separate Word documents for different topics, with each bibliographic entry tagged with a the properly formatted footnote. Now, when I am compiling notes on a templated outline, there is one less step to contend with.

Second, two words: “split screen.” Somehow, I pressed the magical combination of keys in trying to rid myself of the infernal Calibri font that MS Word loves to default to. My irritation comes from my OCD, according to my wife, but in the process of this mistake of frustration, I found myself looking at a horizontal line across the monitor. In trying to understand what it meant, I happily discovered that I could scroll the halves independently, preventing me from having to try to remember what the document said earlier or later. While working from two monitors is efficient, the idea of splitting each screen allows for the “writing groove” to be maintained.

Am I advocating academic laziness?

To a certain extent, yes. The process of properly using whichever format for citations tends to be one of the slowest steps in effective scholarly composition. By streamlining this process a bit, perhaps the consistency and quality all students should strive for will be just that much easier.

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