Ten Ways to Write a Better Research Paper

Bland title, I know, but for the past few days my life has been research, writing and then everything else (while worrying about research and writing). I skipped going to the gym today, for the first time since Sunday (go me!) and did a crazy at-home Buzzfeed workout for 30 minutes, and a shower and protein drink later I’m still dizzy and sweating, so excuse me if something in this post is misspelled or doesn’t make sense.

I’m currently at the end of my eighth (!) year as a college student (with two degrees so far to show for it, thankyouverymuch), and though I’ve had my fair share of frantic moments, freak-outs, and failures, I’ve managed to get this far without any horribly bad research papers, and I don’t think I’ve had any late ones either, at least not that I’m aware of. I have also never pulled an all-nighter (yet), not even when I was writing my master’s thesis, although I did spend a solid 8 hours one Sunday in same spot, writing for the bulk of it. So I’d like to think I’m onto something here. Now, here’s my top 10 ways to write a better research paper.

1. Be realistic. Pick a topic that’s not too broad or too general, and don’t bite off more than you can chew. Be bold, but always come back to the facts as best you can. Also, be realistic about goals. Some people can write a 20 page paper in 5 hours, and while it’s possible, I am not one of those people. I’d need at least 8.

2. Set time limits. Write for an hour, solid, then break. If that seems too intimidating, set a timer for an hour and during that time, even if you’re just rereading the same sentence or staring at your computer screen or end up with seven words, if you’ve done it with no distractions or breaks, congrats.

3. And your point is? Not you, necessarily, but your sources. Make sure you know what they are saying, that you’re not saying the exact same thing (or if you are, add something new to it), if you agree or disagree, and if it’s relevant to your overall point. Abstracts are very helpful when looking at articles, as are tables of contents and chapter numbers in books. Use them. If a source is not making sense anymore or is repeating themselves or is quoting other sources you’ve already used, just stop right there and move on to the net one.

4. Notes, notes, notes. Post-it notes are my best friends, especially color-coated ones; I put them on the first line of every paragraph in every book I want to quote. For my Indian theatre paper, I used yellow post-its, and for my Brecht paper, I used pink ones. Also, it’s so, so satisfying when you go back to those notes, say “I am done with you!” then take out the flag and throw it away, or keep it in the reuse pile if it’s still sticky enough.

5. Notes, notes, notes, part II. Here’s one way to take notes: Open a blank document and put the full bibliographic information at the top. Then write the current page number on the next line, then on the line underneath, write all the notes you found on that page. If there’s a thought that overlaps two pages, put it beneath the ones from the previous page, then continue with the next page’s notes. As far as copying the info itself, I’d suggest either a) paraphrasing everything, so that when you go back to write it, you’ll probably paraphrase that, making it doubly separated from the material, or b) quote everything, so you can return the books to the library knowing that you’ll have to change your notes because they are directly from the source. I have been known to mix these techniques, especially when there’s a block quote I want to use. I usually indicate that by rewriting the author’s name and page number, or simply putting it in block quote format so I can just copy and paste it.

A made-up example:

Featherstone, Darcy M. “Postmodern implications of the munglewung: a study.” The British Journal of Obscurities 24.1 (Fall 2011): 13-36. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. Web. 14 May 2015.


the munglewung in prewar Europe had little effect on the proletariat

it gained in relevance after the first World War


World War II caused the munglewung to fade into obscurity


“If the Church of England would have had its way, the munglewung would not have metastasized to the level it did in 1950s Europe. It was commonly seen in Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg, but the French wanted no part in it. As history relates, the British got their way, although at a price: the barriers created by this discrepancy would prove difficult to overcome, especially in light of the rapid mobilization of the Russians” (Featherstone 18)

6. Biblio as you go. Citations are a good way to fill some time when you’re trying to think of the right words, and it will save you time at the end to already have your Works Cited ready to go, so you can spend that extra time making up an introduction.

7. Subheadings are your friends. First, they add a line to your page count, so there’s that. Second, they help you organize your thoughts and contribute to easier transitions between distant ideas. Third, no one will mark you down for attempting to organize your thoughts better or make your reader’s life easier.

8. When you get overwhelmed? Don’t jump ship. Separate things out, declare some parts finished, and make sure all the parts are decently fleshed out. Then, if you see a discrepancy, fix it. Sometimes you just need to end it, somewhere, before you drown in a sea of hyperbole. I’ve done that enough times to know that.

9. Don’t compare your progress to others’ progress. You are beautiful and wonderful, and if you’re behind someone else, you’re no less of a person. If you’re ahead of them, don’t gloat too much or rest on your laurels.

10. Have fun. If you’re not excited about it, why should your reader be?

But most of all, just go for it. Once you turn it in, you’ll forget about it in about 60 seconds and return to your regularly scheduled worrying.


The ASTRonaut Has Landed

Welcome to Baltimore!

That’s what I’ve been saying to people all day.

Yesterday, I flew home, saw my parents for a minute, then headed downtown where I’m attending my first ASTR (American Society for Theatre Research) conference. Which just happens to be here. The conference goes until Sunday, and then instead of flying back to Madison I’ll be staying on here for another week to do Thanksgiving with the family.

ASTR has a very different feel than ATHE so far. Same people, for the most part, plenty of familiar faces, but I don’t really have a “crowd” yet; I guess it comes with being a newbie. But so far it’s been pretty exciting.

The opening session was a plenary with four fantastic presenters from all over the world. I sat and listened near the front with two other conference newbies from London who are in Baltimore for the first time, and we commiserated between speakers.

I learned a lot from each speaker, but the one that affected me the most was a woman from Dartmouth called Maral. At the start of her presentation, someone wheeled on a coat rack with three orange and black costume pieces hanging from it. Before she took the podium, she did a short dance clad all in black.

Her topic?

“Politics of National Dance Dress in 21st Century Jordan.”

Even with no prior knowledge on the subject, her presentation style was unreal. She set the scene at a state event involving a traditional dance performance, and described how the costume designer imagined the dress that was to be worn by the dancers. Only it ended up sounding like two different outfits: one more conservative and one more “European” and “orientalistic” with a slit and long, open sleeves. She spoke about how the concept of “national dress,” though stemming from the traditional abaya, is a fluid concept of Jordan. She talked about it in terms of “temporal continuity of monarchy,” showing the “collective victory of Hussein” down to today, and the connections between costume and economic stability. The dress performed as an embodied entity, to create image, identity, and marketability. The silk and chiffon fabrics and orange coloring echoed the “mystical desert sands” of an Orientalized idea of “Arabia,” and how the ballet slippers that the costume designer insisted the dancers wear on their feet “because bare feet are so primitive and passe” interrupted the Orientalism to endow the outfit to a wider audience, a “globalization on their feet.” Donning the dress, she then repeated the dance, and then speaking about the dress as an “invented subject,” she did the dance a third time, now with interpretation a la “open up, attitude, Martha Graham Martha Graham (that got a giggle from the audience)” and talked about the form and flow.

Overall, her point was that the dress performs subjectivity, between tradition and modernity, in the neoliberal regime. She then returned to her original outfit and gave sort of a reflective summary of her work, which was kind of unnecessary since we just heard it but I guess it communicated her methodology more clearly in case anyone was curious.

I really liked her presentation style, on the whole; the dance and the costume added some jazz to what could have been a boring topic.

Now that I’m really excited about semiotics and phenomenology and performativity and pedagogy, time for bed, of course, to dream about all those things.