As you embark on your research paper for me, I’d like to offer a few thoughts and suggestions.
Research can be incredibly fascinating, and it’s something I’ve much enjoyed since beginning high school debate, way back in the fall of 1982. Yes, the glory days—the days of Reagan, Rush, and Blade Runner. Indeed, research can open up entirely new worlds to you; I could only compare it to reading chapter books for the first time and entering the sub-created realms of the best authors. It many ways, though, it proves itself more fulfilling than reading the work of another. You hunt, find, and revel in the words of another, placing each piece of evidence into a larger puzzle, a puzzle that you ultimately build and solve. Research, when done well, increases your knowledge, your wisdom, and your vocabulary, and it gives you a certain gravitas in all areas of your life, professional and otherwise.
One can think of research and writing a paper as a mystery-adventure to be solved, the Ark of the Covenant to be discovered somewhere in the Near East. Or, one could think of it as a search for the Book of Mazarbul, deep in the Mines of Moria. We only pray we don’t share the same fate as Balin, Son of Fundin.
But, because I’m often hungry and because I love to cook (the nasty hedonistic and epicurean aspects of me), I’m going to compare researching and writing a serious paper to making a truly sublime meal for your closest friends. You want to make something special so that you can enjoy meaningful conversation in a truly sacramental fashion. You’ll want candles, some good cheese, and a nice bottle of wine for atmosphere. Depending on what kind of conversation you’re hoping for, you could put on some Bach, Mendelsohn, or Gorecki. You certainly don’t want to serve microwave dinners, and you want to avoid overly processed foods as much as possible. You also want to make everything—from the soup and salad to the bread to the entrée—with your own hands and with the freshest ingredients possible. Not everything can come from your garden, however, so you will have to do some serious shopping at a quality meat market and grocery store.
A research paper can never be completed in a day or two. As with a good soup or sauce, you have to collect the ingredients, mix them properly, taste, add something else, and taste again. Repeat as necessary as often as necessary as often as necessary as often as necessary…All of the ingredients come together, only after days of simmering. You can’t let the liquids boil off completely, or the sauce will coagulate too much and stick to the bottom of the pan, thus creating a rancid, burned flavor (good for garlic, but not for much else). As the soup simmers, you have to stir and add water frequently.
Leave nothing to chance. Don’t just grab the first recipe you find. Explore, find different types of ideas—from a variety of different ethnic groups. That is, don’t just stick to Swedish cuisine, try some Thai as well. Or, perhaps you could mix the Swedish white sauce with some Thai basil. That is, if you find something interesting, grab it and discover its connection to the other things you’ve found. Remember, as stated above, you want the freshest ingredients possible, and the resulting dinner will ultimately be your responsibility. Serve it well.
Whether you type the information out on your laptop, or photocopy the information you find, grab everything that looks in any way relevant to your project. But, never (I repeat, never) follow a recipe exactly (see below).
While you need to back up your arguments with very concrete information, be willing to take some chances in your thinking, just as you would in your recipe. That is: be, to a certain extent, abstract. Allow your imagination to connect one point to another. No self-respecting chef ever follows a recipe exactly. Don’t let the established rules of society destroy your personality. Instead, let your personality work with the rules of society (or the cookbook). When you cook for someone, he or she wants to know what part of your soul you put into it; certainly, no one wants simply a mechanized recipe from the Joy of Cooking! Instead, after looking at the recipe for some guidelines, the true chef throws a few creative elements in, making it his own.
Finally, my dear student, when the chef serves the meal, he does so properly and well. After so much preparation, cooking, etc., he would never just dump the food on a plate. He will pick the right silverware, the right flatware, the right glassware, a proper wine, a different CD, etc. He will offer each course slowly, allowing his guests to savor each part of his creation as fully as possible. And, since these are good friends enjoying an excellent meal, they will talk and talk and talk. A true meal, with several courses and much conversation, can take three or four hours. The quality of the conversation will reflect the quality of the meal, and your friends will be honored you treated them so royally.
In essence, the meal should be sacramental—in every aspect. It is tangible; it is spiritual; it is both at once.
The same will be true with your professor, who has been blessed to savor so much or your thought and personality in the research paper you have prepared for him.
Once the conversation (written or oral) is done, clean up, and sleep well.
Ok, on a more practical level (sadly, we must move from the humanities to the social sciences):
1. Think about a topic; think about where the topic might lead you. What are you interested in (though never end a sentence with a preposition)? In what ways can you explore new ideas within the topic assigned? Where do you think you’ll end up (again with the preposition ending the sentence—sheesh)?
2. Go to the library. Spend a day just looking over things: books, periodicals, reference manuals, databases, etc. What’s there, what’s not? Are there primary sources, either in print or not, available? What are the limitations of the library? Can you use interlibrary loan to obtain what you need?
3. After you’ve familiarized yourself with the library, begin to collect everything you can regarding your topic. If a thing looks even remotely connected to your potential topic, grab it, photocopy it, or scan it.
Don’t hesitate to find a librarian to help you. Treat the librarian with as much respect and courtesy as possible, and he will treat you equally well, making your paper that much easier.
Make sure you record everything you find—every piece of information you find (make sure you have author, title, source, volume, page number, etc.), every idea you have, and every connection you make. This takes a considerable amount of time in the beginning of a project, but it will save you much time and frustration later in the process. There’s nothing worse than having a great piece of information and not knowing where to find it or where it came from.
I highly recommend using a program called Endnote to ease the research process. Endnote keeps bibliographic data as well as critical information from each source. I’ve been using Endnote since 1992, and my database of sources—many annotated and with marginalia—is huge. I use the program daily. It works well with Word and Pages, and it automatically footnotes according to whatever style you need. A program such as Endnote covers all styles you’ll be asked to use.
Outline your ideas and think about a thesis statement (a thesis statement is just a logical argument—the purpose of your paper, what you want to prove). Be open to new ideas and be open to changes in your thinking while you research and, especially, while you write. While I was always taught that most of the thinking is done on the outline prior to writing, I have not found this to be the case in my own life. Instead, most of the thinking comes when researching and reading the source material and when actually writing. The writing process is a process of logic. It is a process of making what seems disordered (your massive amount of source material) into something ordered and beautiful. Again, I refer you to the idea of a meal. When you first begin to cook, you see a bewildering myriad of ingredients in front of you. By the time you’re ready to serve, those ingredients have become something singular. This also means that the outline stage is crucial, as it’s the bridge between research and writing.
Endnote will help you keep your research organized, and Word or Pages might help you with the writing. But, if you really want to use a program that allows you to combine research, outlining, and writing, I highly recommend Scrivener. It’s a thing of beauty, a writer’s best friend, and the academic version will save you a bit of money. From what I can tell, the company is basically four people who do this because they love it. Even their website seems a Chestertonian joy. If only all companies operated like this.
Long before we had such organizational programs as Scrivener (even before the days of internet and the web), I personally liked putting each of my ideas on a separate index card, placing them in a circle around me, and then putting together the paper, one index card at a time, as the ideas flow together organically. I did this while putting together my affirmative cases in high school debate, for all of my college classes, and for my graduate school theses.
Now, however, you can do this visually on programs like Scrivener, thus avoiding someone walking in on you with 3×5 note cards surrounding you and assuming that you are performing some kind of pagan ritual. As one reviewer commented, “Scrivener is for non-linear writing.” I think this is true—but it’s also good for organizing that which is chaos and non-linear into something linear. That is, Scrivener helps create order out of what might seem, at first, second, and third blush, overwhelming.
Two of my “must own” apps: Dragon Dictate 3 and MacJournal. I also use, rather constantly, a dictionary app. I’ve found the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary the best for the Mac, and the American Heritage Dictionary the best for the iPad.
Once you’ve outlined your idea, write deliberately and methodically. There is an art to writing, but, first, as with all things that matter, there is a discipline and an exercise of writing. The art comes, generally, when it comes, in revision. Let the paper sit for a few days after completing the first draft. Then, read it again, carefully, and copy-edit. Give it to someone else to proof and critique.
When the paper is polished—that is, without grammatical errors and with every footnote properly formatted—turn it in to the professor. Believe it or not, this is always my favorite thing to grade. I relish these—seeing the kind of time and thought you put into your topic. I always learn a great deal about you (personally) as well as about the topic you’ve chosen. And, another believe it or not, I’ve yet to find a student who didn’t enjoy the process and the end product if he or she put the time necessary in to create something that reaches toward the true, the good, and the beautiful.
Remember, absolutely nothing (from sweeping floors to making a fine meal to writing poetry) in this world is worth doing unless one does it with excellence, integrity, and beauty. Otherwise, you might as well just slap God and each one of your ancestors in the face now and call it quits.
Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.