Writing Well: On the Right Track

On the Right Track

There's a lot to be said for the motto “Shop 'Til You Drop,” especially when it comes to shoes, sweaters, and reference material. Once you get a nice pile of stuff, it's time to put it in some kind of order. Try these suggestions for your research findings:

Writer's Block

Never force a source to fit. You can tweak your thesis a bit here and there, but never wring or wrench your point to make a source blend in.

  • See how each source helps you prove your thesis. If the source doesn't help support your point, it's not relevant.
  • Make sure the material you found is really valid and can be verified in more than one source.
  • Check that you have a variety of perspectives in your source material. This will help protect your paper from bias.
  • See that you have material that appeals to logic as well as emotion. Remember that an effective research paper is built on logic rather than feelings.
  • Decide how you will fit each source into your paper. Remember all those gorgeous shoes that pinch? Can't bear to throw them out? If the shoe and source fit, slip them on. If not, set them aside.
Write Angles

Cards allow you to keep the most promising sources and discard the irrelevant ones. Also, cards can easily be alphabetized when you create your Bibliography or Works Cited page.

A Place for Everything, and Everything in Its Place

Next, create a working bibliography, a systematic way to organize all the material that looks promising. For each source, write all the bibliographical material on a 3×5 index card. Here's what you should include:

  • Author's complete name
  • Title of source
  • Printed matter: publisher, place of publication, date of publication, page numbers (for magazines and journals)
  • Web site: URL, date you accessed the page
Writer's Block

Don't rely too heavily on any one source—no matter how good it looks. First, this can lead to bias. Second, what happens if the source turns out to be invalid or dated? Your argument can collapse.

If a catalog or index doesn't provide complete bibliographical information, leave blanks you can fill in later.

Write Angles

In most cases, you won't be able to tell what's going to make the cut and what won't. As a result, you'll probably end up taking far more notes than you need. Don't worry: Nearly all researchers end up with extra notes. The deeper you dig into your subject, however, the more perceptive you'll become about what you need to prove your point most convincingly.

As you learned earlier, there are several different methods of documentation. For example, research papers in the humanities often use the Modern Language Association (MLA) style, while papers in social sciences use the American Psychological Association (APA) style. As you write your bibliography cards, follow the documentary style preferred by the discipline in which you are writing.

Computer “Cards”

Or, you can make “bibliography cards” on a computer. This is a great technique because you can update, alphabetize, and correct cards as you go along. Make your own cards by drawing a box around each entry or using software especially designed for this purpose.

However, be sure to back up your “bibliography cards” on floppy disks. In addition, print out hard copies as you work. This way, you won't lose your material if your hard drive crashes or the file develops a glitch.

Working the Crowd

You've gathered your sources and prepared a bibliography card for each one. Now it's time to fit everything into place. Here's how to do it:

  1. Skim the sources and arrange them according to difficulty.
  2. Read the general, introductory sources first. You'll use these to lay the foundation for the more specialized and technical material you'll need.
  3. Rank each source to decide how it fits with the other sources you've gathered. Pay close attention to both sides of the issue: It's a great way to test the validity of your thesis.
  4. Annotate the source to examine it closely.
  5. Rephrase the source to make sure you understand it fully. Take notes on the source, using summaries, paraphrases, and direct quotations.
  6. Position the source in your paper by deciding where it fits in the overall thesis and paper organization.
  7. Connect the source to what you've already written. Correlate all the information to see what you have already discovered and what you still have to find.
  8. Be sure that every source fits with your point and focuses on a key issue in your paper.

During this process, you'll find that you're automatically changing the structure of your paper to accommodate what you're finding. Usually the changes are minor, but you may find yourself designing a radically new organization to fit the focal points and supporting details. If you're including a Web page or brochure as part of your project, these adjustments take on a spatial consideration as well.

In “In the End Zone,” I'll take you step by step through the process of writing your first draft, but while we're here, it's a great idea to prepare your first draft as early as possible. This gives you plenty of time to fill in the gaps, revise, or redesign your text and graphics.

book cover

Excerpted from The Complete Idiot's Guide to Writing Well © 2000 by Laurie Rozakis, Ph.D.. All rights reserved including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form. Used by arrangement with Alpha Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

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