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How Not To Write A Research Paper

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There are two words that will cause every student to cringe: research paper. It is not even that research papers are really that difficult. The problem is that they have a habit of hibernating in that part of the brain that says, “Nah, I'll work on you later” until the last possible moment and then you have to scramble to throw something together. It becomes a disastrous exercise in hair-pulling frustration in which you pump yourself full of energy drinks until finally at four in the morning you say screw it, this will have to do.

After many such experiences, I decided there must be a right way to go about writing a research paper — since I'd obviously gone about it the wrong way before — and I determined to find out exactly what that is. However, I felt I should first thoroughly understand the wrong way of researching; that way I would appreciate the right way even more. Although I already consider myself fairly well versed in the wrong way, I decided to ask some of my fellow students for their own failed research experiences.

The venue for my asking ended up being steak night at my friend's apartment, when I could question them all at the same time. The funny thing was, even before I could ask them about research, one of the guys walked in with his laptop, complaining about how he has a research paper due the next day. Apparently he had not only put off writing the paper, he had also put off reading the requirements for it. It turns out he was supposed to attend some sort of religious ceremony and write about it. Considering it was already almost midnight, I doubt he was able to succeed that night.

This worked to my advantage though, because it made a great segue into my own questions. Most of the responses I got were similar tales of academic negligence. The common themes were: procrastinating as long as possible, not doing required reading ahead of time, and not backing up completed work. One person misunderstood and actually gave some helpful research tips about utilizing government websites. I was fairly surprised by the thoroughness of that reply and even more surprised that I was friends with someone that responsible.

Two responses stuck out the most. The first summed up the general procrastination sentiment: “I wait until the very last minute and then Wikipedia it.” I can certainly plead guilty to that one. The second was a little more interesting. When I asked one of my friends how he normally goes about researching for a paper, he merely mimed masturbating and then walked away.

After my steak night questioning, I was able to compile a short list of clues that a person is doing a research paper the wrong way. At the top of the list we have: not reading the directions/requirements of a paper. In my long history of horribly researching papers, I can happily say I have never been guilty of that one. I think it is smart to read the directions as soon as possible; that way you can put your subconscious to work on formulating an attack plan. Next, we have procrastination, which is pretty obvious but still the most harmful.

Then we come to not doing the required reading ahead of time. In college, a lot of professors assign weekly reading and then don't test the students on the reading. Since there is no direct impact on students' grades, they put this off, but it comes back to bite them when they realize they have to synthesize 150 pages of material into a paper.

Last, we have technical difficulties. Although technology can be fairly unreliable, one should prepare for this kind of situation by backing up one's work. Save it to a USB drive or email it to yourself, because in this day and age, using the “my computer crashed” excuse is almost worse than saying your dog ate it.

Now that I had a good idea of how not to handle a research paper, I decided to try and find some helpful research tips. After perusing the vast Internet, I came across quite a few sites with good information. Most of these were library websites, which is not really a shocker. Some were aimed at high school students, others at higher education programs, but the advice did not change very much even when the intended audience did.

According to all these research experts, the key to a successful research paper is organization. Considering how disorganized every other aspect of my life is, it no longer seems surprising that research papers would be amongst my personal rogue's gallery of nemeses. Every source I looked at placed a giant emphasis on outlining. Not only should you outline the general ideas and arguments for your paper, you should also outline what kind of sources you think you'll have the best luck with. In fact, all the advice made writing a research paper sound like super in-depth list making.

Next comes the idea of starting with broad topics and ideas and then narrowing them down as your research becomes more focused. I think of this as a pretty basic logic step that I do without thinking; however, it would probably help my research if I actively went through this narrowing down process rather than just trusting my gut.

The last big shared point is diligence, which I think of as what is required to counteract procrastination. If you are diligent about your paper, you begin slow — most likely with the aforementioned outlining — and build up your ideas one piece at a time. It always seems like the worst part of a research paper is the marathon writing session in which you spend eight hours in front of a computer. Once you remove that aspect of a research paper by working on it a little at a time, the whole process doesn't seem that horrendous.

It may sound trite, but it's true: when it comes to research papers, slow and steady wins the race.

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