This term I elected to take two major paper courses. I thought this was a good choice seeing as during my undergrad it felt like all I did was write papers. The only problem is that in law school a major paper is usually around 30 to 40 pages, not the usual 10 to 15 I’m used to. The thought of writing two big papers in a couple of months seemed completely overwhelming at first. However, I’ve realized that despite the length, the basic paper writing principles still apply. What principles am I talking about? Well, over the years I’ve developed some key rules to recognize when writing a research paper. They are by no means exhaustive and they may not work for everyone, but in my own experience I’ve found them to be extremely helpful.
Here are my 10 rules to write by:
1. Pick a topic that interests you. You’re going to be spending a lot of time on this paper, so make sure you write on something that interests you. Don’t pick something you think your professor would like or something you think will be easy. Take it from someone who once chose to write on obedience in 16th century Benedictine monasticism, you’ll enjoy the writing process much more if you are actually interested in the topic.
2. Develop a research question. Before you start researching you should try to narrow down your topic and then phrase it in the form of a question. This question will guide your research so you don’t waste time looking up things that are irrelevant. Over the course of your research you may find you need to tweak your initial question. Go back and redefine your question and then complete any secondary research you need.
3. Meet with your professor. Before you get too far into your paper it’s important you make a point of seeing your professor. The professor will let you know if you’re on the right track and may even be able to recommend some good avenues to explore or sources to check out.
4. Be choosey with your research. Try not to check out every book in the library that is remotely connected to your topic. Only select ones you think will help answer your research question. Remember that not all sources are created equal. A primary source document is much more credible than an article you found on the internet by some unidentified author.
5. Craft your thesis. After you’ve completed your research, you should be able to answer the research question you developed in #2. The answer to your research question will be your thesis. Knowing your thesis off the bat is important because it will structure the rest of your paper. Remember, everything you write needs to tie back to your thesis.
6. Write an outline. An outline is the skeleton of your paper. It doesn’t need to be too detailed, it just needs to be some kind of road map to go off of. I like to write my outline on notecards, using a different card for each section I plan on including in my paper. On the back of the card I write sub-sections that I think would go well with that main section. Using notecards is great because I can play around with where each section could possibly fit.
7. Keep the rough draft rough. I’ve always been the most successful with papers when I’ve let myself write freely. I don’t spend hours trying to get each sentence perfect, I just focus on getting it all out of my head and onto the paper. The real magic happens (for me at least) in the editing.
8. Source while you write. This one can be tricky (especially considering #7), but it’s really important. Although it can be a huge pain, you need to source every idea that’s not your own. I’m not going to get into plagarism here, but it is definately not something to take lightly. If you’re not sure whether you need to cite something, or don’t know how to cite something, check with a librarian.
9. Edit, edit, edit. Editing can be a really long process, so make sure you budget time for it. Go through your paper and check not only for spelling and grammar, but also for organization and coherence. Play around a bit to see what works best. Make sure your writing is “point first,” that is, that your conclusion is stated in the first sentence instead of at the end. Don’t make the reader work to try to figure out what your conclusion is, state it clearly at the beginning of the paragraph and use the rest of the paragraph to explain why you came to that conclusion.
10. Get a second opinion. If you can, try to grab a friend who will look over what you’ve written. If you can’t find anybody who’s willing to grab their red pen, try reading your paper out loud to yourself. This can help you pick up on things you may not have noticed during editing.
Writing a paper is a long process that can get really old, really fast. Take lots of coffee breaks and don’t be too hard on yourself. Try to remember how good it’s going to feel when you finally press print!