Tedious as it may be, most people will agree that doing research for a paper–roaming the stacks, reading abstracts and reviews of books, taking copious notes–is the easy part. But writing an academic paper is about more than just proving that you know the information. A successful paper sorts through the chaos and synthesizes it into something original, something that makes an argument.
I like to think of it as finding yourself in your research.
The first step to finding yourself is figuring out where you come from. Make a list of the most important arguments you’ve come across in your research and the most important people making these arguments (usually, they’re the ones who are referenced a ton in everything you read on your topic). Look at how these VIPs relate to the main arguments you’ve identified. What do they agree with? Who is writing against the norm? Try and get an idea of how you, as the newest voice in this cacophony, feels about the issues they’re addressing. From there, it’s easy to see who your allies are, and who, with their help, you’re going to need to take to task.
Next comes focus, which necessarily involves narrowing your scope. If you’ve been at college for longer than a semester by now, you’ve probably figured out that there’s a ton of information written about basically every conceivable topic. You’re not going to be able to include everything, and you shouldn’t try. Use the list you’ve made to figure out which sources are the most relevant, and which parts of these relevant sources are essential to your argument. Weed out everything else.
Staying on track also involves figuring out what your stakes are. Why are you, personally, writing this paper? What do you have to say that hasn’t been said before (or how can you say what’s been said before differently)? Even though every paper won’t be something you’re really invested in, finding an angle you care about, or can pretend to care about, will drive your argument and keep you focused.
For me, free-writing is the best way to take a step back from information overload and have an honest conversation with myself about what it is I actually want to say. For others, talking it out can help: offer to buy a friend lunch if they’ll sit and discuss your topic with you, or stop by the writing workshop and tell a tutor that you just want to have a casual discussion about your research. Maybe you need to take a walk to clear your mind–everyone approaches this differently, but finding and maintaining clarity is essential to the process.
When you’re finally ready to start writing, keep these lists, conversations, and thoughts nearby. Check back often, and make sure that your paper remains YOUR paper- don’t let someone’s theories or ideas take over. Afterwards, look over your work and ask yourself: What have I argued with this paper? What am I contributing to the conversation? You should be able to easily answer these questions; if you show the paper to someone else, they should be able to answer them, too.