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Totally Write!

Research: Of Needles & Haystacks

July 1, 2014

Good afternoon, all.

As promised, we’re back on track. I thought I’d start talking about research today, especially as it pertains to academic writing in university. This is going to be another multiple-post topic, and I think you’ll find that much of what I’ve got to say will apply to research in business writing projects as well. I’ll probably pick up the odd trailing bit of punctuation stuff as we go along.

Okay, so I get that ordinarily, talking about research of any kind is just below listening to your own arteries harden on the Excitement Scale. There are some aspects of it that can be dry as dust, no doubt, especially the technical bits about how you’re supposed to document your research in an academically acceptable way. I get that too. But the research itself — ahhhh, that’s a different matter, especially if you learn to look at it in the right way. I’ll come back to that in a moment or two.

There are some ground rules you need to have in hand if you want to be effective as a student researcher and writer. In the first place, the distinction you think exists between “research papers” and “non-research papers” doesn’t really exist. The only assignments that don’t require at least some research from you are either those which are purely creative, or those for which you already have the required expertise. Unless you’re taking creative writing, you’ll get very few of the former. Unless you’ve already developed expertise somehow in courses you’re taking as an undergraduate, you won’t get many of the latter either.

Think about it. A couple of posts back, I talked about the attributes of good academic writing. One of them was informative value, and I pointed out that most university markers at the undergrad level aren’t really expecting completely original, cutting-edge work from you. They’re not expecting you to work with ideas that are new to them; instead, they want you to work with ideas that are new to you, and they want to see you doing it intelligently and writing about it clearly.

research in academic writing - the student writerSo, I have a simple question for you. If you’re not already an expert in the subject of your paper, how can you possibly show your ability to work with ideas that are new to you if you don’t actually have any ideas that are new to you? In other words, how can you get new ideas about an assignment topic or question you don’t yet understand fully if you don’t do any research on it?

The answer is just as simple: you can’t. You can’t make your way through university by working only with the stuff you’ve already got in your head.

This means that unless you have clear evidence to the contrary, you should assume that every paper you’re assigned in college or university is going to require at least some research from you, even if the professor tells you otherwise. Some profs aren’t all that clear — with you or with themselves — about what they’re looking for when they sit down to mark your work, so it’s up to you to make sure you’ve covered the bases.

It also means that a series of other obvious questions should leap to mind:

  1. Given the wording of an assignment, what EXACTLY am I supposed to research, and what tools do I have at my disposal?
  2. How do I use the tools appropriately, relative to the assigned content?
  3. How do I keep my research focused? Can I actually do any research at all before I know exactly what the thesis of my paper is?
  4. How do I handle organization and record-keeping during my research?
  5. What rules do I follow in terms of actually using the stuff I find? In terms of content? In terms of documentation?
  6. How much research material do I actually need to present in an essay?
  7. What kind of bibliography or research list will I need at the end of my paper?
  8. Exactly what is plagiarism? How big a problem is it, and do I have to take any additional steps to avoid it?

These questions overlap a bit for reasons that will become clear as we work through this stuff over the next few posts. Nor is this necessarily an exhaustive list, as different disciplines and types of material can add more questions to the pile. For now, just understand that you’re going to have to learn to live with academic research and its implications, whether you want to or not. Best to learn correct methods and get your head on straight about it all.

That brings me back to my earlier comment about research being anything but dull, if you look at it properly. If you’re in university, I have to assume you’re there because you want to be. You’ve chosen a field of study because aspects of it are your passion, or because you think it will give you a broader understanding in your search for a career choice that will really turn your crank. That means, by definition, you care about what you’re doing. You’re interested enough to invest your time in it — YOUR TIME, the only resource you have that you can never recapture once it’s gone. If you’re young, you may be investing the best and most potential-rich time you’ll ever have in your life.

This is your chance to be like Sherlock Holmes because, academically speaking, “the game’s afoot.” You get to use sophisticated tools to teach yourself about something that should be important to you. You get to engage with material and experts over subject matter that gets you worked up, stuff about which you want to know more because you have strong opinions and ideas that excite you. You get to find your own solutions to problems that are meaningful (to you) because you make them meaningful. Even on assignments that don’t interest you much, you get to practice academic survival skills you’ll need when you do become ready to move to the cutting edge. You don’t have to love every assignment; you just have to love where it’s going to lead you in terms of who you can become, what you can learn and what you can achieve.

Real research — academically and practically, in school and in the real world — is driven by that kind of passion. Find yours, even if it takes you a few years of schooling, and then research will never seem dull. If you can’t be bothered, aren’t interested, or don’t care because you know you’ll never work a day in your life, you can stop reading. Nothing for you to see here, so move along.

We’ll start getting into the nitty gritty next time. Y’all have a good week, and think about the sort of passion that can set your mind free.


by Steve. Find out more about Steve here.