Writing Better Papers
Today’s episode is about mastery of the written language. We’ll focus on the take-home written assignments and not the essay-type exams, which we’ll cover in one of the next lessons.
Our grades, degree results, and even getting a job often depend on our ability to craft a perfect piece of prose. It can feel tedious and frustrating if you don’t think you were endowed with a knack for writing at birth. Not to worry; let’s deconstruct the writing process and see how we can tackle it, one step at a time.
Writing involves both hemispheres of the brain, but at different times. Generating novel ideas and making fresh connections draws on the capabilities of the right hemisphere, associated with creativity. Meanwhile, our left or “logical” hemisphere contributes by assessing the quality of arguments, grammar, and spelling. We could do our brain a favor and let these two functions run unimpeded by each other if we separate drafting and editing. The next time that you have a paper due, try the following algorithm based on the principle of alternating between the hemispheres.
1. Start by creating a high-level outline of your paper, i.e., writing down the sections you must cover. Writing questions will also work if you aren’t yet sure where it will go. Do it early upon receiving your written assignment—once you give the brain a direction, it will keep processing these questions in the background, and your thoughts will come out more smoothly and fluently in writing.
2. Next, do some pre-writing (also called freewriting or simply, brain dump), where you record every idea you have about a given question. Don’t worry about the form; you don’t even need to write complete sentences just yet. The key is to silence your inner critic and write without hesitation, so you can tease out all your prior knowledge about the subject. This will greatly narrow your search during the next stage. You might surprise yourself by finding unique angles or original arguments. According to author Mark Levy, you can use this technique to solve any problems and generally, to spearhead your creativity.
3. Collect information and do your research to fill in the gaps and answer the questions you’ve identified earlier. Use reference management software (like Mendeley), and check which citation style your school prefers.
4. By now, you should have enough material to overcome the dreaded “writer’s block” and forge the first draft. Let go of perfectionism and allow it to be bad—you’ll have multiple opportunities to revisit it. Another great way to get unstuck is to skip the introduction and dive straight into the body of the paper; counterintuitively, it’s easier to add the opening once everything else is in place.
5. It’s time to invite the critic back in to review and edit your draft. Challenge the sentence structure and word choice and more importantly, the internal logic of your arguments and the coherence of your narrative. A few pointers on how to make editing more efficient:
• Let your draft rest at least overnight so you can “forget” it and then see it afresh.
• Print the text, and read it out loud to spot any oddities quicker.
• Brevity is a virtue; simplify wherever possible and cut out redundancies. This might reduce the word count, but it will improve the quality.
• Avoid repetition, and become a true wordsmith by finding synonyms in the thesaurus.
• Get another pair of eyes on it.
Alternate between rewriting and editing your draft until you decide it’s done (remember, done is better than perfect!). For longer papers, like a thesis or a dissertation, apply these five steps to each part.
Daily task: Think of a difficult problem you’re facing, and set a timer for 20 minutes to “free write,” uninhibited by your judgment, about all possible facets of this problem. Tomorrow, review your output critically—it might lead to an unexpected solution!
Tomorrow, we’ll be looking at lifestyle changes that just might make you smarter.
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