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4.8 The Research Essay -- Reading v. Writing

"The most important thing about research is to know when to stop."

Throughout my undergraduate and graduate school days, I always had the habit of reading too much and not writing enough. In fact, I usually spent the better part of a research essay reading and the writing came only at the end, in a brief flourish of mental activity. My M.A. thesis on Godwin was written in this way. I spent almost two years "doing research," which for me meant reading everything I could get my hands on. But what about the writing? In my case, I hadn't written a word! Well, to make a long story short, I was given an ultimatum: my advisor pulled me into his office and said, in no uncertain terms, either submit the finished thesis in two weeks or no teaching position next year. So, I went back to my apartment and every evening wrote the thesis. At the end of a week I had ninety pages and the thing was done!

My Ph.D. dissertation took the same route. Three years of research, including a year in England, and what did I have? Twenty pounds of 5 x 8 note cards, four notebooks filled with esoterica and a bibliography a mile long. But where was the dissertation. "It's all in my head," I told my committee. I ended up writing the magnum opus over a period of six months. 450 pages! I was writing so much that I couldn't wait to get up the next morning so I could get back to work.

Of course, it didn't have to be this way. It doesn't have to be this way. Instead, you must learn to say "Enough!" Research must come to an end or else you'll find yourself with one week to go in a semester and no essay. And that's not a very nice place to be. Why put yourself through so much torment? Why not just accept that research essays entail two things: research and writing. How's it done?

Well, for starters, you have to have a firm grasp of your topic, something I've discussed already. You have to have made an outline of your essay. In this way you'll recognize what needs to be done as well as what has been done. And, you have to stick to that outline. You can refine it as your research proceeds, but in general, stick to that outline.

My required Historical Methods class in graduate school was an exercise in absurdity. I learned nothing. Well, perhaps in deference to the two instructors who had to deal with twenty-five eager graduate students every Wednesday afternoon for three hours, I did learn something. The first thing had to do with the necessity of keeping note cards, something I never bothered with as an undergraduate. The second thing I learned was this: always write while you are engaged in research. In other words, you have to start writing your essay before you've even completed the research for it.

Granted, this is a tall order, but think about it. It does make sense! Perhaps you've run across an interesting quotation that you've "imaged" belongs right at the top of your essay. You see the quotation standing out on the page. You also intuit the meaning of the quotation as it relates to your entire enterprise. Well, my friend, rather than simply THINK about it, WRITE about it! I know the transition is difficult. It means hard work, just like the whole business of researching the research essay. But you've got to do it. Yes, you've just got to do it.

Here's the first sentence from my Ph.D. dissertation. Guess how long it took me to write it:

The history of the scientific management movement in twentieth century Britain has never been adequately assessed by historians.

On the one hand, to write that sentence took me all of thirty seconds. On the other hand, in reality, it took me three years! I sat on my research. I used my research as a crutch, as a way to avoid writing the dissertation. I procrastinated for a long time. And then I procrastinated a bit more. Again, it doesn't have to be this way. Take control of the research essay rather than let it control you.

I can only offer you this advice because I never followed it myself. Listen carefully! Don't procrastinate! Take your work seriously! If you do, then so will your professor. That makes sense, doesn't it? Do you think your instructor really wants to read page after page of, for lack of a better expression, words? After all, he's a human being. Why bore him to death? Give him an essay for which you are proud. And why not? Why not do the best job you can?

So start writing as soon as you are able. Record your thoughts on paper, even if they don't make any sense. You can always change them at a later date. And please don't think of research as Part 1 and writing as Part 2. That sort of thinking will get you in trouble. Think in terms of the whole project as a whole project and not as the sum of individual parts. And lastly......

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