I’ve been teaching an upper-level psychology lab course for the past few years. Over the course of the semester, students conduct their own research project and, by the end, write a paper describing their project. It is my favorite class to teach.
Even though I don’t intend for it to be intimidating, this research paper is almost universally viewed by students as a battle that looms large on the horizon that they will someday have to fight, just not today, unless tomorrow is the due date.
In addition to being unpleasant, an I’ll-write-it-later approach is a bad way to write well. It gets the job done, but not as well as it could be.
I think what makes writing a research paper daunting is that the writing process is often murky. It’s like being asked to build a table without understanding the steps that are involved–you know what the final product is supposed to be, but the process of going from a pile of wood to a table is vague, at best, to the inexperienced. But when the project–be it a research paper or a table–is broken down step-by-step, it turns out to be not that daunting. In fact, it can be enjoyable to build something with your own hands.
Being able to break down a long-term project into concrete steps, systematically tackling those steps, and sustaining one’s focus and energy on a project until it is completed is an incredibly powerful skill. It’s how anything complex gets done. But it’s a skill that is hard-won. These writing assignments are important for class, but these writing assignments are even more important because it allows students to practice valuable skills. After practicing these skills in several classes over several semesters, students can build the muscles to execute long-term projects and figure out what strategies work for them.
If you are a student and want to turn in the best end-of-semester research paper, then here is a guide. This guide will not guarantee a high grade, but it will help you do your best work. Further, this is not a guide about how to write. Rather, it is a few pointers on the approach you should take to the writing process.
- Know what target you are trying to hit. In the very first week of class, look over the syllabus, understand what the end product will be, and how you will be evaluated. Is there a rubric? Is there a page count? If you have questions, ask your instructor for clarification. Do not just start writing and hope to find it along the way. There are enough false starts and dead-ends in the writing process, it’s good to dodge the avoidable ones.
- Schedule writing time. Also in the first week, get out your calendar and schedule (at least) 1-hour blocks of writing time (at least) once per week. Don’t mentally schedule the time, actually put it into your calendar as an obligation. Putting it in your calendar will make a world of difference. It commits you to regular writing time. Now, aggressively protect that time like you would an important meeting. If you cannot commit to 1 hour per week, at a minimum, then you need to look hard at what else is filling your calendar and be very honest with yourself. Not many things should trump your writing time.
- Write during your writing sessions. During your writing time, you are doing one thing–you are writing. You are not writing and texting with a friend. You are not writing and watching Netflix. You are not writing and thinking about your weekend. There is no “writing and” in your writing sessions, there is only writing. This is easy to say and hard to do. Focusing during your writing time is a skill that you must constantly be working on.
- Eliminate distractions. Get lost, as in find a place where others will not disturb you. Shut off the notifications for your email (at least during your writing sessions, but consider doing this all the time). Shut down all the tabs to the internet. Use the focus setting in Microsoft Word. You do not need your phone during your writing time. The world will be right where you left it when you are done writing.
- Have a starting ritual. Have some ritual to signify that your writing session is beginning. For me, it is grabbing a cup of coffee and shutting down internet tabs. Sip, click, go!
- Use a timer. Do not try to focus on writing and monitor a clock. That is a horrible way to use your attention. As far as timers go, get it, set it, and forget it. This frees up more of your attentional capacity to focus on your writing. I use the timebox app. For your 1-hour writing session, write for 20 minutes and take a 5-minute break. Write for another 20 minutes and take another 5-minute break. Then write for your last 10 minutes. Be strict with these times. Do not start your breaks early and end them late. Your mind can easily turn a 5-minute break into a 15-minute break if you are not careful. You will be amazed at how much you can write if you actually write during your writing sessions.
- Assess. At the end of each writing session, make sure you are on track to complete your paper by the deadline. Do you need to add more writing sessions? Adjust your schedule accordingly.
- Reflect. Also, reflect on what went well for you and what did not. What were your distraction pitfalls? What is the plan to combat those in the future? Self-reflection is crucial to improving the way you do knowledge work. Over time, you will build a feel for what works for you. It is a great feeling when everything gels and you are productive. But that doesn’t happen by chance, you have to self-reflect and make it happen.