Commenting on Craft: Part Seven

Seriously, this has been happening for a long time.

Is it cold in here? Maybe it’s just a draft… the first draft of my thesis. (Someone please make me stop.) It’s good as a draft but it sucks as a paper, so I’m going to have to do a lot of revising. Luckily, today’s installment of the Craft series deals with the sticky, slippery slope of revision.

When you have a draft and systematically revise top-down, from global structures to words, you are more likely to read as your readers will than if you start at the bottom, with words and sentences, and work up.

Once upon a time I was the editor of my high school newspaper. Because of that, I’m accustomed to copy editing—that start-at-the-bottom approach. This quote is helpful to me because it breaks me out of that habit and forces me to see my revisions in a new light, hopefully leading to an overall higher efficacy of my edits.

Each paragraph should have a sentence or more introducing it, with the key concepts that the rest of the paragraph develops.

I’m not sure if I do this or not, so I have to consider it carefully when I begin my revisions. I’m good at creating an overall structure (I’m a huge fan of headings), but when it comes to paragraph structure, I stop paying attention. Now’s a good time to start.

When Booth was in graduate school, his bibliography class was told to copy a poem exactly as written. Not one student in the class of twenty did so perfectly. His professor said he had assigned that task to hundreds of students, and perfect copies had been made by just three.

This is both terrifying and awesome—terrifying in that it’s so easy to make mistakes but awesome that everyone, then, makes them. While thinking globally is essential in making a coherent and relevant paper, care has to be taken with the details as well. I’m going to go over my quotations and make sure they’ve been copied correctly because, although I might not be great at math, three out of a few hundred are abysmal odds.

Commenting on Craft: Part Six

There are lots of other parts to this series. (It reflects the fact that research really is a never-ending process. Maybe that’s just how it feels from where I’m standing.)

Today’s installment is about intros and conclusions. I’m to a point in my life where I love writing introductions because it’s the only way I can give myself a blueprint to follow. Anymore I write an intro for me, not my readers. Conclusions, though? I still suck at conclusions. Because of that, I’m going to choose my quotes from the section on writing conclusions. Makes sense, right?

You may be happy to know that you can write your conclusion using the same elements in your introduction, in reverse order.

That’s all well and good, but that puts me in a trap where my conclusion sounds too formulaic and too similar to my introduction. I understand it’s good to have everything come full circle and tie together, but it’s boring as hell to write—and if it’s boring to write, it’s boring to read.

Don’t start grandly. If your subject is grand, it will speak its own importance.

I think I fall into this sometimes. We always want to feel like what we’re writing about is important, but we don’t have to say it’s important. If we as writers and researchers have done our jobs, the reader will already know that it’s important—and why.

You can bring your report to a graceful, even literary close with an echo of your opening fact, anecdote, or quotation.

This seems much more human to be than a standard intro-in-reverse approach, as seen in the first quote I chose. I love the idea of being able to have a literary close, especially since mine is a paper about literature. A novel concept, don’t you think?

Thank you, thank  you. I’ll be here all week.

(Not true. Easter break starts tomorrow. I’ll be here the week after, though!)

Commenting on Craft: Part Five

There are many parts to this series. Basically, I’m compiling quotes on how to do better research and scholarly writing.

Don’t try to find every last jot of data relevant to your questions; that’s impossible. But you do need data that are sufficient and representative.

I’m so, so guilty of this. In fact, I found myself doing this last night while combing over some secondary resources, though I feel to do something similar but slight different: I will take a tiny, relevant piece of a large article and use it for my purposes, even if the article itself has little to do with my subject. I’m not sure if that’s bad or not, but it seems a shame to read something and not be able to use it at all.

You’ll believe in your claim so strongly that you will see all your evidence in its favor.

Oops. This is true and speaks to what I described above. Perhaps I should have read this before doing my secondary research notes… though I think it’s important to use sources in a way that support–not contradict–your thesis. So this is a double-edged sword in a lot of ways. I’ve not yet found a source that directly argues against my thesis, but I’m going to look for one, just to make sure I’m not blinded by my own confirmation bias.

“If you come across secondhand data (data that your source reports from another source), do everything you can to locate the original source. Not only can you then be sure your report is accurate (you may be surprised to see how often secondhand sources are not), but you may find other data equally useful.”
I found myself wanting to do this when I was compiling sources. I made notes to myself to locate the original sources rather than to take them at face value when a writer is quoting them. The writer is citing these works with their own agenda in mind and therefore can be skewed a certain way. Locating the original source is more likely to give you a genuine idea of what the quote means in context. And context is everything.

Commenting on Craft: Part Four

To get an idea of what this series is about, start here. (And you can check out parts two and three, too, if you’d like.)

This section of The Craft of Research deals with the drafting process, which to me is so intimidating that I sometimes forgo it altogether. (I know! So terrible.) With an undertaking this large, though, I understand the necessity of clearing the pipes, so to speak, before anything useful comes through.

That being said, let’s see what Booth and his friends think about drafting. (Although, looking at the quotes I selected now, I’m realizing that this is more about properly citing sources, which isn’t something I have to do for this draft. Shh, just go with it.)

But evidence never speaks for itself, especially not long quotations or complex sets of numbers. You must speak for such evidence by introducing it with a sentence stating what you want your readers to get out of it.

First of all, let me say how relieved I am that I don’t have to introduce “complex sets of numbers,” because that would be terrible. That being said, this is something to important to keep in mind when using any type of source or data. I mean, the idea behind using others’ work is that you want it to be meaningful in the frame of your argument, so if you’re quoting something important and your reader says, “So what?”, that’s a huge problem. The book uses a great example on page 191 (I won’t reproduce it here because it’s rather long), showing exactly how vague introductions to quotes leave the argument unproven and frustrating to the reader.

If the person you borrowed from read your report, would she recognize your words or ideas as her own, including paraphrases, summaries, or even general ideas or methods? If so, you must cite that source and enclose any of her exact words in quotation marks or set them off in a block quotation. No exceptions, no excuses.

Plagiarism is scary stuff, and it’s something about which I’m extremely paranoid. For me, the idea of imagining your sources reading your work really resonates with me, and that makes it easier to identify what needs citing. Honestly, I tend to over-cite–maybe I get exCITEd when I’m doing research (in the distance, an angry mob of pun-haters gathers), but imagining an author of a source reading my draft gives me a strong sense of what needs to be cited and what is more common knowledge in the field.

Now the only thing left to do is start the first draft of my primary analysis… and to outrun all these people with pitchforks trying to break down my door.

Commenting on Craft: Part Three

Parts one and two can be found here and here, respectively.

Now we’re getting to the nitty-gritty, the stuff that actually terrifies the writers of research projects. Usually I can come up with ideas pretty easily, but when faced with even the prospect of outlining or planning, I panic. That being said, the section was really helpful for me in terms of being able to wrap my mind around the onerous task of planning.

If, for example, you were asked to ‘compare and contrast Freud and Jung on the imagination and unconsciousness,’ you do not have to organize your report into two parts, the first on Freud, the second on Jung, a kind of organization that too often results in a pair of unrelated summaries. Try breaking the topics into their conceptual parts, such as elements of the unconscious and the imagination, their definitions, and so on; then order those parts in a way useful to your readers.

This was especially helpful for me because I too often use this flawed method of organization. As a matter of fact, until reading this quote, I was going to organize my paper into the two texts I’m analyzing rather than breaking the analyses down into their more meaningful elements. The fact that the authors use a specific topic also helps conceptualize how this method of organization can be employed effectively.

Now, just as you picked out key terms to run through your whole report, circle the ones that uniquely distinguish this section from all the others; they should be in the sentence that states the point of that section.

I’m notoriously bad at topic sentences. I’ve gotten better at writing theses found in an introductory paragraph, but the idea of other topic sentences still thoroughly terrifies me. This idea helps immensely, because if there are no terms that are unique to a specific section, it’ll be easy to tell what’s essential to the main argument and what’s only serving as fluff.

Readers may have to understand the outlines of your overall position before they can follow how you apply it to specific texts, events, situations, and so on.

This quote comes from the section of the reading dedicated to finding a suitable order for the information you’re trying to relay. For me, the “general analysis followed by specific applications” will work the most because of what the above passage states. I’m doing a genre study, and unless I define the genre first, no one is going to be able to follow my argument. I think it’s important, too, to give the reader a big picture as a guide so they can better understand how smaller pieces contribute to that big picture. I know that strategy helps me as a reader, at least, and because it’s important to think of your writing from a reader’s perspective, I think this will be all the more helpful when I sit down to write a first draft.

Commenting on Craft: Part Two

If you’re wondering out this series, check out this post first.

Here are today’s quotes:

Even so, once you have a question that holds your interest, you must pose a tougher one about it: So what? Beyond your own interest in its answer, why would others think it a question worth asking?

This is another one of those quotes that emphasizes the importance of a proper audience and keeping that audience in mind. It also helps to aid the researcher in realizing that there is a reason for what they’re doing beyond a sometimes seemingly menial task.

To make your problem their problem, you must frame it from their point of view, so that they see its costs to them. To do that, imagine that when you pose the condition part of your problem, your reader responds, So what?

This is similar to the previous quote but one that helped me narrow down my somewhat abstract topic to something more concrete, with real-life applications rather than being a little removed with every day life. Asking the question, “So what?” is actually immensely helpful, as odd as it sounds.

The consequence of a conceptual problem is a second thing that we don’t know or understand because we don’t understand the first one, and that is more significant, more consequential than the first.

This one took me a few read-throughs to actually grasp. We often think that our topic is the be-all-end-all, but every topic relates to something more universal, and it’s that universality that brings readers in and makes them care. Without that, everyone except you will think that what you’re doing is inconsequential.

This section was helpful for me in that it made me want to make my research more meaningful, which, to be fair, is the purpose of research, but one that I can easily lose sight of. I definitely think it will help me tailor my topic to something more grounded.

Commenting on Craft: Part One

As I mentioned in my previous post, a lot of what I’m going to be blogging about for the next few months is the process by which one goes about conducting research. I’ll likely be providing some commentary about the field of English language and literature as well. This shift is all part of my English Senior Seminar for my undergraduate degree, so while it may be a little dry and more formal, I hope you’ll at least find some of it useful.

This particular series, which I’m calling Commenting on Craft, contains responses to, appropriately enough, The Craft of Research, a great tool written by Wayne C. Booth, Gregory G. Colomb, and Joseph M. Williams. I’ll take two or three quotes from each section of the book and give a short response, partially so that I can sort out what’s going on and partially so that you all can get a gist of the book.

These quotes come from the introduction as well as the first two chapters of the book. The beginning is mostly concerned with A) choosing a topic that will interest you and B) making sure that topic will also be interesting to the reader.

But it would be a feeble education that did not change you at all, and the deeper your education, the more it will change the ‘you’ that you are or want to be.

I love this. Many people get hung up on research projects because they feel that their voices are lost under a sea of work done by other people, or maybe they’re frustrated that they have to conform to a certain style of writing that doesn’t seem like theirs. While it’s valid, for sure, to feel that way, Booth et al. would like you to think of it as changing your writing for the better–making it something that will guide you into the career you’ll ultimately choose. (And, really, the quote by itself is pretty powerful, isn’t it?)

[…] it would be a mistake to think that learning to write sound research reports must threaten your true identity. It will change the way you think, but only by giving you more ways of thinking.

Again, this addresses the idea of losing one’s own voice in the process of writing academically, but I think it ultimately answers the question we all have when starting a project like this: “Why is it necessary for me to do research in the first place?” It’s necessary, say the authors, because it gives you a whole array of tools you otherwise wouldn’t have found.

You establish your side of the relationship with your readers when you adopt one of those three roles–I have information for you; I can help you fix a problem; I can help you understand something better. You must, however, cast your readers in a complementary role by offering them a social contract: I’ll play my part if you play yours. But that means you have to understand their role. If you cast them in a role they won’t accept, you’re likely to lose them entirely.

This speaks for itself. Writing for the proper audience is important no matter what kind of writing you’re doing, but in academic writing, it’s especially important to consider if you want to have ethos. You don’t just want to write a bunch of information, wipe your hands of it, and walk away; you want your reader to get something out of it. Otherwise, what’s the point?

I hope, if you’re someone who finds yourself in the position of having to write an extensive research project, that this (and other posts in the series) will help you along the way. Cheers!