Preparing for the Big Paper
June 23, 2016
By: Cindy McPeters
Any large and important writing task can be intimidating. Whether it’s your honors thesis or senior capstone, or even the longer and more daunting master’s thesis or doctoral dissertation, you can spend a lot of time spinning your wheels and getting nowhere if you don’t have a plan. As I prepare to write my own thesis for the English M.A. program, I am encountering a number of the pitfalls that others might face, so I’m hoping that some tips might be beneficial to all of us going through a similar educational process.
Considerations in the early stages of your big writing project include potential topics, organization, record keeping, and perhaps even documentation.
Start by just talking to people who know you and your interests. Through my conversations with others, I was able to narrow my interests to mystery fiction. Because I have read mysteries and detective stories for pleasure, I expanded my selections to encompass a wider variety, from Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone to Dashiell Hammett’s The Thin Man. If your thesis topic isn’t something you like or care about, it will be a struggle to do the readings and the research. When I told people that I was reading these novels with an eye toward a thesis topic, I found that voicing my interests to them helped me better focus my own ideas. Just discuss what fascinates you about your field with someone else, for example, a consultant at the University Writing Center. Here at the University Writing Center you can talk through your ideas and be asked relevant, objective questions that benefit your search for a topic. You don’t even need to have anything in writing to work with someone in the UWC.
Your topic is probably up to you and your adviser. Utilize your adviser; that person is likely an expert in your field. Remember to balance professional advice with what genuinely interests you. Is your topic something that you are truly passionate about? Do you actually want to learn more about feminist rhetoric and British mystery fiction of the interwar period? Probably not, but that’s my topic, and I thank my thesis adviser for helping me to further define my interests in that period.
This is a topic that still has me stumped. I’ve been doing some research on research (ironic, isn’t it?) and have discovered two popular programs for storing information for major writing/research projects. They are OneNote and EverNote. Apparently, with these programs, you can take pictures of articles, tables, charts, and add them to your research document, not to mention all of the PDFs of articles you might locate. I say “apparently” because I have yet to master either of them. Try them out to see if one works for you, and perhaps you’ll start on the path to organized research.
I know that I found an article that discussed Dorothy L. Sayers as a feminist writer, but where was it? Don’t be like me and waste hours trying to RE-locate the ideal journal article that can support or refute one of your major points. I recently found a Word document that I had created on my computer some months ago. I had titled it something inane and non-descriptive like “Database Info” and didn’t even remember creating it but later realized that it contains pages and pages of thesis and dissertation titles related to mystery fiction. I really don’t know from what database I gleaned these resources, and now realize that I should have been more thorough in my documentation since their source lists could be a huge help to my own research.
From this mistake, I learned to create a MASTER LIST OF SOURCES. I basically made a table of potential sources specific to my topic and included the entire source citation in MLA format just to be certain that I don’t waste time later trying to find the publication year or page numbers when I’m in the finishing stages of my thesis. This may not be a good idea for everyone as you could end up wasting time creating citations for works that you may never use. A lot of folks would suggest that you merely include title of the work and its author, but for now, while I have the book in my hands, I’m typing up the citation. Again, these are important considerations for everyone, but we all must determine the best system for our needs.
Speaking of documentation … since you’ve come this far in your discipline, you probably already know a good bit about your field’s documentation style. However, even experienced researchers sometimes need a little help. It might even be a random question about whether or not to include the period at the end of a source’s title when that title concludes with a question mark. Again, the University Writing Center is a resource that you should not overlook. You can review handouts and resources at the Writing Center’s webpage. You can also come in for assistance, even if it’s just a quick question.
Be certain to maintain a list of sources you actually utilized for your research. I haven’t gotten to this point yet, but a fellow student who was finishing up her thesis didn’t list on her works cited page all the resources that she’d used. In the last days of her program, she was having to go back and forth between the text of her paper and the works cited to make these corrections. It’s a small thing, but when you are preparing to defend your work, you would rather focus on the content of your project.
There may be a multitude of other pitfalls that I haven’t encountered yet, but these are the ones that I’m having to address in the early stages of my thesis prep. We have to remind ourselves that this big, intimidating writing project is our opportunity to reveal how much knowledge we’ve acquired. Taking 30 minutes today to figure out what plan works best for you will save you many, many hours later on in the process.