Writing research papers

First in a (no doubt about it) ongoing series. When I had to do my first literature review, and my first big grad school paper, last fall, I asked my mentor, The Indomitable Cassidy, for her advice. Here's what she said:

  • I actually like starting with a "haphazard search," but I prefer to start in the e-research tools box, rather than the e-journals box. As you may already know, if you click on the Information and Library Science subject area, you will get various resources, such as LISA, Library Lit, and ACM Digital Lib.  It would be good to run a general search in each of those databases, just to see what is out there. Then you will have a better vocabulary to go back and do some more thorough searches.
  • I also like to do the "follow the citation trail" method, in which you find one good trusty generalist literature review on your subject area, then skim the citations for relevant articles. Go to that lit-review article, read its citation list, and keep following until you really hit a gold mine.
  • Also, if you are new to the subject area, it's worth it to grab someone's CV that you know is in that area (such as your professor) and see where she has published. Then you can go directly to that journal and skim for relevant articles.
  • Also, don't let yourself get carried away and start reading all the material you come across!  You have to be industrious about this--try to make a decision from the abstract on whether or not it will be useful.  Use the abstracts to develop a skeleton of your product.  Then go back and really read things to flesh out your literature review.  (I like to skim things and put a 3x5 card on them saying what topical/methodological area they cover, then put them in piles, then go back and only work on that pile to come up with a cohesive 2-3 paragraphs about that sub-topic or method in my lit. review. Then I work out all the transition material later on.)
  • [In answer to my question of her workflow and how she tracked the online pages she found] Actually, I print out all documents that I think might be relevant (from the abstract), then as I read/skim them I make the notes on 3X5s and then sort (so I am sorting the actual documents).  And then I write.  It's a bit of a tedious project, but it worked for my master's paper.  :)

"The Midnight Disease"

A few years ago, I read and enjoyed Alice W. Flaherty's memoir, The Midnight Disease. Suffering from postpartum depression after the death of her newborn child, she began experiencing hypergraphia -- the uncontrollable urge to write. She filled pages and pages with her writing, and couldn't stop -- the opposite of writer's block. Flaherty is a psychiatrist and her memoir/study grapples with a scientific way to look at creativity, which at times resembles a mental disorder.

When I had the book, I wrote down many passages and thoughts that struck me. Those passages follow. Page numbers refer to the hardcover edition.

(no page #) Far more important, a life chosen to maximize joy may be very different from one chosen to minimize pain.

212 Accounts of the muse's influence are matched by complaints of its fickleness. An example is Donald Justice's poem "The Telephone Number of the Muse":

I call her up sometimes, long distance now. And she still knows my voice, but I can hear, Behind the music of her phonograph, The laughter of the young men with their keys. I have the number written down somewhere.

239 I would argue that these creative states are extreme variants of the inner voice, that constant monologue which fills us from when we first learn language as toddlers until we lose it in nursing homes and intensive care units.

250 When we are thinking abstractly, though, we seem to be doing so prelinguistically, both because the speed of our thoughts seems faster than words and because of the difficulty we often have in putting fleeting thoughts into real words. By contrast, in both the experience of the muse and in psychotic hallucinations, the voice heard has more of a sensory quality as well; it is more like a voice, less like an idea.

This notion fits with our sense that voices, whether spoken or signed, in some way are more primitive than silent thoughts. Just as two-year-olds say aloud much of what goes through their heads, just as six-year-olds subvocalize when they read, so people in the throes of creation, as well as people hallucinating, may be thinking more primitively. Not necessarily more simplistically, but primitively ... more vividly, more concretely, more associatively, less constrained by societal convention.

252 The psychiatrist Mark Epstein has pointed out that keeping respiration in mind as a model for our give-and-take relationship with the external world, and especially with our creative work, would have a very different effect from thinking of the world as something (on the oral, anal, or genital models) to be consumed, expelled, or penetrated.

254 The image is not of the artist enriched by the spirit of art, but ex-hausted by its leaving his body. Finishing a project successfully is, paradoxically, a not uncommon cause of clinical depression.

I think that when you work hard enough on any work, everything of value in you goes into that work. When you finish it, it leaves you, and you are empty.

260 Neurologists and others have attributed the behavior of many famous religious leaders directly to temporal lobe epilepsy.

Moses, for instance, reportedly had convulsive fits starting at age three, speech problems suggestive of aphasia or dysarthria, unusually prolific writing, episodes of sudden rage, and religious visions. One neuropsychologist has even speculated that his epilepsy was caused by his being left in that basket among the bullrushes for several days and sustaining a brain injury from heatstroke.

266 The scientist in me worries that my happiness is nothing more than a symptom of bipolar disease, hypergraphia from a postpartum disorder. The rest of me thinks that artificially splitting off the scientist in me from the writer in me is actually a kind of cultural bipolar disorder, one that too many of us have. The scientist asks how I can call  my writing vocation and not addiction. I no longer see why I should have to make that distinction. I am addicted to breathing in the same way. I write because when I don't, it is suffocating. I write because something much larger than myself comes into me that suffuses the page, the world, with meaning. Although I constantly fear that what I am writing teeters at the edge of being false, this force that drives me cannot be anything but real, or nothing will ever be real for me again.

Write what you feel

Advice for the creative writer, yes. But the student? My manager is taking a summer class and his teacher told the class, "Don't write down what I say. Write down what you feel about what I say." Interesting advice for a note-taker who's thinking about regurgitating the content for the next test. My reporting background feeds into my natural tendencies to observe and notate, to somehow duplicate what I'm reading or listening to in class; it's distancing. Paraphrasing what the teacher says during a lecture is a good idea, but the cognitive load of paraphrasing something said a minute ago in my own words as new content is also streaming in is too much for me.

But I like the idea of recording my reactions in class, even if they're baffled. It's fast, it's in the moment, it hooks me. Engage me on the emotional level, and I'm halfway there. That said, I can see this strategy applying more to issues-oriented topics than information retrieval algorithms. But it's a new tool I definitely want to try out this fall.

Done, done, and done

For the last month, just as I thought I was nearing the finish line or reaching a milestone where I could catch my breath, another deadline or commitment loomed, both at work and at school. I spent last weekend binge-grading grant projects submitted by other teams in my Digital Preservation and Archiving class, reading an article, drafting a critique of said article, and drafting a research proposal. The grant info was due Monday, the critique due Wednesday, the proposal due Friday. Ho ho, thought I, can I turn in the proposal on Wednesday and avoid a commute to campus on Friday?

Well, no. The grant stuff and critique got done, but the proposal was a disaster. I just finished it tonight, printed it out, and after tomorrow morning, Christmas shopping can finally begin.

But here are lessons learned on the proposal:

  • Start early. Crucial to me, since I had to junk my entire first draft and start over from scratch.
  • Get a fellow student to read your paper and critique it for you. I'd read about this idea in other blogs, but this was the first time I'd done it. She was supportive but put her finger on a key weakness that I couldn't write or think around. She also knew what he liked to see in papers and student work and provided good advice. Hence, my need to scrap it and start over.
  • Go back and read the professor's directions. The weakness she pointed out was clearly delineated in his instructions for the proposal, had I but re-read them. Be a lawyer and read the fine print.
  • Don't research forever--timebox it. The danger here is that I had left myself so little time that I barely skimmed the articles I found. No time for fancy research techniques; scan, skim, ingest. But the earlier you can do this, the more facts you can feed your brain so it can go to work in the background.
  • I started to feel panic a second time as I started over on the writing. Classic fear response. I relaxed and fell back on my ol' NaNoWriMo skills and tips: Write a vomit draft. Don't edit. Lower my standards. Think quantity, not quality. The more you write, the more you can write. Just keep your fingers flying. If you just don't know what to write, the trick here is to write about your inability to write. Describe the frustration. Describe what you want to be able to say. Lo and behold, this always seems to unjam the blockage for me. (It's all going to be deleted anyway, no one's going to see it, so go crazy.)
  • I used InstantBoss (freeware), set for the standard 10 + 2 * 5 routine. By focusing for just that 10 minutes on writing and not diverting myself with editing, I got a good two pages done my first night. Tonight, I worked about 45 minutes total to finish it.
  • The key is not to finish the paper; the key is to keep starting. Eventually, you'll reach the end.
  • I also decided that it's OK to relax and do B-level work on this proposal. My class participation and other work have been more than up to the mark. No need to torque myself into a perfectionist knot.
  • It's OK to feel like the slow kid in class. Three of my fellow students had finished their proposals early and I was disappointed that I couldn't be a member of their club. Oh well--next time.