Every paper I write feels like the first one I've ever written!
March 24, 2018 1:31 PM   Subscribe

I have written innumerable papers and essays throughout my academic career, but upon entering grad school writing a papers have just felt like a struggle. In particular, it's like I've forgotten how to properly structure a paper and I probably spend more time figuring out how to structure my ideas/arguments than I do actually writing my papers. How can I stop worrying about the structure and just get on with writing my papers?

I feel ridiculous, because although I am in grad school my assignments are small potatoes compared to writing an actual dissertation or thesis of some sort. I don't know why I always struggle with this.

For example, I am currently working on a paper where I literally just have to critique approx. 3 research papers from a separate field and then write about how their research can be applied to our field. That's it. For the life of me I cannot figure out how to structure this paper. I'm hemming and hawing about it! Like, I can't decide if I should critique each article/discuss it's application to our field in order, or if I should critique them all together and then discuss the application of the research at the end?

This has happened with almost every paper I've written since September. How do I... not do this anymore? I'm a pretty methodological person, so having an outline and structure is very helpful, but sometimes I just can't figure out how to structure everything. Any advice?
posted by modesty.blaise to Writing & Language (13 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
These are questions that you should be spending time on, and it's normal — even more so in grad school compared to undergrad — to need to spend time puzzling out the structure of a paper. Some of that time will be figuring out your position. Some of it will be working out the shape of the argument you want to make, the way you want to frame the issues, and the rhetorical tools you're going to use. But more of it than you might think will be making relatively low-level decisions like "Which of these four supporting points should I mention first?"

With that in mind, it's hard to tell from your question whether you're spending a healthy amount of time on this stuff and getting hung up because you think it should go faster, or whether you're really spending unreasonably long on it.

That said, if you want to spend less time planning, one strategy is to just start writing. If you're really using this sort of structural dithering to procrastinate, the way other people procrastinate by trying out different fonts all day, just flip a coin or whatever, choose arbitrarily between the structures you think might work, and start putting words on the screen. Either it'll go fine — in which case, there's your answer, it was a good structure — or you'll realize you'd rather change it, in which case you can probably still salvage most of what you wrote by reorganizing it.
posted by nebulawindphone at 1:48 PM on March 24, 2018 [7 favorites]

Is this different from undergraduate papers? If so, how? Sounds as if this is a new struggle. Why? Are the assignments different? And/or are you putting yourself under more pressure, for some reason? Do you think the standards are so much higher than they were before?

Why is it that you can't do a simple outline:
-this is what I'm going to show you
- Okay, now I'm showing you
- Now I've shown you, and we can conclude _____, with, of course, questions that remain for further study.

Can you differentiate between problems with the actual task vs. anxiety about something else, like approval?
posted by DMelanogaster at 1:54 PM on March 24, 2018

I am a writing tutor for graduate students and I often recommend the MEAL Plan for folks who are struggling to start a first draft of a paper. It’s a method developed at Duke University for organizing your content and arguments at the paragraph level. If this particular method doesn’t work for you there are lots of similar methods to help just kind of get a decent first draft going.

posted by forkisbetter at 2:21 PM on March 24, 2018 [6 favorites]

I think wrestling with what your thoughts are and how to shape them is part of writing, although you could call it pre-writing. I understand that it may be frustrating if you are sitting in front of a blank screen and not getting any words typed. I'm old enough that I think better, for organizing, with a pencil and unlined paper. (My son, currently in college, paces around the house and mutters to himself when working on a paper. Both the pacing and the muttering count as work, I think.)

Do you have a writing prompt that is really weirdly phrased and is bugging you?

IANAgradstudent, but critiquing each of the three papers individually sounds better to me and more feasible than mushing them all together. However, if there is a common criticism for all three papers, you could lead with that and then take on the faults (or merits) of the individual papers after that.
posted by puddledork at 2:46 PM on March 24, 2018 [1 favorite]

I like to think in terms of dependencies -- would it be more helpful for the reader to understand topics A and B before reading about C, or A and C then B? I usually have to read it a couple of times to get inside the reader's head. But sometimes I have to formally draw a connected graph of concepts to make sure I don't get things out of order.

But yeah, just start writing and organize when you have brain-dumped. Some people use tools like Scrivener (which is more-or-less simulating index cards) to organize their thoughts.
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 3:20 PM on March 24, 2018

Sounds as if this is a new struggle. Why? Are the assignments different? And/or are you putting yourself under more pressure, for some reason? Do you think the standards are so much higher than they were before?

Yeah, I think I'm getting stuck with these papers because I just want to do really well on them. I mean my grades are pretty good, but I feel so much more pressure now than I did as an undergrad. I know it's silly, but I'm afraid if I write something less than perfect my professors will think I'm a complete moron. The department I'm in has an odd... air to it, it even makes me feel stupid for asking clarification questions. All of the assignments I've been given this year are so broad and vague that it's just hard to start. Even when I ask for clarification, I get vague feedback.

Do you have a writing prompt that is really weirdly phrased and is bugging you?

For the current assignment I'm trying to get started on, the prompt is just so vague that I don't know where to begin!
posted by modesty.blaise at 4:30 PM on March 24, 2018

This may not apply to your situation but I have found in my grad level classes, instructors make the prompts purposefully vague as a part of the challenge. If it were me, I would try to clarify anything nonsensical then just GO. Trust yourself that you have been writing great papers up until now and there's no reason this one won't be at least that good, if not better!
posted by eggs at 5:37 PM on March 24, 2018 [1 favorite]

For my undergrad writing class, the textbook we were assigned was “Practical Strategies for Technical Communication” by Mike Markel. (This is the newest edition.) The class was technical writing, but the book had tons of examples of all kinds of papers, and was easily the most useful textbook of my entire learning career. The book has advice on research and vetting sources, on choosing good phrasing and paragraph structure, on designing documents and using graphics as tools. It has chapters on writing resumes, proposals, field reports, recommendations, progress and status reports, and instruction guides, with visual examples of title pages and body pages and so on.

It simplified the process a lot—I could choose a paper structure that suited the requirements, and follow the visual example as I wrote my content. It was a good bulwark against writer’s block because it provided direction and useful phrasing, so that at least I could get a draft down, and then refine the text to my purposes as I felt more confident. I got As on all my papers, and you bet your ass I kept that book as a reference, in case I need to do any writing in the future. I would highly recommend this book for anyone who has to do any professional-grade writing.
posted by Autumnheart at 6:24 PM on March 24, 2018 [4 favorites]

English teacher here-

There isn't one true way to structure papers. When you are comparing things, you can big block (A B C each a paragraph) little block (ABC ABC ABC each a sentence or sentence chunk) or weave- a, similar b, in contrast c, bca, caba, etc. (Sentences deal with ideas from all three)

The order of listing them is probably the order of difficulty.

Each way has pros and cons, and you get to pick the one that works for you and makes sense to the material.
posted by freethefeet at 6:35 PM on March 24, 2018 [1 favorite]

Heh. When I find myself struggling with the structure, it‘s usually because I have no idea what I‘m trying to say.

Like, imagine your neighbor asks you „so what‘s your conclusion?“ and then try to answer that in one (or two or three) sentences.
If your conclusion is that all three papers were very similar and have a great relevance to your field then you‘d surely structure it differently than if they differed greatly or were only applicable in part.
posted by Omnomnom at 5:03 AM on March 25, 2018

I am not a graduate student. I do have to write a monthly set of articles for a business client. And I suffer every time with the long articles because my client rarely gives me direction. Most recently I procrastinated until the day it was due and then sat down and produced a final article. And my client loved it. Turns out he loved it precisely because I was able to come up with an entry into the topic, when he had none to suggest. As he was pressing my work I understand two things: 1. My standards are higher than his and 2. My worry was unfounded. Next month I am going to take the two broad article topics he gives me and find a decent hook into both topics and just go from there. Because I am tired of suffering over something I actually do well. So I plan to sell for less and relax more if I possibly can. Getting started is hard; for me, at least, it is always the hardest thing. So sometimes I cheat by starting in the middle or at the end. I just start writing the easy stuff if I’m stuck elsewhere and when I’m all done with that, usually my subconscious has had time to chew over the harder stuff. You can do this because you have done it before. Good luck!
posted by Bella Donna at 7:02 AM on March 25, 2018

I tell my students this A LOT but writing is a process and drafts are good. Your first draft does not need to be perfect and probably won’t be as good as a second draft.

If you have a writing center at school send ‘em over a first draft, even a really rough one, and see what they say (also give them the prompt or rubric for the assignment so they know what to look for).

I’ve also bonded with several of my classmates by swapping drafts for edits and comments before turning them in. And finally, depending on your profs, going to office hours to chat about your ideas for a paper is actually great and totally what office hours are there for.
posted by forkisbetter at 9:17 AM on March 25, 2018

I probably spend more time figuring out how to structure my ideas/arguments than I do actually writing my papers.

That is exactly how things should be in graduate level work. The structure of the argument and the way you present evidence/claims is the paper - the rest is wordsmithing.

I agree with the strategy of "talking it out." Imagine you are presenting this argument as a short speech in the simplest terms possible, and just talk it out. If I had an assignment like yours, basically as an example, I would talk it out as follows - "What are the implications of #theory to our field?'To answer this I investigated the following papers. Paper A said this. Paper B said that. Paper C said the other. Here are some common themes amongst them. Here are some differences between them. Implications for our field: Paper A said this, and here's how it applies to us. Paper B said that, and here is why it is useless to us. Paper C said the other, and here is how it could be useful if we modify it. In conclusion, #theory has valuable insights to offer our field if certain caveats are kept in mind, and we should lean more toward Paper A's ideas than paper B's."

I was assigned the book The Craft of Research in my graduate research methods class, and it was really helpful. You can get it used for a few bucks and it's really worth it.

Your university undoubtedly has a writing center, and this is exactly what it can be used for. Take advantage of it! Also, if the course has a TA, sometimes the TA can be helpful in winnowing down your arguments to the main ideas.

Part of the "vague" nature of graduate assignments is intentional. Unlike undergraduate education, graduate courses are supposed to prepare you to deal with a world of specialized information and to make your own theories and independent judgments - to decide what's important and useful and what isn't, who that went before you was wrong and who was right - and to do this without the support of defined correct answers. It gets easier as you go along, not harder. A thesis or dissertation is more of the same - longer, more data, more analysis, but not different. You'll use the same skills for those you're developing for short papers now. Dive in!
posted by Miko at 10:04 AM on March 25, 2018 [1 favorite]

« Older What comes between muzzle loader and nuclear...   |   ISO automated/timed feeder for cat (difficulty: in... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.