Research Writing Advice from SJSU iSchool Experts
Published: November 16, 2016
As the semester is winding down (or is it winding up? I’ve got a lot of work to do!) many SJSU iSchool instructors require a big research paper as a final project. This can be a daunting proposition. Fear not, there is help! School of Information instructors and SJSU student publication editors have collaborated to provide you the best tips, advice and resources to make that final research paper a success.
I am currently enrolled in Info 285 Research Methods and flexing my less-toned research muscles writing a data analysis and literature reviews. My instructor, Dr. Cheryl Stenstrom is encouraging and provides detailed and exceedingly helpful resources for constructing a concise and well-organized research proposal. As with most iSchool courses I’ve taken, the early projects assigned in the class help build students’ skills and culminate with the final paper.
Who’s Reading This Anyway and Why That’s Important
Besides Stenstrom herself, one of the best resources for our class is our textbook The Craft of Research by Booth, Columb and Williams. “The authors strongly recommend keeping your audience in mind,” says Stenstrom. “While the audience could be the course instructor, oftentimes assignments have a broader context and are meant to provide students with an opportunity to write as they might in the work place. When the audience is your colleagues, your boss or even your instructor, the authors stress avoiding the ‘data dump,’ which is when you cram everything you’ve learned about a topic into your paper. This technique often confuses your audience and takes the focus away from your main points.”
Along the same lines, one of my editors and iSchool instructor Laurie Putnam warns students against trying to sound academic. “Your paper needs to be clear and accurate and thoughtful,” says Putnam, “but it doesn’t need to be dry and boring. Read your draft aloud, and hear how it sounds. As you try to find the right voice, imagine you’re talking to another student in your class, telling the story of what you learned from your research.”
Start Your Final Paper Early, Really Early
I find that the research, planning and organizing is the hardest and most time consuming part. Being focused and thorough in this stage can save a lot of time later in the writing process. Typically, spitting out my first draft is a little like pulling teeth and no one needs to feel like their teeth are being pulled in a mad rush. My advice is to start early, even earlier than you think you need to start. “Give yourself an early deadline for that first draft,” Putnam recommends. “Aim to have a complete draft written at least several days before the paper is actually due so you’ll have time to set it aside, give yourself a break, then come back and revise with a clear head. You’ll see things differently a few days later, and you’ll be able to make improvements you didn’t think of when you were mucking around with the first draft.”
One reason I enjoy writing this blog is that I’m writing different kinds of articles and my research papers are different both in subject matter and tone. To develop your voice as a writer and researcher, it helps to read high quality papers written by both seasoned experts and fellow students. “I think the most important way to improve your writing is by reading others’ work,” says Stenstrom. “By critically reflecting on the pieces of writing that are similar to what you’d like to produce and reading widely in that genre, you can become more objective about your own work.” Stenstrom and I agree that one of the best places to look for high quality, peer-reviewed research writing is the SJSU School of Information’s Student Research Journal (SRJ).
SRJ managing editor, Gina Nichols, sees a lot of research papers and stresses the importance of focus, planning and precision. Here is her recommended research paper plan:
- Plan out your project
- Keep the entire process in mind
- Break down the paper into steps with achievable goals
- Ask a research question worth answering
- Find answers you can strongly support
- Find reliable evidence to support your argument
- Draft a paper that makes a good cause for your argument
- Revise your paper
The Student Research Journal’s editor-in-chief Tamarack Hockin reminds students to be clear and concise. “Clarity in sentence structure is so important,” says Hockin. “Our sentences are the building blocks of the entire paper, and each and every sentence should serve a purpose and add clarity to your piece. To really advance your writing, aim for precision.”
Get a Little Help From Your Friends and the APA Publication Manual
Sometimes you just need a second opinion, and that’s why often iSchool instructors will have you exchange work with a classmate in order to review each other’s work. “You can tell each other what isn’t clear,” says Putnam. “They will be able to spot what doesn’t make sense, what’s missing or what’s over-explained. And you’ll do a better job of spotting each other’s typos.”
At the graduate level, there’s almost nothing more embarrassing than a typo. Stenstrom phrases this more diplomatically. “Having incomplete or poorly formatted citations, grammatical and spelling errors, or other typos distracts the reader from your content.” Don’t forget your APA, either. “Library and information professionals are expected to be experts in citing others’ work, so buy a copy of the APA Publication Manual and learn it inside and out during your first term at the iSchool.”
Below is a quick guide for writing references, resources and research help from this post’s helpful and knowledgeable writing professionals. Happy writing!
- The SJSU School of Information Student Research Journal
- Writing Resources through the iSchool website
- Writing Resources specifically for students
- The iSchool’s Library liaison, Ann Agee
- American Psychological Association. (2009). Publication manual of the American Psychological Association, 6th ed. Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association.
- SJSU’s School of Information Professor Dr. Anthony Bernier’s article in the SRJ about conducting a meaningful literature review, entitled Reaching Escape Velocity.
- Booth, W.C., Columb, G.G., & Williams, J.M. (2008). The craft of research, 3rd ed. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
- Dartmouth. (no date). What is an academic paper? In Institute for Writing and Rhetoric. Retrieved from here.
- Pyne, S. (2009). Voice & vision: A guide to writing history and other serious nonfiction. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University.
For related content, check out these articles from the iSchool:
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