Research papers of any size are the bane of many students’ academic existence. They can be daunting, demanding, and stress-inducing. However, they are an important and essential element of higher learning. They both teach and test students’ ability to research, evaluate sources, think critically, organize their thoughts, and express them persuasively. And, approached the right way, they can be an extraordinarily enriching and rewarding exercise.
Following are some strategies for writing better research papers, and for making the experience a more satisfying—and less agonizing—one. I will focus less on the mechanics (APA style, etc.) of writing a research paper, and more on what it takes mentally and emotionally to not only survive, but actually thrive, in the process of completing so demanding an assignment. (And let’s face it: you will have many across your academic career.)
I rely here on not only what I have gleaned from over 35 years of grading university-level research papers, but also from my own ongoing research and writing.
So, what works? Here are seven keys to mastering research papers:
1. There’s No Wasted Motion
As I reflect back over my research career, beginning with my master’s thesis and doctoral dissertation, I am aware of having read many more books, articles, and other resources than I eventually ended up using in my final research manuscripts. I also recall the multiple drafts I’ve written, only to “transcend and include” them (a developmental psychology term) with each successive draft.
The question is, was all that reading and writing, much of which didn’t find its way into the final research paper, nothing more than a colossal waste of time and energy? “No!” is my unequivocal response. Every article I read, or written draft I eventually left behind, aided concretely in channeling my topic, my ideas, and my final product in the direction it ultimately needed to go. It is in this sense that I firmly believe that there is most assuredly no wasted motion when it comes to researching and writing an academic paper.
Keeping this in mind can do wonders for your attitude as you conduct your research, as well as stoke your curiosity and replenish your energy stores.
2. Right and Left Brain
UCLA psychiatrist Dan Siegel articulates the left brain hemisphere’s specialties as logical, linear, A-leads-to-B thought, and words, words, words. Siegel contrasts these left-brain gifts with those of the right-brain hemisphere: intuition, big-picture holism, and creative imagination. Successfully navigating research papers requires both brain hemispheres to work in concert.
We need first to do what pianists call our “five-finger exercises.” Lots of hard work: rolling up our sleeves, combing through the research literature, carefully documenting our key assertions. Then, and only then are we at last privileged to play the finished piano sonata, applying our own personal, creative stamp to the completed research project. Renowned chemist Louis Pasteur noted: “In the fields of observation, chance favors only the mind which is prepared.” If “preparation” is left-brained, then Pasteur’s “chance,” or creativity, is right-brained. Both—employed in the proper order—are required for a successful product.
3. The Creative Process
Harvard psychiatrist Albert Rothenberg describes creativity as a “homospatial process.” It represents the bringing together of apparent opposites, opposites that no one previously imagined coexisting.
I remember early on in my own graduate-school experience wondering if I had ever truly had an original thought! Original thinking, or creative process, involves a rigorous application (as in the left brain above), then a kind of letting go. This letting-go process connotes “incubating”—the technical term used by psychology researchers in creativity. Here we allow a mental space for unique synthesis, or drawing together of the non-obvious (as with Rothenberg’s formula above), to arise on the heels of more focused analysis.
Each of us does indeed have the capacity, perhaps even the birthright, to create anew, to genuinely have an original thought. And this is one way to do it: by not doing, but rather being still, receptive, open, and quietly attentive for the nudge of creative inspiration.
4. Beginner's Mind
Expanding further on stillness, contemporary best-selling author, Eckhart Tolle observes: “All the things in life that truly matter—beauty, love, creativity, joy, inner peace—arise from beyond the mind.” What does he mean?
Along with relentlessly and rigorously utilizing our best intellect when it comes to mastering multiple research literatures, there also exists the imperative to find our way back to what the East calls “beginner’s mind.” This perspective requires our seeing things through the eyes of a child. Freud called it “evenly hovering attention.” His student, Bion, called it “perceiving without memory or desire.”
Unplugging from the day-to-day grind of reading yet another series of technical articles, or cranking out three more pages of our term paper assignment, in order that we might deepen into a novel way of viewing our material: this is beginner’s mind. And it is absolutely crucial if our final product is to have any real vitality or grabbing power. So take time away from the intensely focused energies necessitated in research. Breathe, relax, and shift gears. This apparent “inaction” will speak volumes in your final paper.
5. Teach to Learn
As an educator, I have always advocated a paradoxical bit of advice: the best way to learn is to teach. This underscores the critical difference between learning actively vs. passively. What does this look like practically?
When I learn new material, I try to find someone—a spouse or other family member, a friend, or sometimes even a client—to share the new “pearls” with. As I work this new information into conversation, I am forced to clarify my own thought. Few things sharpen the mind more quickly than having to explain to someone else, in plain English, otherwise dense or forbidding topics.
Second, by learning/teaching in this active form, I open myself to feedback and constructive criticism. I like what the poet Rumi noted: “Those who insult [critique or challenge] me are simply polishing the mirror.” So, by all means, get that mirror polished! Move from being merely a passive receptacle for downloaded data into an active and gutsy integrator of information. Teach to learn.
6. Less is More
One really good practice—in writing, speaking, and in life—is to subtract. By this I mean to pare back on content. The temptation in much human discourse, maybe particularly in academics, is always to create more. More articles read, more citations provided, more inferences, more implications, more conclusions—always more and more. Here, in contrast, I encourage you to learn the subtle, sometimes even painful, art of actually expressing more by saying less.
The famed jazz drummer, Buddy Rich, said that in order to master a rhythm of any complexity, you must first learn to play it half as fast as you might otherwise perform. He was counseling slowing down the notes, in order to really get the beat. So it goes in research writing. Slow down the endless flow of words. Be very selective. I sometimes actually hold myself to the discipline of approaching a working draft by cutting it exactly in half. Can I articulate in 10 pages what just took 20 pages to say?
Try it. Less is oftentimes more. Or as an ancient Chinese saying puts it: “In the pursuit of knowledge, every day something is added. In the practice of wisdom, every day something is dropped.”
7. Think Globally, Act Locally
As important as it is to dig deeply into the literature and, ideally, provide a new and creative answer to one’s guiding research questions, it is no less critical to translate one’s conclusions into a language that communicates. I believe that there is a moral component to all our learning. That is, if I have uncovered through my research that which is potentially transformative or healing for others, then it is absolutely incumbent upon me to seek the most skillful means for communicating that knowledge.
Don’t get me wrong here. There is great value to academic specificity and depth. But this authenticity (sociology’s term) mandates an accompanying legitimacy (also borrowed from sociology). So let us hold ourselves to both depth and breadth, authenticity and legitimacy, and transformation and translation.
I’ve come more recently to frame this dialectic as aiming to be both hip and smart! Think globally (be smart), yet also act locally (be hip). There’s nothing more needed in our profession of psychology than to take good information out of the academic hallways and clinical consulting rooms into the streets. Be hip. Be smart. Be both!