Battling With Words: The Trick to Writing Research Papers
When I was in college I hated doing research papers. My instructors always presented writing papers wrong. They’d tell me, “You cite your research to prove you don’t plagiarize,” or, “When you get into the real world you’ll do a lot of research, so it’s good practice,” or my personal favorite, “You need sources because your opinion alone isn’t enough.”
The only thing my instructors’ explanations succeeded in doing was making me feel I wasn’t good enough to be writing anything on the topics I chose. I’m not saying they were wrong—but really finding a love of doing research papers is all about how the work is presented.
For me it was a graduate school professor who put it best. “Billy,” he said, “Sometimes writing papers is like a street fight.” It was an absurd metaphor but it instantly grabbed my imagination. After the struggle to write my next term paper and a moment’s consideration, I came to understand what he meant.
The Rules of the Street Fight
For those who haven’t had the best experiences with writing, it can be a struggle. Often it’s a struggle just to find the courage to start, let alone do it correctly. Succeeding at paper writing is indeed like a street fight. If you were in a fight, the first thing you’d want to do is pick your battleground. You’d choose a place that had the best advantages for you to succeed.
In research paper writing, your battleground is APA style. The layout of the style is designed to make your writing as legible as possible. One-inch margins, 12-point Times New Roman font, clearly written cover page, with running head on each page: All of these things help you convey your ideas quickly and easily, just like a well-chosen location could help you win a fight.
References are Your Battle Friends
References are what bothered me for the longest time. To me, they are what makes a research paper so difficult—going out and finding all those other people’s ideas that support your own. But when you really think about it you wouldn’t show up to a street fight alone. You’d invite your friends to come along and support you.
That’s what references do: support your ideas. Your friends add weight to your side of the fight so you can hammer home how right your ideas are. It’s not that your ideas aren’t good enough alone, or that anyone suspects you’re plagiarizing. It’s that you want all the support you can get to make your point when you are facing the opposing ideas of others. In a fight, your friends line up on your side and present a united front to support you. Your reference page is your friends lined up where everyone can see them and be reminded how much support your ideas have.
Your Weapons of Choice? Well-placed Citations
It’s when you have to cite everything in your written paper that it gets complicated again. Sorting out who said what and where you read it can be time consuming, but it’s necessary. Your in-line citations are like the weapons you carry into battle. You don’t just show up barehanded with your friends. Your friends pick up sticks and bats and help out.
Just like a weapon, citations deliver the full force of your friends’ support to where it’s needed most. They back up your statements and remind the reader that the references have your back. They help you succeed, just like your friends who show up when you need them the most.
It might be an imperfect metaphor, but it really provided me the insight into paper writing that made me accept it as a necessity rather than hate it as an inconvenience. To really love paper writing you have to win the battle against your apathy and fear of words. The only way to do that is to change your perspective and think of paper writing in a new light.
You can fear it and avoid it for the rest of your life, but it won’t go away. It will always be out there. But if you can find the right perspective, you can turn it into something else. For me that perspective was imagining it as an epic struggle, which made it worth my time and effort. For you it might be something else, but I encourage you to find that perspective and make it your own.
William Mathis is a librarian at the Denver campus of CollegeAmerica.