Today I’m going to help you become a literary genius. Or, at least, write a paper that doesn’t give your teacher more ammunition for wastebasket free throws. Simon Peyton Jones, a researcher for Microsoft, once gave a talk at Cambridge University about how to write a great research paper. In this talk, he advised the audience to start out the paper writing process with a pre-writing phase. Only once that’s done should they go to research. Most people do this in the opposite way. They get their idea, they go do a bunch of research on it, and then write their paper. But I like Jones’ advice to go through a pre-writing phase before doing any research, because it does a couple of very important things.
First, pre-writing will dredge up things you didn’t even think you knew about the topic.
This is something that professional writers know really well; when you spend some quality time writing in a focused state, your brain will make connections and serve up memories you didn’t even know you had. As a result, you’ll come up with lots of great questions and preliminary arguments that might just make it into your final draft. And this leads directly to the second benefit, which is more focused research. When you go into the research process armed with questions and arguments from your pre-writing phase, you’ll have a much better idea of what you’re looking for, and you’ll spend a lot less time going down pointless rabbit holes.
Now, the first thing to understand about the pre-writing phase is that it’s not about cranking out a polished paper on your first try. For one, you haven’t even done the research yet – but more importantly, a paper is a big project. And with big projects, you need to just jump in and make a mess at first.
It’s like an artist creating a sculpture out of a solid block of marble.
Any good artist knows that it’s much easier to hammer out the basic features right away instead of trying to jump right into the detailed work. And at first, the result will be a mess, but it’s much easier to hone a mess into something great than to turn a solid block of marble into a masterpiece on the first pass.
So let’s get into the details.
Personally, my pre-writing phase usually takes the form of a brain dump.
Now, this is not an attempt to write a coherent paper. Instead, it’s just a chance for me to get all of my thoughts onto a piece of paper or into a document in my note-taking app. When I do a brain dump, I’ll open a new document, set a pomodoro timer for 25 minutes, like we talked about in that procrastination video, and then I just start writing. Specifically, I’m looking to pull basically everything I know about the topic out of my brain, as well as identify any questions I might have. I’ll also list out any main points that I think will be important to cover, and finally try to think of any specific external resources that might be useful to look at during the research process.
Once you’ve done a brain dump, it’s time to move onto the research process.
Now, the biggest pitfall that most students deal with here is the tendency to get stuck in this phase forever. The author Cal Newport calls this “research recursion syndrome” – you get stuck in a loop of constantly looking for yet another source. In his book How to Become a Straight-A Student, Newport lays out an algorithm of sorts for ensuring you don’t get stuck in this loop.