Tips Novices Know That Veteran Researchers Forget


It’s a daunting moment we’ve all experienced: you’re writing a research paper, probably between drafts, and emerge from the flow of your writing only to come to the realization that you no longer know what you are writing about. You know your topic and, of course, you prepared before writing, but you realize that the topic is much bigger than you initially planned, and now you’re lost in the maze of data and information. You have to choose which facts, figures, and articles are relevant to the point you are trying to make, and, well, it all seems relevant!

Researchers who have been through this before may forget what they knew when they wrote their first research paper that will help them keep up with the pace of their own minds. It’s overwhelming, but it means you are being thorough and are likely passionate about your topic. Below are some of our favorite choices to keep even complex topics on-track and to-the-point. Students know them. Do you still practice these steps? 

Carve your Thesis into your Desk. And … your Brain.

Your thesis is more significant than your title. Literally, write it out and separate it from your Word doc. Use big letters and tape it to your desk, make it the background of your computer, frame it and hang it on your wall; do whatever you have to do to keep your eye on the prize. Any factoids (even the interesting ones) that don’t help support those few lines of what exactly your paper will accomplish are not relevant to you right now. Save them for your next research paper.

Save Branch-Out Topics for Future Papers

Researching means learning, so your mind is alert and actively firing off ideas. Don’t let those ideas go! Keep them in a journal, spreadsheet of topics that branch off of your initial thesis. You’ll be able to stick to your specialized topic, and bottle up some of that ingenuity for later.

Tighten-Up Those Lines

The more you know, the more details matter. Reviewers tend to favor the granular topic. If you find your planned topic is simply too broad cinch it in. Example: one time I set out to write a paper on love symbols in Western culture and it turned into 23 pages of semiotics on chocolate as a social metaphor. It happens. It’s easier to admit it early on than have an inconclusive paper later.

Edit. Then Edit Some More.

If history has taught writers anything it is that writing is so much harder than it sounds … but right after that, it taught us that editing is critical to success. Sometimes you need to reread your paper several times to realize that some paragraphs are carrying dead weight, or aren’t supporting your topic. Editing, and the rereading that comes with it, will give you the insight you need to ensure your paper has that informative kick that readers and colleagues look for.

Remember, when you’re writing the research paper you become the expert. Know your topic and know what you are setting out to achieve. The rest is a matter of how you go about doing that.

Grab your keyboards and repeat after me: “I got this!” Then #SSRN on Twitter to share your own tips on keeping your research on track.