The blank page at the very beginning of the writing process is one of the most difficult stages for me. I struggle with how to get started and feel overwhelmed by the amount of work ahead of me.
To avoid this blank page, I open a Word Document called “Notes” early on in the research process. As I sort through the ever-accumulating pile of books and articles on my desk, I copy the relevant quotes into the document, followed by the author’s name and the page number. Typically, only a fraction of these quotes actually make it into the paper, so it can be hard to know when to stop. The metric I’ve figured out is: when the notes document is double the length of the assignment, I know it’s time to begin drafting the paper.
As I write, this document becomes my primary resource for information and direct quotes. Because it’s consolidated in one file, it’s easily navigable and searchable. Sometimes, I reorganize the quotes into sections to guide my paragraph structure and overall argument.
In the past, this system has worked well for me. But in the past few weeks, two of my teachers have modeled an exciting new approach to organizing research materials: visual mapping. In my Creative Writing Poetry class, Professor Michael Dickman had us read The Conversations: Walter Murch and the Art of Editing Film. This book is a series of interviews between the writer Michael Ondaantje and the film editor Walter Murch. Over the course of four conversations, the two artists compare their techniques for creating and editing their work from vast compilations of source material.
One strategy in particular stuck with me: when beginning to edit a film, Murch pins representative stills from every shot on the wall of his office. In doing so, Murch can visualize the entire film in one glance and easily manipulate it as he restructures the film. When we discussed this technique in class, Professor Dickman shared that he does the same with his poetry collections, pinning all of his poems to a wall to determine the best order for them.
The next week, in my architecture class “Nature and Infrastructure in South Asia,” we began working on our infrastructure mapping project. The idea behind this assignment is to examine the systems behind an everyday object of infrastructure – a toilet, a radiator, etc. – and to produce a map of the object and the networks to which it is attached. Because of the visual nature of this assignment, the focus is less on the clarity of our prose and more on the effectiveness of our visual organization. For each draft of this assignment, we present our research on four printed pieces of paper, colored with images, drawings, and chunks of large text. Each time, we pin them on the wall and discuss them with our professor, Ateya Khorakiwala.
Unlike most of my research assignments, this project emphasizes other types of media in addition to text. The argument should be visible from a distance; it doesn’t require an armchair or close reading. Re-imagining arguments in this way is exciting for me. Like many, I learn best through visuals. Seeing something – a graph, a photograph, a diagram – helps me understand and retain it.
I am interested to experiment with this emphasis on printing and visualizing my research. I wonder how it might change my writing process to print my notes and ideas and tape them to a wall. How might seeing all of my notes pinned to a wall allow for new opportunities in organization and argumentation? Are there ways to translate text – my own or others’ – into symbols or diagrams? How might this process reveal the strengths and weaknesses of my argument?
As I experiment with this approach, I hope you will also be motivated to re-imagine and visualize your arguments – and maybe discover something exciting and new as well!
–Rafi Lehmann, Social Sciences Correspondent