As regular readers of this blog will know, several other PCURs and I are in the throes of writing our theses. Personally, I’ve been thinking a lot about writing: what makes it effective, what strategies are successful, and what I can do to improve my own. I am by no means an expert writer, but in this post I will share a few tactics that have proven useful as I progress towards a submission-ready senior thesis. While this reflection stems from my own thesis experiences, I hope that writers of all class years and departments might find in it some principles of general applicability.
Since coming to Princeton, I’ve become involved in diverse publishing and editing opportunities. One of the first undergraduate publications I joined was PURJ, the Princeton Undergraduate Research Journal. As a member of the Peer Review Board for PURJ, I learned more about the peer review process in academic research publications and had the opportunity to review manuscript pieces spanning incredibly diverse disciplines from the undergraduate body. In contrast to some other more specialized journals I’m involved in, such as Unfound, Princeton’s Journal of Asian American Studies, PURJ is a truly multidisciplinary publication that showcases work from the humanities, social sciences, natural sciences, engineering, and arts.
To learn more about the perks of being involved in a research journal, I interviewed Jasper Lee ’21, the current Co-Editor in Chief of PURJ. A molecular biology major, he first joined PURJ as a member of the Peer Review Board and then took on the role of Managing Editor of Peer Review. Here’s what Jasper shared about his experience with PURJ:
I meet with my JP adviser every other Monday morning. No matter how hard I try to beat procrastination, the weekend before each meeting is always an anxious scramble to complete a draft. On Sunday night, I worry that I’m unforgivably behind schedule, that my topic was a bad choice, that my writing is incoherent.
From conversations with my friends, I’ve realized that wanting to avoid our advisers is totally normal. It can be scary to share our work—especially when it’s unfinished, and especially when the reader will eventually be grading it. But as I’ve learned over the past semester, though it can be terrifying, meeting with my adviser has only helped and reassured me in the research and writing process.
When I feel anxious the Sunday before an adviser meeting, I’m not actually worried about what my adviser will think. I’m worried about having to confront my own work. If I send only a two-page draft, I have to admit to myself that I’m behind schedule. If my argument isn’t fully baked, I have to admit that I haven’t yet figured out how to approach my topic. If my writing is confusing, I have to admit that it needs a lot more editing.
Admitting mistakes or weaknesses is always hard. It feels so much easier to pretend they don’t exist—to convince yourself that you’ll be on schedule soon, that there are no holes in your argument, that your writing needs no editing. However, as difficult as it may be, confronting these questions regularly not only improves your work, but prevents a flood of buried anxiety at the end of the project.
If you’re caught up on some of mypreviousposts, you’ll remember that I wrote my fall Junior Paper about shackling pregnant inmates in New York women’s prisons after the 2009 anti-shackling bill. I recently submitted my Junior Paper at the beginning of January, and it’s safe to say that it was a wild ride. To name a few challenges: I had to completely change my topic, I navigated tough interviews, and I spent a LOT of time editing my essay. Although I wrote a post about how to work efficiently during winter break, I pretty much ignored all of my own advice and ended up working on my JP each night, making my winter break anything but carefree and relaxing. However, I came back to school with a paper I was proud of.
But the challenges did not stop there. This JP was my first encounter with a substantial piece of independent work, and it included a whole lot of revisions after I had completed my first full draft. After reading through the paper, I scheduled a phone conference with my professor that left me with a plethora of edits to make in a very short amount of time. I made the changes, going through the paper with a fine-toothed comb, and the day after I got back to Princeton, I went to my first-ever appointment at the Writing Center.
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. Continue reading Visualizing Your Argument
One of the most memorable experiences from my high school years was being the chief editor of a student-run research journal that my classmates and I founded. The journal, named the Broad Street Scientific (after a neighboring street), was in its 3rd year when I became chief editor. It showcased some of the most innovative and insightful research projects conducted by students at the school across a wide range of disciplines.
What I enjoyed most about running the publication was the opportunity to both learn about authors’ research and help authors showcase their research at the same time. Proofreading people’s research papers made me more knowledgeable (beyond just the surface level) on a wide array of research fields, ranging from nanomedicine to hydroelectricity. But after a few weeks of reading over research papers, I caught myself falling asleep on the job. The papers were still super interesting, but editing them alone wasn’t a very engaging process.