The Search for the Perfect Writing Space

It can be difficult to find the perfect place to write. When I leave my afternoon classes, I often find myself standing on the sidewalk, unsure of where to go next. There are so many study spaces on this campus, but some days nothing feels right. (For some ideas, check out Nanako’s post about finding the perfect space for you)

The space where I work matters. And frustratingly, what I need in a study space is in constant flux, depending both on my mood and the type of work I need to get done: energetic spaces for sleepy mornings, quiet spaces for more focused work, and so on. Over my few years at Princeton, I’ve learned how different study spaces affect me: campus cafes are energizing, but distracting; Firestone carrels are productive, but isolating; and my dorm room puts me to sleep within fifteen minutes—no matter the time of day.

With larger projects like a thesis or final paper, though, it can be even harder to find the right space to write. In my experience, larger projects require more focus and endurance, making it hard to be productive in a loud, busy space. On the other hand, the prospect of extended hours in library isolation is almost always unappealing to me.

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How to Survive a Writing-heavy Semester

The Rocky-Mathey library, where I wrote most of my papers last spring.

It’s always recommended to balance your course workload appropriately with a good number of paper classes and problem set (p-set) classes. While it’s definitely not ideal, sometimes you just end up taking multiple classes with a demanding reading and writing workload–which means you can also end up with four or five final papers. Some students may actually prefer having only papers and no exams, and vice versa. Exams are a one-and-done deal, whereas final papers allow an indefinite amount of time and access to endless resources–but this can be stressful in its own way. Sometimes, you never know when you’re truly done with a paper, and it can be difficult to allocate time effectively when you’re juggling multiple written assignments. 

Being a prospective English major, I tend to pile my coursework with a lot of reading and writing-heavy classes. Last spring, I took four humanities/social science classes and had four papers due for Dean’s Date. Needless to say, in the beginning I felt overwhelmed by the thought of having to write and polish several papers in what felt like not nearly enough time. As a general rule of thumb, I’ve learned that time management is especially crucial when having to complete multiple Dean’s Date assignments, and that planning ahead on your papers can make your life so much easier. 

Aside from time management, here are some tips so that you can avoid feeling a sense of impending doom by the time Dean’s Date rolls around:

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Training for the Thesis Marathon

A long-term project like a thesis is a marathon, not a sprint. This has been a difficult adjustment for me. In almost every other research project I’ve done at Princeton, I’ve chosen the last-minute sprint model, rather than a more organized long-term approach. Sprinting hasn’t worked well in the past, but it won’t work at all for a thesis. There’s simply too much involved in a thesis to cram it into the few weeks before the deadline.

My thesis buddy and me cheesing at the finish line of a 5K last spring. It’s never too early to start training for the thesis marathon!

The marathon approach is new to me, so I looked up some tips for how to train for an actual marathon. I was surprised how many were relevant for a long-term project like a thesis or a final paper. I’ve collected my ten favorites here:

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Write While You Read

Last spring, my JP adviser passed on a piece of wisdom from his graduate adviser: for a research project, you should spend one third of your time reading, one third of your time writing, and one third of your time editing.

This was new to me. Historically, I’d spent 80% of my time reading, 19% of my time writing, and 1% (at best) of my time editing. I had always told myself that it didn’t make sense to start writing until I’d read everything and figured out what I wanted to say. Also, reading almost always felt easier and safer than writing. Instead of constructing my own ideas, I could sit back and receive other people’s finished products.

The research cycle: read, write, edit.

The problem was: I never ran out of things to read. Most of the time, I would only start writing once the deadline was in sight and I had no more time to waste. Rarely would I have enough time to edit my work.

For my thesis, though, I’m trying to follow my JP adviser’s system, spending equal amounts of time reading, writing, and editing. It took me until this week to realize that I need to treat these three elements as parts of a cycle, rather than macro chronological steps. In other words, I realized that I shouldn’t spend the first half of my fall semester just reading, the next few months writing, and the next few months editing. I need to be doing all three simultaneously. My reading, writing, and editing should be working in tandem with each other.

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How to Beat the Panic of Independent Work

Last fall, in a cubicle on the B-floor of Firestone, you might have seen me scrolling through my unfinished JP. It would have looked unremarkable. I had been working on my JP in the same cubicle for weeks. Except this time, my JP was due to my department in two hours and I was realizing I had about 25 pages of footnotes to complete. I was panicking: crying and shaking while typing faster than I’ve ever typed before.

Luckily, I was able to complete the citations and submit my JP with three minutes to spare! But it took me the rest of the night to recover from the experience (and, to be honest, I still get a rush of anxiety every time I think about it). I promised myself I would never allow myself to end up in the same situation again.

A selfie I took just minutes after submitting my first JP last fall…

Whether it’s a final paper, a JP, or a thesis, here are some tools I’ve been using to help me beat the panic of independent work:

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Writing for Fun? Part 1: Creativity and Academic Writing

We are constantly writing––composing emails, blackboard posts, essays, and dean’s date papers. In this two-part series, I am interested in understanding the different forms of writing students explore on campus. Specifically, I interview students who write for campus publications to see how they approach the writing process in their extracurriculars.

In this post, I Interview Serena Alagappan ’20, the Editor-in-Chief and a writer for Nassau Weekly. Serena is a comparative literature major who, for three years now, has shared poetry, cultural critiques, profiles, and fiction through the Nass. In my interview with Serena, we discuss creative writing and the connection she has experienced between her academic and personal writing. Serena encourages students to explore writing through the Creative Writing program and shares advice on how students can carry over the freedom and expression of creative writing into more formal and rigid academic subjects.

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Class Trip to Japan: Immersive Experiences, Changing Topics, and the Importance of Reflection

This year, I spent my spring break traveling around Japan with my art history seminar course, ART 429 Visual Japan: Past and Present. It was an absolutely transformative experience, both academically and personally. I’m here to share a little bit about how I learned to use experiences to inspire research and find answers through reflection.

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Open-Ended Assignments: Tips Towards Narrowing Your Research

When a professor assigns a research paper with no specific prompt, it sometimes can be hard to know exactly what kind of work is expected. Assignments like these may provide a suggested page count and an injunction to stay within the bounds of the course theme, but little else. In this case, the possibilities for paper topics seem infinite. Once you get past this hurdle and settle on a general idea you would like to explore, you still may feel compelled to answer some big questions; questions that might cover a long time frame, seek to identify general trends with a large sample size, or tackle broad theoretical questions. So much of the academic material we are exposed to seems to deal with these “big questions”: survey lectures, assigned readings with titles of sweeping breadth, and the prospect of the senior thesis.

The impulse you may have to ask big questions is natural, then— and it’s a good impulse, too! It is a great way to jumpstart your research, beginning the process of narrowing down by going from infinite potential topics to many potential topics. But, with a looming due date (unfortunately) limiting your research time, keeping your question broad can become overwhelming, and hinder your ability to meaningfully answer it.

During my experience this summer working on an independent research project as an intern with the Office of Undergraduate Research’s ReMatch+ program, I came to learn the importance of narrowing your question early in the research process. Though through the wonderful advice of my ReMatch+ graduate student mentor, my research was pretty specific by midsummer (focusing on the language of “othering” in New York City press reports of a June 1848 Paris workers’ rebellion), it took me several weeks to get to there— necessary time in retrospect, but time I would have rather been developing my topic rather than figuring out what it was. I definitely could have benefited from some guidance at the beginning of my work. So, with that in mind, I hope the tips below will help you narrow your research questions early on, so you don’t have to learn the hard way like I did.

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De-Mystifying the Black Box Part 2: Research Abroad and Narrowing Everything Down

I went to Paris! Not just for fun—although it’s a dope city—but to get some thesis research done to narrow down a topic. In the first part of this series, I mentioned how I submitted an application for funding to research advertisements in museum archives and libraries in Paris. My goal was to narrow down the initial research question I had at the very beginning of my research process: how Public Service Announcements (PSAs) subvert the capitalist practices within traditional commercial advertising. My goal was to see the advertisements that inspired the French theorists I’ll be drawing from in my thesis. But, alas, there was one problem—when faced with an entire archive of advertisements, where do I even begin??

Some pretty iconic French ads I was inspired by at the Museum of Decorative Arts

I spent most of my time at the Bibliothèque Forney, a library specializing in design and the decorative arts. I emailed ahead of time to speak with one of the librarians, who wanted to get a sense of my argument and which advertisements he could direct me into researching according to my response. After explaining my general thesis topic and the research I had done in my previous two JPs (pro-tip: explaining a thesis topic in a foreign language is a good marker for how well you understand it—or rather how much you don’t), he responded bluntly: “You really need to narrow this down.” My face fell. That’s exactly what I was trying to do, the very reason I was in that library. I didn’t have a corpus of ads, which is what I was in search for in Paris. I had kind of hoped to look at a vast layout of ads and just be naturally drawn to an era, a medium, a theme, or product, but I quickly realized it was far too unrealistic to be able to survey three hundred years of French advertisements and just hope that a few of them would speak to me so I could write eighty pages about them. The librarian asked me how much time I had to write my thesis, suggesting one to two years, and I chuckled, slightly panicked, and said “six months.”

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How to Get Work Done Without Even Trying: Passive Brainstorming for Essays and Final Assigments

In addition to this lovely position as a blogger for PCUR, I am also a Learning Consultant at McGraw. (*shameless plug*: Learning Consultations at McGraw are individual hour sessions with a student (like me!) where you come up with strategies on how to best handle your studies at Princeton). Last year, a couple consultants volunteered for the inaugural episode of McGraw’s podcast, “Making Learning Audible,” where we talked about finding balance between work and relaxation over winter break. During winter break in my first year at Princeton, I put a lot of pressure on myself to study intensively for exams but ended up just overwhelming myself and doing nothing. Any attempt to actively work on my essays to reach my high standard of getting super ahead on my Dean’s Date papers was met with instant exhaustion.

Get this level of electric brainstorming activity done without even thinking about it!

However, I said in the podcast: “For my sophomore winter break, I learned from that, and all I wanted was just a good place to start when I got back. I did not put a lot of pressure on myself. I let all the work that I had to do be kind of passive and if something came to mind that I really liked I would jot it down and get back to it”.

In this post, I’ll unpack what I meant by “passive work.” Active brainstorming, in my experience, is choosing to set aside time to sit down and build an essay or open-ended question on an exam from scratch. So, what does it look like to stretch out this brainstorm period so when you sit down to write, the paragraphs basically form themselves? Here are some tips on how I’ve been able to cut down on brainstorming time and get down to business:

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