Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Reflections on the First Draft

After several rounds of proofreading, editing, and incorporating the comments that Professor Nice made on the "two paragraphs" assignment, the first draft of my research paper is complete. Getting to this point was a process, to be sure, and I would like to take a moment to reflect on it, both for my own benefit - to see where I might do something better in the future - and for anyone who might - against all odds - actually read this.

Gathering Sources
I felt fairly confident with my researching skills at the outset, but it turns out I have learned a lot of new, helpful tips this semester, between Professor Nice's lectures, and the input of some of my more savvy classmates. Thanks to all of the above, I was able to quickly find many primary and secondary sources.

It is possible - often easy - to find primary sources online, if one knows where to look. That said, some are accessible only via a hefty subscription fee. For example, Early English Books Online (EEBO), provides facsimile editions of manuscripts, many of which would have been useful to me, and likely to many of my classmates. Unfortunately, they require an institutional level subscription. Semi-fortunately, they provide print-on-demand copies, readily available through Pagitt's Heresiography was essential to my project, so it was worth the $18.53 price tag to me. (I also picked up a copy of John Craig's Theologiae Christianae Principia Mathematica so I can practice my Latin translation over the summer - woot!)

Secondary sources tend to be more accessible, but not universally so. They were, in some ways, more challenging to find for my project than the primary sources were. What finally led to success was some time spent on JSTOR, looking at articles on religion during the Reformation. Not only did I find many relevant pieces - most of which I was not able to usefully incorporate due to space limitations - but their bibliographic information led me to the secondary sources that would end up being critical to my project.

Reading and Interpreting Sources
While finding sources can be challenging, the real time sink is in reading and interpreting them. When time is an issue - as it was for this project - it is simply not possible to read every potential source from cover to cover to determine whether it useful. The first step for me is to scan every document to identify the author's thesis, main arguments, sources, and conclusions. That usually allows me to - with some confidence - determine whether a particular source should go into the "use," "toss," or "maybe" pile. Although it probably goes without saying, the first category are those that I will definitely incorporate into my work, the second will be ignored, and the third will be kept on hand in case they turn out to be more useful than first imagined.

Of course, this quick scan is not enough when it comes to gathering data or delving into a subject to the extent needed in order to craft an effective argument, yet, as undergraduate students, we do not have the time to read every resource in its entirety. My solution is to speed read documents, the intent being to identify those chapters, sections, or pages of a document that are critical to my research and therefore require a detailed reading. In the process, I'll annotate the book (if I own it), or leave annotated index cards at the important pages (if I've borrowed it), so that I can remember where the relevant bits are and why I thought them important when get around to writing. If I don't do this, I may as well have not bothered, because I'll have to do it all over again later. My memory has not improved with age...

That said, I do not take extensive notes but rarely, or in cases where it is not possible for me to hold onto the resource until writing is complete. Normally, I just note the important pages. When I come back, the reason why I noted them typically becomes immediately apparent.

This is the part of the process that I love most, which is saying something, because I enjoy all of it, from start to finish. I typically begin writing early in the research process, as it helps me to coalesce and refine my thoughts. While I often have to discard large portions of this initial writing as a result, it is helpful in understanding topics that are new to me (as the current one was), and in the long run saves me a lot of frustration - and likely time.

This is a good place to comment on when to know when to discard writing. The Writing History book discusses this, and I have to say that was perhaps the only useful part of the book to me, personally, as it reinforced a conclusion to which I had been long in coming: you have to learn when to let go of words, sentences, paragraphs, even entire chapters, of your writings - regardless of how well they might be written, or how clever you think your wording might be. This is a lesson I have learned only within the last two years - and a hard lesson it was too. It can be really painful to highlight a passage you spent some time on and press the <DELETE> key, but it is often the best decision. As noted previously in this blog, I started this paper several times before finally settling on the version that will be submitted this Friday. The other versions, while well written from a technical standpoint, were not going to be successful in terms of the rubric for this assignment; ultimately, they had to go. There are vestigial remains in the current version, but overall, I discarded perhaps ten pages of text between all prior attempts.

That's the writing game. Take a lesson from the Buddha, and learn to be detached from your authorial efforts in terms of knowing when to send them into the electronic rubbish bin. Your output will improve for it.

Proofreading your own work is the hardest part of the process, not because it's hard to read your own work - if you write well it can be a great ego boost - but because it's hard to read your own work objectively. When proofreading, my mind plays tricks on me, making me see things as I envision them, not as they actually exist on the page. I have never published anything where I had to act as my own editor where I did not have the experience of opening up the first copy off the press to a random page and immediately spotting an error I missed during proofreading. Seriously, every time.

The take-away from this experience for me has been to proofread multiple times, if I cannot find someone to proofread for me. Read it over and over, if time allows. For projects like the one currently under discussion, there does come a point of diminishing marginal returns where one more read seems so painful that - even though you suspect you'll find yet another something you can correct or improve upon - you have to say "enough is enough," and submit regardless. After all, this is an undergraduate level paper: there is no money involved and it is highly likely that no one other than you and your professor will read it. But, until you reach that point, try to find time for another read. I guarantee that you will find something that can be improved with a bit of tweaking or rewording.

On this paper, I went through a half-dozen proofreads before I hit the above-mentioned wall. The last round was sort of painful, but it was worth it, resulting in several improved passages where I had thought them adequate before.

Speaking of being sick of reading, if you've come this far, you are either easily entertained, strongly disagree or disagree with the above, or are really, really, really bored. Regardless, thanks for slogging through.


- Rod

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