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Sound Writing

Subsection 4.2.6 Researching while Writing

Circular text bubbles containing the words research, writing, and revising are connected by arrows in a circular cycle. In the middle of the circle is the text, "The research process is not linear." The words "is not" are in dark text for emphasis.
The process of researching, writing, and revising is not linear. You don’t stop researching when you start writing, and you don’t stop researching or writing when you begin revising. As was mentioned in Chapter 3, it is best to think of your initial thesis as a working thesis. During your research, writing, and revising process, your argument will (and should) change based on what you read and write. You may end up writing a completely different paper than you had originally envisioned, or your final thesis may simply be a revised and refined version of your working thesis. Regardless, as you write your first draft, it is important that you don’t stop doing research. How, then, does your research process evolve with your writing?
Research is initially very broad. You’re trying to figure out what scholarship on your topic exists and where you might contribute to the scholarly conversation regarding that topic. As you work toward a thesis, that research will become increasingly specific because you have a better idea of what kind of sources and evidence you need and what kind of background your reader will need to make sense of your argument. Figuring out when to write, when to research, and when to revise can be difficult, so below are some tips and tricks to help you determine what to do and when to do it.

Writing while Researching.

Don’t let the guise of “needing to do more research” let you procrastinate on writing for too long. Because time, accessibility, and resources limit the type and amount of research you can do, you will never have enough research (but that’s okay!). You should start writing when you feel like you have a solid understanding of necessary background information and a good outline of your argument. (Of course, you can always write before this point in the process, too.) Even if what you’re writing is incoherent and doesn’t end up in the final draft, the process of getting your thoughts onto paper will help you sort out your ideas.
List 4.2.23. Hitting the Books Again
You need to do more research when you. . .
  • want to say something but don’t have the evidence to back it up.
  • look through your evidence and realize that some (or all) of the sources no longer pertain to your topic or argument.
  • have an “ah-ha!” moment that leads you to change direction such that your sources are no longer relevant.
  • have nothing else to say and realize that you need to expand your research question and argument.
  • are repeatedly citing the same source (unless that source is what your paper is about!).
Don’t make a claim without the evidence to back it up! If you’re feeling stuck but don’t think you need to do more research, check out Subsection 4.4.1.

Note 4.2.24. Unused Research.

Don’t worry if you don’t use all of your research! If reading this list is making you sad and overwhelmed (“But I already have so much research! I’ve already done so much work! I’m already so overwhelmed!”), worry not. A lot of the initial research you do doesn’t end up being part of your final product, but that’s okay! Doing a lot of research helps familiarize you with the field and points your research in the right direction. While researching and writing, it’s normal to realize that you don’t actually need to write about everything that you read.

Bringing Order to the Chaos.

Research can yield a lot of information (and books and browser tabs and open PDFs) in a short amount of time. Drowning in sources while mid draft can become stressful, so try focusing on one section of your paper, research, or argument development. You might also try finding an alternative way to save sources so you’re not bombarded with articles every time you open your computer (Remember you can use a knowledge management tool like Zotero (see Section 12.2) to keep track of sources or a PDF reader like Adobe Acrobat Reader (see Section 12.3) to mark up your digital copies of texts).
A simple penguin comic has a thought bubble with the pun, "That’s some n-ICE research you’re doing!"
List 4.2.25. Strategies for Researching while Writing
  • Check bibliographies!
    If you find yourself repeatedly using a specific article, try looking up the sources that the author lists in the article’s bibliography—you’ll probably find even more sources that are also useful!
  • Make an annotated bibliography.
    Sometimes professors assign annotated bibliographies to encourage students to begin researching and thinking about the research process. If you are assigned one, then take it seriously and do as much work as possible on it. By the time you’re ready to start writing your paper, you’ll already have most of your sources compiled, most of your citations done, and most of your background information gathered. While an annotated bibliography may seem like an unnecessary hassle, you will thank yourself later! If you aren’t assigned one, though, you can create an informal version for yourself. Simply gather your useful articles and summarize the argument of each in your own words. You might also add a sentence or two about how you plan to use the article as evidence for your argument. If you’re feeling really productive (or if you want to procrastinate productively), you could also write the citations for each article to go along with your annotations (don’t leave this for the last second!).
  • Leave notes to yourself while you’re writing.
    So you have done some research, started figuring out your ideas, and finally gotten into a groove when, all of a sudden, you stumble across something that you need to research more. But the thing is, you don’t want to stop writing because you might lose your groove! What do you do? Fear not! You can always leave a note to yourself (like this! “Research more about penguins.” You might even highlight the note OR PUT IT IN ALL CAPS to remind yourself to go back and address it!), and continue your sentence as if you’ve already done the research. Especially since you can always go back and revise your sentence based on the new evidence you find, if you’re mid thought and don’t want to interrupt yourself, then don’t!
  • Color-code.
    If you like to color-code, you might try using different-colored sticky notes, pens, or highlighters to track your research in different ways. One color might, for example, indicate background information, another might be for quotes you want to use, and yet another could mark research you do while you’re writing. This coding system is especially useful for doing research in books because you can lose a quote so easily! (But remember: never write in books from your university library! Save your sticky notes for those.)
  • Use technology.
    Since most articles are quite long and you probably won’t use every page from every article, save your printer money for printing out your class readings and look into online PDF-readers like Adobe Acrobat, Foxit Reader, or ReadCube for articles you collect independently. Tools like these enable you to store, organize, highlight, and annotate a large number of articles without a single trip to the printer. Online research tools make it especially easy for you to add new research as you write because you can add completely new folders, move or delete articles that are no longer useful, or note differences between your new and old articles.