I’m also valerierose on del.icio.us. I use it in so many ways. Put the “post to delicious” bookmarklet in the bookmark bar of every browser you use and you will find yourself using it habitually.
Valerie's Life List
1. get organized
2. implement GTD
3. write better
4. Drink eight glasses of water each day
5. exercise 3X a week
6. learn Russian
7. To live instead of exist
8. Learn to figure skate
9. do pilates
10. learn guitar
11. sing in public
12. Build a PVR system
13. expand my vocabulary
14. meditate every day
15. trust my intuition
16. astral project
17. make a bag
18. expand my music collection
19. be more glamorous
20. take pole dancing lessons
It seems like such an overwhelming prospect, but it’s doable. The book “Writing your dissertation in 15 minutes a day” really helped! I was given the book by another student of my advisor before me, and I passed it on to another student in my department. We started a tradition of signing the inside cover.
I’m posting this as I take a break from my paper grading marathon – fifty ten-page papers in two days. Granted, I’m a science TA, and I haven’t taught a course in which the students write papers before, but I need to share some of my thoughts on paper writing. I’m sure some of my colleagues who are more experienced might have some greater insights. But I have to say, I’m amazed at what some people try to pull off these days. I also have to admit that I wrote crap papers in college. Now that I’ve had to grade them, I feel that I have a much better understanding of what makes a good paper. Everyone should have to grade their classmates’ papers as a learning exercise.
So here’s my advice:
Formulate a main argument and provide examples to justify it. This is pretty basic, but you’d be amazed how many people don’t get it! Your goal in writing a paper is to demonstrate your ability to research a topic and think critically about it. The idea is not simply to regurgitate information, to make like a monk and transcribe, or worse, to cut and paste shit from random websites!!!
Don’t cite random websites. Consider the credibility of your sources. Something that has been published in a book or journal, and chosen to be kept in a university library has been subject to at least some level of peer review. Some random fucker’s aol home page has not. Wikipedia is also written and regulated by random people. I once saw someone create an entry for their own dog. Presumably, at a university level, you should be doing research that is deeper than the encyclopedia level anyway. Don’t get me wrong, wikipedia is great for reading about the background of various topics for your own personal purposes. It may even be a good starting point to find other references. But there’s something wrong with citing a page that, in theory, you could have edited yourself! Remember that anyone can post anything on their personal webpage. On top of that, it just shows laziness to cite the pages that you found in a google search. I may be showing my age, but we didn’t do that in my day because, well, we couldn’t.
Don’t use the Helvetica, Arial, or any other sans-serif font. On a computer screen, sans-serif fonts are usually easier to read than serif fonts because the varying thicknesses and tails of serif characters can be distorted by pixelization and anti-aliasing. However, on paper, the varying widths and tails make the characters more recognizable, distinguishing lowercase ‘L’ from uppercase ‘I’ and the number 1, for instance. Though this effect is rather subtle, when you have a large amount of reading to do, the increased amount of mental effort to read sans-serif font is very noticeable. I once had a TA who docked me a point on a lab report for using Helvetica. At the time, I complained that it wasn’t fair. But now I fully understand! Consider that your poor TA has to stay up past 3 a.m. (not because she didn’t plan ahead mind you, but because there wasn’t enough time between when the papers were turned in and when the grades were due) reading over 500 pages worth of student writing. The last thing you want to do is give your TA, the person who determines your grades, a headache. Edit the paper in Helvetica, then switch it to Times New Roman before you print it out.
THOU SHALT OBEY LENGTH LIMITS. And don’t think we don’t notice that you made the font smaller and single spaced it. Enough said.
This is specific to science, but do make sure you know what you are talking about when you explain a scientific phenomenon. Make sure you are using science vocabulary properly. Hell, make sure you are using general vocabulary properly! Know the difference between “effect” and “affect”. Don’t use the generalized meaning of scientific words in a scientific paper. That is, don’t say something is “increasing exponentially” unless it is literally increasing exponentially. Don’t use the word “magnetism” to describe an attractive force unless it is actually the electro-magnetic force. These words have more specific meanings in science than in general use.
Back up each and every statement that you make. Be able to distinguish between fact and opinion. If you are making a statement that is opinionated, you had better have justification for it. If you can’t justify it, don’t say it. If you are stating a fact that is not common knowledge, cite a source. Don’t state sweeping generalizations as if they are fact.
Don’t start the paper too close to the deadline. Like I said, I wrote some crap papers in college. This was mostly due to letting it go to the last minute and it wasn’t because I was really so incredibly busy. Incidentally, I don’t buy into this idea that college students are all so overwhelmed with work that they can’t put effort into every class, even at a so-called “top” school. I seem to remember living a block from a bar at which I was a “mug member”, going out 4 or 5 nights a week, and routinely sleeping past noon on weekdays. Anyway, the reason I let my papers go to the last minute, producing crap papers, was that I dreaded the task. I dreaded the task mostly because I knew that my past papers were crap. But now that I’m working on my dissertation, I’ve got a whole new attitude towards writing which I owe in part to Joan Bolker’s Writing your Dissertation in Fifteen Minutes a Day. Basically, the idea is that you want to take the stress out of writing. Make writing a habit. Hence the blog, in my case. Then when you first sit down to write your paper, don’t worry about trying to write well. Just free write and get your ideas out on paper knowing that you can perfect it later—“make a mess, then clean it up”. This strategy works quite well for me and I’ve been suprised at how decent things are on the first try.
Don’t forget to clean up your mess. Know the six uses of a comma. Don’t leave sentences that have been partially edited so that they no longer make grammatical sense. Check spelling. And by that I mean do something more rigorous than running spell check! Proofreading is your friend. Leave yourself time to do it.
Well, back to grading.
Originally posted here