Tuesday, April 16, 2019

How to write papers more efficiently

Essay writing season has started here at University College Roosevelt, the small liberal arts college in the Netherlands where I teach.  In the course I teach this semester about Religious Ethics my students are researching topics to write about, pitching approaches, trying to find the arguments that they’ll be making in their papers. Some of them are even writing already. Not all of them – it’s early days yet. That means that some students are not writing or researching but – you guessed it - procrastinating. 😀 (If this sounds familiar, and like some of my students you’re also having trouble finding the drive to get started with that big scary paper, why not begin by reading my blog post from last year on procrastination.)

But regardless of what kind of student you are – an early starter or a procrastinator who only starts at the last possible moment - there will come a time when you need to start doing some actual work. And chances are that you will have far less time than you’d like. That’s a fact of life when you’re a student – at some point the clock starts ticking, and you’ll be under some kind of time pressure. Even if you started early, there will come a time when you discover that you have less time to finish the paper than you’d hoped for. If that sounds familiar, then this blog post is for you. Here, in no particular order, are the top five tips I share with my students to help them cut corners and save time during the research process so that they can survive essay writing season and meet their deadlines. There is some information in the tips that are only applicable to UCR students (the tips come from a workshop on research tools I teach each semester); however, almost all of them can be used by any student struggling to meet a deadline. 

1. Use f.lux
When you’re under time pressure to finish a paper, almost all students fall back on that time-tested method to tackle deadlines: pulling an all-nighter. Unfortunately, there is quite a bit of research that shows that the blue light from LCD screens makes it harder to fall asleep if you’ve been exposed to it in the evening. I often tell my students that the best way to deal with that problem is ‘no screens in the evening’ – but no student can survive essay writing season if they adopt that rule, I think. 😀

Next best solution: install f.lux. F.lux is a real base-line tool – install it and forget about it. You can download it at justgetflux.com. In the evenings, f.lux will filter out the blue light from your computer screen. This means it should be easier to get to sleep if you’ve had to work in the evening. On Apple phones and tablets, the same service is called ‘night shift’. Turn it on and forget about it – it can make a big difference. 

2. Use digital sources
Being super efficient at using digital sources is one of the best ways to save time during research, I find. You can go from discovering an article or book to reading it in five minutes. Also, you can do keyword searches in digital sources – which is especially helpful if you’re dealing with brick-sized books. Yes, these usually have an index, but a keyword search often brings up passages that you wouldn’t have found through the index, and at a speed which is far higher. Of course none of this means you shouldn’t also go to the library – do check out what they have, it might just be that they have books relevant to your research project. But in the first instance, relying on digital sources can be a real life-saver – especially since Middelburg doesn’t have a big University research library. My top tips are:

Gives access to a host of ebooks and academic articles. Not free (about 40 euros per semester) but highly intuitive and easy to use. Also has a good iPad and Android app so you can read sources on your tablet. Strongly recommended, will save you a lot of time and frustration! Of course, you can also access a lot of digital content through UU library, but the problem is that it’s spread out over a gazillion different databases. That means that finding content can be extremely painful. I hear from students all the time that they struggle finding articles, and almost never hear that students are using the ebook platforms which UU library gives us access to. Questia solves this problem – it has the intuitive user interface of Google, i.e. a single search bar. Search for a keyword, and see at a glance which books, academic articles, newspaper articles, magazine articles and encyclopaedia articles Questia has on offer. Strongly recommended.

(Tip: Questia also has many textbooks in their catalogue. So instead of buying a particular textbook in hardcopy, spend that money on a Questia account and get all the other great content for free). 

If you’re a UCR student, you have free access to Encyclopedia Britannica with your Middelburg library card. Use this link to access it. I strongly recommend that you make use of this excellent tool. Unlike Wikipedia, you can actually quote from it. 😀

Google scholar is one of the most intuitive ways to search for academic articles. Finding books through Google scholar is also possible, but you will probably not be able to download or read them. If you’re a UCR student, you can use this link so that you can use google scholar in combination with your Solis ID – which means you should be able to actually download sources found through Google scholar (if Utrecht library has a subscription to the journal in question, of course). In the workshop I teach at UCR on digital research tools I sometimes discover that students cannot download articles even if they login with the link above – what usually fixes it for them is to switch browsers. Google chrome almost always works.

If you’ve been able to successfully log in, the web address in your browser should read the following:

If it only says scholar.google.nl it did not work, and you will not be able to download any articles. In the case of the student I helped out, I kept getting this error (i.e. the correct web address was not displayed even after logging in) until we switched to chrome, then it worked! 

3. Use Mendeley for your references
Mendeley is a real life-saver – it’s a database for all your references which you can also use to fully automatize your referencing in word or open office. At the end of your project, it can then make a bibliography automatically for you, in the output style of your choice (APA, MLA, etc). At Masters or PhD level, you’d be a fool note to use something like Mendeley – so why not start learning how to use it now, even if you’re only a Bachelor student. For a short video on how to install it and use it go here.

4. Use Evernote for note-taking and storing documents.
Evernote is free and really great. It’s available for your smartphone and your computer, and you can use it to easily clip web pages, store and organize pdf documents, or brainstorm - the possibilities are endless. For a short video on how to use it go here.

One of the best things about Evernote is it’s free web clipper – a plugin for your browser which you can use to easily clip information you find online to Evernote. For more info on the web clipper go here.

Evernote is really popular with college students – many students also use it for note-taking during class. For a video on how to use Evernote as a college student go here.

5. Use Wunderlist.com to stay organized.
Wunderlist is the app I use most of all. I use it to stay organized in general, to help me prepare my classes, and also to do my research. It’s a to-do app that I’ve developed a simple time-managent system for, which I’ve taught to many UCR students and also colleagues. Many report less stress, more clarity and even enhanced grades. For research it’s also a real life-saver: I create a project list for all my research papers, so I can keep track of brainwaves and things I still need to fix/improve. I’ve published a short book about how I use Wunderlist, which is available as both an ebook and paperback on Amazon, Apple iBooks, bol.com, etc. You can find out more about the book at listsnotfists.com.

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