Lesson 2: What You Should Read and Not Read
Many of you probably think that actual research for a project involves a lot of very serious reading, only after which you can begin to master a certain topic. In real life, however, this isn’t how things work. The real art of good research is knowing what NOT to read.
Let’s say, for example, that you wish to write a book about a certain fabric merchant living in Flanders during the late 15th century. You know absolutely nothing about this merchant, so you look for a good book on the subject, which will get you acquainted with the ins and outs of the period. You find one. You read it thoroughly, from cover to cover. Now you’re starting to get a bit more familiar with your topic! You begin to become increasingly knowledgeable about the period – the key actors and other important, historical details.
By the time you start reading a second book on the subject, you’ll begin to form your own opinions on the topic. And by the time you reach the third book, you’re only reading bits and pieces of the literature, because you already know a lot about the period: who did what and why, who called the shots, what the uses were of this or that fabric, and what the market conditions were during that horrible winter of 1486.
See? Now you’ve become an expert. And experts don’t read. They just evaluate: “This is good, this helps, this enriches a particular argument, this is just fluff for those who are not in the know about the topic.”
The same rule applies to smaller scale works. Although your syllabus may include about 50 articles and books that are recommended and relevant to your 3,000-word paper, you usually only take the time to read one good article that will give you a good grip on your subject. This article will also give you that critical question you need to ask, and the answer to it that you’re looking for.
And the rest of the articles and books? They are just there for you to thumb through for quotes, supportive details and complementary information. Use them, then lose them.
The Method Applied — A Cheat Sheet
I’m not exactly a science guy. So I can’t say with certainty what shortcuts the science mavericks use. But as for the humanities — here’s one such tried-and-true method. This method was developed by a person who wishes to remain anonymous. That person used it for several years when writing short papers, seminar papers, a thesis, and the like. And they saved the large amount of time that is usually needed to create such papers.
The main takeaway from this method, for your purposes, is how to economise. That is, learning what not to research as well as what to research.
For example, let’s say that you need to write a paper, maybe 5,000 words long, on early anarcho-syndicalists. Let’s also say that you didn’t bother going to class. You didn’t read any relevant material. And so, you don’t really have any idea what anarcho-syndicalism is and what it’s good for.
Well. You can divvy up your research efforts into two parts:
A. Finding stuff
B. Using stuff
With the finding part, you’ll first need to look for an article of sensible length (roughly equal in length to your paper) that’s readable, and that will get you well acquainted with both anarchism and syndicalism.
The next step in the finding process is searching for an article by a YOLEX.
A YOLEX is a YOung, LEading EXpert. And in this case, in the burgeoning anarcho-syndicalism scene. However, here’s the thing. In most cases, the article will not be very readable, as the YOLEX needs to make a name for himself, and this obviously can only be achieved if no one can really decipher their gibberish.
So don’t read the YOLEX article — just use it for the sources that it cites. If you have no idea whose young and who’s an expert, pick the article which contains the most citations. That usually works.
Now, let’s get to the cheating part…
Step A. Step A: Read the first article. Earnestly. You do need to know something about early anarcho-syndicalists. Don’t make notes, though. They’ll only slow you down and muddle your thinking. At most, highlight important bits. Let the article simmer for a bit. Wait and allow for a nice research question to begin to surface in your mind.
Step B. Start writing your paper, basing it on whatever comes to mind. Remember that question-and-answer tool from the first article? Use it! Cite the readable article you’ve read, which currently is your sole source. Cite it loud and clear, and often!
Step C. By the end of Step B, you should have something like 1,500 to 2,500 words written down. It will be lame. And it should look lame, citing just one source. But that is perfectly fine at this stage.
Step D. Now, get that YOLEX article, and skim through it to find any information that is relevant to your lame article from Step C. When you encounter one, don’t quote the YOLEX himself. Rather, quote as if you’re citing the book or article that the YOLEX is using. Got it?
Step E. By the end of Step D, you should have a more substantive draft, with many more citations – perhaps 10, 15, or more. If you need more citations (that is, a longer bibliography) you can use some additional YOLEX articles. This also helps with a different issue: it increases your chances to spot works that are repeatedly cited by authors and which therefore carry more weight. This ensures that your article will cover the necessary literature which surrounds your topic.
Step F. This is the hard part – you now need to do some honest work. Go out and look for the sources you’ve cited, and add other citations and relevant material from them.
Remember: some of your professors may have been born during the nighttime, but none of them would have been born last night. They may catch on to the shortcuts you’re trying to make. Therefore, broadening, researching and analyzing your cited materials a bit will help.
Another cautionary note: you may be tempted to cite works your professor authored. Judge prudently if this will help you or not, based on your professor’s ego. Make sure to read some of the article, because it’s very likely that your professors have read the articles that they’ve written! As a rule of thumb, if more than 10 percent of the syllabus is made up of stuff that your professor wrote, you must cite that professor.
Step G. If you did your work correctly up to this point, you can now lose any unnecessary additions to your article. That is, look for any superfluous citations in your good, readable article, and in your YOLEX, and delete them. Why? Because unless they are particularly significant or meaningful sources, it is a good idea to remove traces of your research methodology. It’s nobody’s business how you formed your work. That work is now yours!
Step H. This step is optional. If you’re the daring type, go ahead and venture a short critique of the sources that you kept referenced in your piece. This will probably paint you as a bit of a pompous doofus. But hey, you’ll get some points for daring. Also, if you’re smart enough to only critique researchers your professor hates, you’re likely to get double-points for daring, which may land you safely within the A-grade paper sphere.
Well, that’s the method applied by our anonymous friend.
Necessary disclaimer: Writing a paper this way isn’t so great! We seriously advise you not to do it like this. A solid battery of A+ papers in five minutes or less isn’t everything in life. Many people have been very successful without resorting to such a method.
That said, this method does encapsulate the rules of the research game:
• Make a general plan for the articles that you select, which themselves point to more sources that you can use
• Select your first articles, including your YOLEX, carefully. Use them in order to more fully understand how to pick and choose other sources for your paper
• Use your understanding and knowledge to read everything else sparingly and selectively
• Be polite to your elders: no elbows on the table and never wear white after September 1
If you really want to excel in writing at an A+ level, I advise you to try Mellel. We designed and wrote it with the academic user in mind, and it has some tricks that will surprise you. Click here if you want to download a 30-day trial.
See you in the next lesson,