Some tips for writing from research

In preparation for our research-based writing workshop tomorrow, I thought I would give a few pointers.

Essentially, I think most research based-writing can be organized either deductively or inductively. Deductive reasoning is the process of taking evidence you gather and using that evidence to lead to reader – and perhaps yourself – to a certain conclusion. My friend Travis Lippert, Director of Digital Strategy at a pharmaceutical company, recently gave me the following description of his process, which I believe exemplifies the deductive method pretty well:

The biggest research-based paper I’ve ever written was a 53-page business case for getting a human drug approved for use in dogs and cats. It has 152 references, most of which are peer-reviewed journal articles or federal regulations.

My recommendation to a student would be to organize her references by subject (which she should have done already). Then, use those subjects as the first level of an outline. Drill down to the second level. If that looks like the paper she wants to write, drill down at least one more level. If it still looks like the paper she wants to write, finish the outline and start writing. If not, she should try reorganizing her outline; she has already distilled that big pile of research down to its essence, and she just needs to put it in the right order.

Travis was even so kind as to provide photos of the stages of production for this paper:

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If you are doing any content analysis which involves taking primary sources, facts, numbers, and/or statistics and making sense of them, and also if you’re seeking conclusions you would characterize as objective, this would be a method to use.

Another method of organizing your work, which I find works especially well if you’re working with secondary accounts and multiple opinions and/or if you’re providing extensive subjective critique (some people might call this opinion),  is to take your sources, and freewrite as much as you can on those sources. It’s very important that you get as much on the page as possible – much more, in fact, than you plan to keep for the paper itself. Once you’ve exhausted yourself freewriting, take everything you’ve written on your sources, and try to find connections between your writing and the sources themselves. Then, and here you’re going into the editing process, find the writing you’ve done, sharpen it, and weave it together with your sources, using them to support and reinforce the writing you’ve produced. This loosely fits the process of inductive reasoning, taking a basic premise (your sources) and working upward towards meaning.

Keep in mind that few research-based essays are purely inductive or deductive, and you should probably try both methods for different parts of your essay. Perhaps for our workshop we can look at a handful of your bibliographies and topics, and figure out together which methods might work best for the points and connections you’re trying to make.

Lastly, you should think of this paper (and most nonfiction you write, actually) as a balancing act between 1) people, and 2) the issues that affect those people. You might use specific people as case studies, or you might speak of society in general; either way, the most powerful writing depends wholly on connecting the reader to your subject in some way, and you can do this most reliably by establishing a bond between your audience and the issue you’re researching.

We’ll continue talking about this, and I might do a followup post or two based on our conversation in class.

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