Tool #2: Old School Organizing – Scientific Writing – Part 6
As I mentioned in the last blog, I often start writing a research paper/literature review with a dear mom draft. But a letter to my mother is not going to be accepted for publication (and is not likely going to fulfill the requirements of your class paper, either). So, we can’t stay with this draft for too long. (Though your mother is still welcome to read your final paper, even once you’ve deleted the salutation to her.) This is where my second tool comes in.
Tool #2: Organize Old School. Find a research paper or two that are closely aligned with your idea and start sketching (literally) the core features from this paper that might be useful to guide your search for other papers.
For the paper that I was writing on how psychology can influence theological thinking about personhood, I needed a good overview from psychology about persons. The problem is that psychologists don’t really use that word. We say “people” who have “self-concepts” and “personality dispositions” (and so forth). This in and of itself might be interesting to the primary audience of the paper (theologians and philosophers interested in how psychology might challenge, nuance, or advance discussions about personhood). But I knew I didn’t want to write a broad paper on all the different ways that we can define “self” in relation to “person” in psychology. (Someone else can write that paper.) Yet, to start to talk about a psychological view of persons, I would need an article that could give me a good overview of the area.
In psychology (and I suspect other disciplines, too), there are a number of “Handbooks” that are published as edited volumes, often with lengthy chapters written by different experts on important aspects of the topic or idea of the handbook1. These are often great places to start for in-depth (even if a bit dense) overviews on a variety of topics. When I stumbled upon the 2018 chapter by Sanaz Talaifar and William Swann on Self and Identity from the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Psychology, I was thrilled. Although this chapter didn’t go into too much detail on any one topic within self and identity, it had the broad strokes (but scholarly) overview I needed to start to frame my ideas. And I did this old school style.
If you take a look at this page, you see that in the very center I wrote “self”. From there, I have a series of arrows highlighting different components of the self that Talaifar and Swann wrote about. You will also see I made a few notes (bottom left) with some additional references that I wanted to follow up on.
Although a lot of what is on this page is a truncated view of some of the ways of defining self-discussed in the chapter, but I also made notes of possible connections to consider exploring. For example, there are conscious and non-conscious forms of self and that these are inherently evaluative (see top right). This idea made me wonder whether mindfulness/cognitive-behavior theory is so effective because it can help individuals formalize the automatic, non-conscious, (presumably) negative evaluations of self that they engage2. In other places, I make connections to areas of my own expertise, such as the perceived stability of self, something attributed to “psychological essentialism” (from developmental psychology) or to Carol Dweck’s work on mindset (how what we believe about ourselves influences our behavior, which feeds back into our self-perceptions).
Basically, I find that by writing—with my hand, not on a computer—I have more flexibility to think and make connections. I can draw arrows, make columns, and try to identify crossovers. There is nothing magical about writing this out by hand—doing this old school—but I find it easier to spread the papers out across my desk and think when my hands have gone through the specific motions of writing than when I do the functional equivalent on the computer.
What you can see in this picture is the end result of my organizing. Each page is numbered and double-sided, flipping up from the long edge. I know this seems like a useless bit of trivia about my process, but I think it’s good to know that this is not how I usually write on paper; nor do I usually use unlined paper. This isn’t how I take notes. When I write on paper like this (this orientation, these columns, some arrows, lots of quotes, unlined paper…), it is a signal to me that I am moving from big ideas (dear mom) to how it might be accomplished (some core citations). These are notes that I take while reading articles on the topic (through database searches and by following promising citations that I read within interesting articles). These are not necessarily original ideas that I am generating, but instead interesting ideas from research papers/literature reviews that I am reading. My job as the author of a new paper is to bring these ideas together (the ones that remain relevant to my topic) in a way that opens dialogue for something new (a fresh view, a new idea, a reconsideration, an extended summary of this research).
I do this process until my ideas start to feel saturated. Saturation is a bit vague, but basically, I find that I have hit the point of saturation when I stop having new arrows/columns crop out of my notes. When my notes feel more like nuancing and extending specific ideas rather than introducing new concepts. Once I hit this point, usually 4-8 double-sided pages of notes like this, then I turn to a real, paragraph form draft. More on that in the next blog.
Also, a bonus tool: All along the way of this process, I’m saving papers into Zotero3. By the end of a 2-hour research session where I’m scribbling my notes and reading papers, I might have 45 tabs open (yes, I’m an active tab-opener). It is easy to lose track of where papers are across these tabs (much less the difficulty of finding them at a later date), so while I keep them open for reference in the moment, I also actively save them into a Zotero folder specifically labeled for this research paper project. You can see a snapshot of my “Personhood” paper Zotero folder here (along with a whole slew of other Zotero folders I have). Zotero, or some other reference management system, is like a researcher’s superpower. (I think Spiderman’s uncle was right: with great power comes great responsibility. In the context of research, I would say that with great power (of reference organization) comes great ideas.)
While you wait, I want to know: how do you organize your ideas and references?
1For example, see a list of psychology handbooks published by the American Psychological Association and Cambridge University Press, though other publishers also produce high quality handbooks.
2That is, mindfulness can teach us to identify a thought in our head, but separate ourselves—literally our self—from that thought. I can have a thought, “I’m worthless” and I can evaluate that thought “hrm, I just had a thought that I’m worthless” without becoming that thought or accepting it as true “That was a thought I had, and it wasn’t true.” If you want to know more about this, in particular, I would recommend this book. Ignore the cheesy title and very self-helpy cover; it represents good scholarship and I have found the tools very helpful.
3Check out this CSHB resource page for more on Zotero and other tools for writing research papers.
If you found this blog helpful, check out the overview of the whole series here, so that you can find more useful information to develop your writing.
Hi Dr. Smith,
I also use Zotero, and I love it. One feature I love is that “there’s an app for that!” The Papership app links with Zotero and you can save, read, highlight, make notes, etc. within the app. So, I often will take short moments in my day to use the app on my phone (i.e., while waiting for an appointment, sitting on the couch at home waiting for the laundry to dry.) I organize my Zotero folders similar to the way you do. I also create subfolders within each folder and organize my articles by topic (based upon how I might plan to write my literature review). If I do a good job of organizing in this way, when I start writing about a particular sub-topic of my article, I just have to go directly to the subfolder within the larger folder and I will find all of the relevant articles there. For example, I’m writing a paper on religious/struggles and discrimination. Within my Zotero folder labeled “Multiracial Discrimination,” I have a subfolder titled, “Religious/Spiritual Struggles.” This saves me a ton of time because I don’t have to search for every article I saved on that specific subtopic.
Thanks again for this blog! It has been very helpful to read about your writing process.
This is great! I need better subfolders–it would be more efficient. (My article organization is very much a work-in-progress!) I do try to use tags (adding my own) so that I can better search, since I’m sure I’ve saved things in wrong (or poorly labeled) folders. If I have tags of some key ideas, then I can at least search as I review what papers I have on different ideas/topics.
I love the app–I’ve not heard of this one (but you know I’m about to go look it up…). Thanks for sharing, Dr. Vazquez!
It’s good to know what *won’t* work for you, to be sure. Given that sketching, arrows, etc. won’t work, what do you think might will? Organizing ideas requires bridging across many articles, and keeping things straight. So I’m wondering, how might you do this (even if you haven’t yet)? I’d love to hear what you think might work for you.
I don’t usually organize my articles because I haven’t gotten to a point in which I need to, but also because I have them in my paper. I also like to “sketch” my paper on my computer because I can bold, italicize, and underline things and leave myself little notes that wont irritate me later on. By this I mean if I sketched on paper I would be too focused on making my notes/sketch look pretty rather than the content. Even when I draw a sketch for a picture I want to draw I tend to spend way too much time on the sketch which at the end tends to be the picture itself.
Dr.Smith, this was a fantastic layout of information and creative output. I am imaginative, and I can get lost in the process of it all and feel like my notes aren’t helping the end product. However, I am excited to try this method and engage in a new form of structured production. Zotero is a unique resource for my study, and based on your recommendation and the comments attached to this post; I am ready to create subfolders of my own. I appreciate you sharing your method of writing development, as I can only imagine it took countless hours to cultivate. We appreciate your time and care.
Thank you, Natasha! Reading and writing are inextricably linked. Best of luck in your next science writing journey with these new tools in hand!
Hi Dr. Smith,
When I first read “Old School Organizing” I was wondering how to do that on my iPad. Just recently I purchased an iPad and since then stopped carrying around paper and pencil. My iPad has many note-taking applications and even came with an apple pencil. With this purchase, I stopped doing a lot of things by hand. I type out all my notes and assignments and in needed moments, open my iPad and jot down a scribble in my Notability app.
After reading this blog I am motivated to pull out my paper notebooks and lead pencils and put them back to work!
Using my iPad or even laptop, things can get messy, and I end up having at least 50 tabs open.
For my upcoming assignments, I plan to apply tools #1 and #2 to efficiently use my time and write the best I can!
Thank you for writing these! They are very helpful.
So glad, Maryan! Just today we had a speaker for a CSHB event who shared a number of tech-based resources for some of the things I’ve described. He has generously agreed to share his templates (all google doc based)-you may find those interesting and relevant (and ipad friendly 😉 These links will be posted to the website soon–be sure you check them out!
Hello Dr. Smith,
I am old school in the sense that I love writing and taking my notes on paper with fun pens and markers, as opposed to taking them on my laptop. The chart that you had provided is a great method to go about when organizing your thoughts. I love how you explained your writing process. I often feel like I don’t always have a process, and I just began to write. After reading this, my goal is to have a process on my writing. I will begin by making a rough draft and bullet points. Thank you for your blog!
I’m so glad you found it helpful! There are lots of things about my process that are not optimized, but, really, I think that’s okay. You don’t need to have a perfect process, just a good enough one (to get a great paper). We just had a CSHB event this afternoon (will be posted to the Website soon), which included multiple templates to track and improve the whole research process. Dr. Wang, the presenter, talked about the research process as a type of project management. I will definitely be looking into the tools he provided; once updated, check out the PowerPoints, templates, and video recording too if you are interested!
Thank you for your post! It was really interesting and I feel like I have a new perspective on how to write a research paper. I think it can be very easy for us to stay in a fixed mindset and develop certain patterns for how we do things. That is why I love reading stuff like this because I learn new tools that I can integrate into my own life. I am very particular about how I like to organize my thoughts before writing so I appreciate the chart that you included. I also prefer “old school” methods over technology and even though I continue to bring my computer to class I use my notebook to take all of my notes and schedule my day-to-day life. I think this blog post will help a lot of people who struggle with organizing their work.
Thanks for that comment! I know that there are ways to do what I’ve shown here better, but for now, this is what works for me. It will change as I grow and develop–as should your own method and practices. Each paper I write, I reflect on the end product *AND* the process to figure out how to do it better. It’s not just that I want to “do it better” for better’s sake, but because I want to be the kind of writer who God can use to communicate complicated ideas for the glory of His kingdom.
I loved reading about your writing process. It is a unique writing process, that maybe I can try to incorporate into my own when I have writer’s block. Reading about how your “Dear Mom draft” allowed you to start outlining your ideas, which then allowed you to begin outlining your research is remarkable. This is something that I really want to try in the future. I am also really interested in trying out Zotero as well as the Papership app that Dr. Vazquez talks about. Throughout my own personal research experience, I was taught to keep an excel sheet of all the articles that I was going to use. I also just used to save the articles on a file for the CBU library database, however after a while all of those get deleted. I am very excited to try out Zotero and Papership in the future. Thank you so much for all of your insight, I can’t wait to see what is next to come in this series.
So glad to hear this, Nicole! Just yesterday, we had an expert speak about hos he organizes his research process. He shared some excellent digital tools (i.e., organizational worksheets–basic project management) which I was really impressed by. I think the tools will be very useful. They will get uploaded with the event recording in the next week or so (so check out the “Events” tab to download these templates!).
I have always been terrible at outlining my papers before writing them I kind of just dive in. I do notice when I do outline them it is easier for me to get started on my paper. Reading your post has introduced me to new ways to write my papers. Thank you for sharing your techniques!
Getting started is key! Happy writing, Hailey!
Thank you for this post, Dr. Smith! Sometimes it is easy to forget the basics of outlining and brainstorming, so I appreciate that you still encourage the use of “old school” organizing to begin a daunting project. There is something comforting and stress free to me about brainstorming on paper, which I have neglected to do for many of my research assignments at CBU. I want to go back to the basics and break out my paper and pencil next time to really free my mind of the stresses a computer can bring when trying to start a complicated task.
Desiree, I hope you do start brainstorming and outlining again so you can be stress free!
I thought the way you viewed the writing and note processes were very interesting, being a tech kid I always jotted my notes down on a computer in some form or fashion, but I would be interested to try a different approach as it does seem like sometimes I don’t fully flesh out the ideas that I have or make connections that I should. This also can maybe increase my liking of actually taking notes down as sometimes I find them to be monotonous
Adam, if you tend toward tech, you might like some of the resources introduced by one of our recent speakers. If you head to the “events” tab and find the event from this month by Dr. Kenneth Wang, his website has a couple of really useful google docs to organize notes (more effectively than what I do, here, though “effective” is best understood in this context as “what works for you”!). Definitely try different ways until something settles in and works. Good luck!
Hello Dr. Smith,
I really loved reading about your writing process. I can see myself implementing many of the techniques into my own writing process. I am also old school when it comes to creating an outline for my papers. I prefer to write my thoughts down rather than typing them on my computer. One way that I do this is by using my iPad to create colorful outlines that allows me keep try of my progress. After reading your blog, I will definitely check out Zotero in the future. Thank you!
Zotero is bomb. (And I’m old for having said it. Though, really, it doesn’t make the statement any less true!)
Good evening Dr. Smith,
From reading your blog post, I enjoyed gaining an understanding of how to organize my literature review even more. It began with your idea of a “Dear Mom” draft to now finding a research paper that can closely relate to my own idea. I never thought about looking at similar research papers, but I do believe that it will help in writing mine. I can consider exploring possible connections I want to make in my own paper, but in doing this research I should take your insight on using paper instead of the computer. This generation is consumed by technology but there are times, like such, where we need to share our thoughts on paper.
Thank you for the helpful insight you gave!
That’s great! Sometimes I avoid technology exclusively as a way to stay focused. I have most alerts turned off, anyways, but it’s so easy to wander and procrastinate in an unhelpful way on a computer.
During the “Old School Organizing”, part six, I really enjoyed the section on hand-written notes. Too often, I stare at the computer screen , and I am tempted to start and delete, start and delete. Handwritten notes create more idea generating sessions, which will help bind some of my work together. It’s an underappreciated technique, and I definitely need to use that in my work now. Working harder will produce better learning and results!
Yes! If you start-delete, you might find the post that will publish next interesting. It’s on deleting in a “psychologically safe way” (I think it’s part 8? I can’t remember….)
I found your blog post really helpful. I am always looking for new ways to take notes and organize my thoughts. I find it helpful to make my notes more detailed outside of class when I have more time and can focus specifically on what I need to understand better. I have recently started writing out all of my thoughts on paper before starting any essays. It has been very helpful and has kept me organized especially when the papers are a bit longer. I really appreciate your tips and will for sure think about using them in the future!
Great! The key, I think, is figuring out what works for you and sending signals to your brain that “writing is what I’m doing right now.” This is partly why the weird way of taking notes is effective for me; it’s like a classically conditioned trigger that “now is the time I write.”
I really enjoyed seeing the chart of how you develop your information. I think at times we use technology because it is more convenient but when we write things out we are able to make more connections and sketch out ideas we may have. Doing this can lead to a greater goal. I also think this method helps keeps your thoughts structured and well thought out. It also allows you be mindful and identify certain aspects of the topic. I will be using this more often.
That’s great! Sometimes, technology is key and it can leverage beyond what we can sketch out. Some of why this method works is because I’m writing shorter papers (~6,000 words). When you’re writing a dissertation (mine was ~250 pages!), you really need technology for the big picture. But, I could imagine using this method for some of the smaller parts of the bigger whole…if for nothing else than to remove the digital distraction 🙂
I am the type of person to put my thoughts when starting a paper in writing instead of taking notes on my laptop, the chart you had provided was very insightful, I am excited to try this method on my next coming paper. I also liked how you explained your writing process, I myself do not have a writing process, after reading your blog, I will try to find a method that fits me and my writing style.
This was very well thought out and written and you provided some great methods to write a research paper. Writing is not really my strong suit so I might have to try some of these out.
The ideas in this post are pretty idiosyncratic. I think the biggest take home would be to try methods until something feels right, but don’t let the idea of a “perfect” method stop you from doing anything. I know that my method can be better, but what I’m doing at least gets words on a paper. If I waited until I found the “perfect” way, I’d never write at all.
I believe that if I can do what you said, which is to influence theological thinking so that they are more interested and well invested in my papers and as well as articles