Monday, October 3, 2011

Research and Writing

The classic advice on balancing the work of research with the work of writing is that the two are really alternate sides of the same coin, that research is part of writing just as writing is one of the most effect means of doing research.

I agree unequivocally. But when you're a jr. scholar standing before a mountain of work on someone like Rushdie (shout out Rose!), or heaven forbid, Shakespeare...what are you supposed to do? How can you ever begin to write if you must first slog through an untold number of articles, books, reviews? The most important thing, in my view, is to banish from your mind the paralyzing idea that you must read everything on "x" before you can write about it/her/him. Once you settle this score with yourself, you should try to get into a routine of writing a little and then reading a lot in consistent blocks of time until you're in the flow of whatever it is that feels too big!

I have a couple of strategies that I've found useful, although I should always say that others may disagree or provide alternative approaches to this problem, but here we go anyway.

The first strategy is a three-step method:

1. I try to find work on whatever topic/person I'm researching that's been written recently by a scholar that I find especially important for some reason (she's super-readable, his work resonates with me, etc.) So, if there's a scholar you truly admire or find helpful, see what she/he has to say about whatever you're tackling.

2. From there, I take the classic bibliographic approach by raiding the references of my rockstar scholar. If you want to learn about "x," read your favorite scholar's article on "x" and then see what major works she/he cites and go to those.

3. chase down a few of these references in reverse-chronological order to see which works "everyone" is citing.

This method allows you to cover the main channel of "x" criticism without getting bogged down in a 300-entry result list in your database of choice.

The next strategy is pretty simple:

1. Ask your committee chair/advanced scholar in the field where she would start

2. Ask a jr. faculty member where she/he would start

3. Ask a fellow grad student who works in that area where she would start

In short, ask as many people from as many different levels of your field about the subject and pay attention to what names, books, essays seem relevant or important across the board. This method is certainly not as intensive as the previous method, but it might also save you some valuable time by allowing you to start a more thorough search with a better idea of what's relevant and what's not.

The last strategy is also simple:

1. Find the most current book on your topic and read the introduction.

Usually, the introduction of any monograph or collection in the humanities will provide some sense of the most important books/scholars in the conversation you're pursuing. And the fact that this book is the most recent will hopefully mean that it's been written with the larger body of criticism in mind, giving you the most coverage possible.

BUT PLEASE: any of you more experienced scholars out there!! Jump in here using the comments stream and give us some effect strategies!


  1. Thanks, Matt! Good advice here. (I've been using a version of strategy #1 with moderate success, but I sometimes get bogged down in step #3 (tracking down the 'leads' from rockstar scholar).)

  2. This is really helpful Matt, probably something we all do in a disorganized way so its nice to see it in a step-by-step format. I'm a list freak, so something I do while reading these sources on my topic is to keep a running list of who gets cited and little tick marks by their name for how often they get cited. This simple visual helps me to see who is important and to what degree.

    In addition, book introductions are particularly helpful for seeing how important scholars on a certain topic are grouped by other scholars. This can also be a good place to enter the conversation because you may not agree that So-and-So should be lumped with these 3 other So-and-So's and that this mis-reading of her work is emblematic of a misunderstanding about the topic in general... and so forth.

  3. Thanks for this! Starting out on two papers -- one on TS Eliot, one on Emily Dickinson -- and using these strategies (especially #1) to clarify/refine my often-chaotic research process, I can say that this advice helps a whole lot.

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