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4.9 The Research Essay -- Budgeting Your Time

It pays to have some awareness of your limitations when attempting to write a research essay. So much depends on so many variables: the number of classes you are taking; the length of the essay; the number of sources and so on. You also need to "read" your instructor as much as possible. You need to know what he expects from his students. Demanding instructors demand excellence, especially when it comes to writing your research essay. So, they will require a minimum of twenty-five pages perhaps, as well as a fairly sophisticated bibliography. Count on at least a dozen sources. Perhaps more.

Then again, there are other professors who want to see you develop your own interpretative structure based upon the nature and scope of your research topic. They will perhaps be less mindful of the need to "pad" the bibliography and more focused on your interpretation and the manner in which it is developed. And, of course, the whole thing hinges on the nature of your research topic itself.

Regardless of which type of professor you may have, and there are others besides, it makes sense to realize that you do need to keep time management in the front of your mind. Poor time management would be the case if you spent a weekend checking a few sources, writing down some choice quotations as you move along. The essay is then written over the course of twelve hours and the last word is typed twenty minutes after the start of the class for which the paper is due. I'm not making this up. I can't tell you how many students show up late to class on the day a paper (long or short) is due. When confronted with why they invariably tell me that, "I was in the computer lab printing up the essay when something went wrong with the printer." No sympathy for this student. Not from me at least. I always respond with something like, "why didn't you start an hour earlier." They sometimes miss the humor in that one!

When I began writing my dissertation in earnest I struck upon an ideal compromise. Of course, this applies to the Ph.D. and M.A. only. I wrote from 7am to 1pm every day. That was it. No more no less. In other words, I treated writing like a job. Know what happened? I wrote the dissertation....quickly. Sometimes 10-12 pages per day.

Of course, as an undergraduate or high school student, you definitely don't have that luxury. Instead, you have contend with other classes and activities, family, perhaps even a job or a hundred other things. So what do you do?

Set aside a specific block of time every day and work on your research and your writing. (Remember to do both at the same time.) What could be more simple? Stick to the plan and you should end up with a well-conceived and well-executed research essay. Of course, if you want to spend an afternoon or evening, or even an entire day in the library, go right ahead. Just make sure that what you are doing when you are in the library is real work. You've got more important things to do with your time anyway, so why not use that time to your best advantage.

The bottom line is this: don't let yourself fall into the trap of trying to research and write a research essay over the course of one weekend. You will not get a satisfactory grade. Instead, plan your time carefully over the course of the semester. As soon as you have established your topic and have been given the green light from your instructor, it's time to think. And all of this ought to be done in the first few weeks of the term. Think carefully about the subject. Think about things you need to do. Think about how long it will take you to do those things. And then think about how much time you have at your disposal. The longer you wait, the more you procrastinate, the more difficult it will be to write the sort of essay for which you will proud. And wouldn't you much rather write an essay which gives you pride in your sense of accomplishment rather than one which simply fulfilled the general requirements of the essay?

Every semester I encounter students who, when they submit their essay to me, say something like, "It's not very good." I look at them and say, "then why don't you take it home and rewrite it so that you can give me something good?" That makes them pause for a moment. After all, I would prefer to read something "finished" rather than a rough draft. So my attitude is this: submit an essay for which you are proud to attach your name. It makes sense.

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