How to Be an Effective Academic Researcher and Writer?
Every profession has its tricks – strategies that are used to make the work run faster and more efficiently. Some tricks are obvious; for example, we all know that restaurants do a little something called “prepping” so that every dish isn’t really made from scratch from start to finish when it’s ordered. Other tricks are less clear to outsiders, such as the tricks that experienced teachers use to keep order in their classrooms. Regardless of whether outsiders know about them or not, however, all professions have specialized streams of knowledge that successful insiders adopt (and/or modify) in order to increase their ability to do a good job.
Freelance academic writing is no exception. Here are a few tricks that will make your writing career more pleasant, more efficient, and more profitable.
General Approach to the Academic Research and Writing Work
The first, and possibly most important, thing to remember when approaching a freelance academic writing project is this: it is not your own homework. Novice academic writers tend to view their writing projects as if they were doing their homework, which slows them down tremendously. While you want to take care with the work you do, ensuring a high level of quality, you cannot possibly assume the same level of ownership with your paid projects that you took with your own academic assignments. If you do, you won’t meet your deadlines (because you will be deliberating over this word or that sentence), and you won’t have time to do many projects (because of all of that deliberation), thus reducing your ability to earn a living.
The second general item to remember as you approach freelance writing projects is that they are work. They are a job. This is not about that novel you promised yourself you’d write some day. Every writer knows that the act of writing can carry with it many low-level neuroses and anxieties, from the fear of a blank page to the conviction that you won’t ever be able to write another word. If you can see your freelance projects as just that – paid projects – and not your own personal writing projects, you should be able to avoid much of that anxiety. That’s a good thing, because anxiety tends to slow people down, and speed is a big part of being able to make an excellent living at freelance academic writing.
Doing the Research
Conducting research is a big part of the job of the freelance academic writer. Almost all projects require at least some research, and most of them require that the articles which are cited are from scholarly, peer-reviewed sources. How on earth can you find such articles? For that matter, how can you find books on your topic du jour?
A big part of the answer is having access to an online university library. If you still have access from when you were a student, that’s fabulous. If you don’t, you might have a friend who does, and if not, ask around. Heck, you might be able to take a continuing education class at your local university and get a username and password that way. It would be well worth your time if that works (every locale is different).
If it just isn’t going to be possible to have access to an online university library, there are some low-cost ways to gain access to lots of books and articles. One of the best is Questia.com. Questia.com costs a hundred bucks a year and you get access to millions of books and articles, in every subject, in a very organized, user-friendly fashion. You’ll make that money back in no time.
If books are what you need, and you don’t have Questia, you should always check Google Books (books.google.com). They have more books uploaded every day, and while the entire book is rarely available online, generally there is enough that’s posted to serve your purposes. Amazon.com, with its “search inside” feature provides a similar service; in fact, many books that don’t have much posted on Google Books can be read with ease on Amazon.com.
There are also lots of free articles floating about on the internet, which leads to another tip. Lots of stuff is out there online, but it isn’t going to be found unless you employ effective keyword searches. Practice with synonyms and alternative wordings – let your mind learn how to invent creative and flexible keyword searches – and you will be rewarded with a wealth of information coming your way.
Having said all this, one other point is critical to make: don’t even think about reading everything you collect. There is no possible way you can do that, and it’s not necessary. More about this in the next section.
Doing the Writing
The first thing I do when I write academic model papers is create the reference page. I make sure I know the citation style I’m supposed to use, and then go methodically from one book or article to the next and create that page. Why do I do this first? Partly, I do it because it gives me a chance to look over the articles – quickly and almost subliminally, but I’m doing it – and that means I need to spend less time reading them later. I also do it because there’s a tendency sometimes to – shall we say – get rid of articles a bit too quickly upon the completion of a paper, and if that happens before you complete your reference page, then you have to go find the articles all over again. In any case, it’s proven to be a time-saver as well as a means of getting a general sense of the material.
Now I’m going to tell you to do something that will make you roll your eyes, but it has to be said: use an outline. Yes, we all balked at outlines when we were in school, and they can still feel like constraints on our creativity. But remember, these projects are not about using our imaginations the same way we might when writing a short story; they are about creating specific model papers using specific instructions. Creating an outline can help us adhere to those instructions; it can help block out how many pages should be written about this and how many should be written about that; and it will keep everything organized and flowing with far less work than you will perform in its absence.
Once you have the outline, it’s time to fill it in. Open up the first research article you have saved on your computer – the first article that aligns with the first section in your outline, that is to say – and remember these words: keyword search. Use keyword searches within the books and articles you find online to quickly pinpoint the information you will need to complete this specific section. If the section needs to be three pages, using six articles, you should roughly plan to write half a page from the first article, and follow suit with the rest.
Do not go back and forth over what you write too much while you’re writing it. It drags you down and is too similar to treating the paper like it’s one of your own. Instead, do a quick periodic skim of what you’ve written to ensure you’re still on track, and then continue to plow ahead. What’s that saying by Satchel Paige? Don’t look back – they may be gaining on you.
Then when you’re done, read through what you’ve written very, very quickly. Make sure it flows, the grammar and punctuation are correct, and the content is on point. Do not – and I mean, do not – decide that the middle four pages would be far better if organized around a football theme instead of a soccer theme. Does what you have work? Then go with it. When you’re done, you need to be done.
All of this might sound a too machine-like for comfort. And it is definitely true that there are parts of this process that are very machine-like indeed. But machines serve their purpose; the more you can regiment and routinize, faster you’ll write papers and the more money you’ll make. Also, remember that the more things you can automate in terms of research and such, the more you will be able to focus upon the interesting work of writing the content itself.
Definitely feel free to come up with your own tried and true tricks of the trade – and if you have any personal favorites, please do share them with us! The more the merrier.