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Resources from College Online : Reflecting On Research: An Exercise

From the Instructor's Manual for The Curious Researcher: A Guide to Writing Research Papers, by Bruce Ballenger.

Most of us were taught to think before we write, to have it all figured out in our heads before we pick up our pens. This exercise asks you to think THROUGH writing rather than BEFORE, letting the words on the page lead you to what you want to say. With practice, that's surprisingly easy using a technique called "fastwriting." Basically, you just write down whatever comes into your head, not worrying about whether you're being eloquent, grammatical, or even very smart. It's remarkably like talking to a good friend, not trying to be brilliant and even blithering a bit, but along the way discovering what you think. If the writing stalls, write about that, or write about what you've already written until you find a new trail to follow. Just keep your pen moving.

Try a fastwrite that focuses on your thoughts about the subject of this book. On top of the page, write these words: "Research and Research Papers." Skip a line and then write, "First Thoughts." Now spend five minutes (time yourself) fastwriting about what comes into your mind when you think of research and research papers. What occurs to you when you first hear those words? Then what? What are your prejudices and preconceptions about them? Remember to keep your pen moving, and don't worry about grammar or coherence.

After five minutes, skip a line and write, "People, Stories, and Moments." Now fastwrite for another five minutes, concentrating again on research and research papers, but this time think about specific people, papers, assignments, scenes, situations, or stories you associate with those words. Perhaps recall a paper you wrote for Mr. Wills in your sophomore year, or that evening in the library when you pored over the "Encyclopedia Britannica" for information on China, or the class in which you learned about writing college papers.

Finally, skip another line and write, "Lies, Expectations, and Sayings." Spend five more minutes BRAINSTORMING a list of phrases, cliches, sayings, ideas, and beliefs about research and research papers you've picked up along the way, even if you know they're silly or untrue. A BRAINSTORM is like a fastwrite, except that you make a quick, uncensored list of things instead of trying to write sentences. Jot down anything that comes to mind: for example, "The most important thing about a research paper is the thesis statement," or "All research is dry and boring," or "The best source of information is the encyclopedia."


I find that students bring so many prejudices and preconceptions to research and the research paper that it's worth airing them at the very beginning of the research assignment. That's the purpose of this exercise. It also introduces them to fastwriting, a method of open-ended writing and thinking that is used throughout the book.

This exercise uses Peter Elbow's loopwriting, a technique I've found enormously useful for helping students sustain writing on a topic and generating material that operates on at least three different levels--narrative, abstraction, and specifics. You need not use looping for this exercise, however. If you want to spend less than fifteen minutes on the exercise, or want to simplify it, just ask students to fastwrite about what comes into their heads when they hear the words "research paper." Another variation would be to do this in three steps: fastwrite in response to the word "research," then "researcher," and finally "research paper." Colleagues tell me this approach sometimes produces some interesting discussion about the relationship between the researcher and the product of her research, raising questions about agency and authority.

If you use the approach suggested in the book, begin by reviewing the essentials of fastwriting (a word I prefer to "freewriting" because it emphasizes speed, a central feature of using the method successfully). Expect that students who have never experienced fastwriting to have a little trouble with this at first. If nothing else, Exercise 1 will give these students some practice with the technique. Time each step of the exercise, and if you'd like to spend less than fifteen minutes on it, consider shortening each step to three minutes rather than five.


This exercise will strike a chord among the many students who include research writing among life's thorns. Every one of those students typically has a horror story to tell--an unresponsive librarian, an obsessive teacher, a mind-numbing assigned topic, a library book with the key pages torn out, etc. As students share their stories in class you'll see a lot of head-nodding. I find it helpful to get this bitterness out in the open at the outset, and acknowledge that, yes, the research experience can be awful, and was for many of us. Maybe you have your own story to tell.

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Author: Daniel Anderson
© copyright 1996, 1997, 1998, 1999 Allyn & Bacon
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