Skip to main content

Research and Technical Writing Guide for the Humanities, Introductory Level

Interns from Louisiana State University and Centenary college shadowed a number of tours given by Nita Cole at the Louisiana State Exhibit Museum during February of 2019. The museum draws tourists and travelers moving through the region, and also hosts educational tours given to student groups from the local community. Visitors find themselves strolling around a large, round path beset on all sides by bright and colorful dioramas which feature scenes from the region’s cultural, agricultural, and industrial heritage. Others attend scavenger hunts, plays, and special exhibits by local artists.

The Curator, Ms. Nita Cole, possesses an inexhaustible reservoir of knowledge which she shares with great enthusiasm. At each stop in the tour, she recalls countless personal anecdotes and memories of the craftsmen who contributed the works and props and artifacts, as well concise histories of the business interests being depicted. Her role as curator allows her to present the many facets of the region’s rich heritage with charm and reverence. But her role as a conversationalist humanizes the exhibits by drawing the audience into a kind of interactive nostalgia, making them travelers of time as well as space.

These are a few of the skills that students in the field of humanities need to adapt and improve, and will find useful in any environment, personal or professional! Other goals of this internship included the enrichment of the participant’s understanding and appreciation of regional history and development. The experience provided invaluable insight into the sciences of curation and preservation. These fields depend heavily upon the mastery of research and technical writing. Mrs. Cole’s shelves are densely packed and overflowing with an impressive variety of scholarly works related to Louisiana history, culture, industry, and education. Her computer screen, an unscrollable email inbox containing innumerable academic inquiries, event promotions, and other forms of professional correspondence, a monument to the utility of the written word. What follows is an outline of the technical writing process in the humanities.

There are many ways to start a research project. Many of them should occur well before sitting down to type. One of the first considerations is motive. What is the reason for writing the paper? Perhaps the researcher has a personal interest in a particular subject, or perhaps an employer or publisher or professor has assigned a specific topic. Another consideration is purpose. Purpose is different from motive in that purpose is the goal of the work itself. The motives behind this work include these authors’ personal interests in reading, writing, history, literature, and education, as well as a real-life grade in a grad-level college course. The purpose of this work is to provide guidance on research and the writing process to students, interns, and others seeking to contribute to the field of humanities. The former is often far easier to discover than the later, and the later can sometimes change along the way. A simple rule of thumb is to set out to answer a specific question. This is called a research question, and it is the point of departure for the rest of the process.

The aspiring writer must also take stock of other material concerns, such as the mode in which the final work will be presented. It is often forgotten that simply handing in a paper was never intended to be the last step in its evolution. Many writers will be trying to produce a traditional scholarly paper for submission to a scholarly journal, but there are many other possibilities as well. A conference is where those scholars share their work with others who share their interests. An exhibit is a visual and interactive display in a community setting. A performance is a live-action presentation in front of an audience. A documentary is basically just a college lecture on film. A website is a convenient way to share one’s work with the whole world! With proper training and a little creative flair, a masterful approach to the writing process will yield a body of written work that can be easily adapted to any of these forms, but it is still handy to know in advance which forms will be needed and critical to remember them along the way.

Still other details to have squared away before setting out include mindfulness of such formal requirements as are germane to the project at hand. There may be many of these to take note of, and failing to do so at the outset can have disastrous consequences later on in the process. Careful attention is advised!

Is this an individual or collaborative project? Be sure to have a reliable method of communication with everyone else involved. Get a phone number, or better still, an email address so that a record of correspondence can be preserved. Make high priorities of assigning roles and establishing a system of accountability right away.

Are there stylistic requirements? Humanities authors are typically bound by the industry-standards of their respective fields to the APA, MLA, or Chicago Manual style formats (for examples, respectively, sociologists, language professors, and historians). These mainly govern the method of referring to other scholarly works in a way which preserves the integrity of the research chain and respects the intellectual property rights of sources cited.

Is the intended audience comprised of generalist, experts, or the lay public? Are they young or old? Are there significant language barriers? Moreover, are there deadlines? Minimum (or maximum) word-count or page requirements? Other job-or-industry specific requirements too obscure to hypothesize here? Only by taking a deliberate preliminary inventory of these things can the writer best improve the odds of a successful outcome.

Though there is obviously much to consider in just the planning stages of a project, there is even more work to be done before even composing a research question, let alone writing a paper or, for that matter, forming a conclusion. In fact, the most labor-intensive and demanding part of the whole process, and certainly the most important, is the actual period of learning. In short, read, Read, READ! Neglect any other part of this process at the reader’s peril, but under no circumstances whatsoever should any other aspect of the journey eclipse this one. Read deep and read wide. As a rule of thumb, the confident proponent should know at least twice as much as his or her peers, five times as much as the uninformed, and ten times as much as much as the competitor! But it is more than that. If the reader does not already enjoy reading and writing by nature, the reader is strongly advised to reconsider the path ahead. Historians, novelists, and other professionals in the Humanities field all share a lifelong passion for literature of some kind or other. It is always at this step where the best and brightest outpace the rest.

One reason for this commonality is worthy of discussion here. Writing is an artform. As such, it has its own peculiar skill-set, and every skill-set must be developed. This requires considerable effort which can only be measured in the abstract. Ten solid hours of reading X words per minute will yield a unique understanding of a given text no matter how many different readers are sampled. Ten consistent hours of hauling X pounds of dirt from point A to point B, on the other hand, will tend to result in a predictable amount (if marginally so) of dirt moved in a given day. However, what each of these labors has in common is that over time the laborers themselves tend to improve at their tasks as the fundamentals become proficiency,  proficiency becomes habit, and from habit springs innovation, inspiration, and confidence.

With writing, command of language and depth of insight can only be gotten through old fashioned grinding. Familiarity with a diverse spectrum of subjects accompanies only the willful demand of a variety of interests. Comfort in turning a phrase or wielding an expression comes only from long-exposure to the masters themselves. Furthermore, it is impossible to teach any given subject (in history, especially) if that subject is literally the only one the teacher has ever studied. Writing is the same, and especially so. One cannot write competently about the first world war without already having learned a great deal about each of the countries who fought it. One ought not to attempt to write readable and enjoyable prose without a pre-existing appreciation for storytelling, humor, and wisdom, not to mention grammar, diction, and usage. The best authors can cross a genre like crossing a street. And the most useful perspectives tend to be the most worldly.

That all being said, the same goes for doing the actual research for the project at hand. Reading is paramount. The first step in this phase is determining not what to read, but simply what is available. Information comes in a coat of many colors. Reading the printed word is easily the most important way to access information, and the most common, but for the purposes of this guide, the word “reading” should be taking to cover all manner of learning. Watching a movie, play, or performance involves learning. Examining an artifact, a photograph, or a crash-site involves learning. Humans learn at work, at church, in the streets, and in nature, as well as school. Even games are educational in this sense.

Also, by “read,” meticulous note-taking is implied. That is the common thread that binds all the varying forms. Research is the practice of recording what one “reads,” and in this usage, all the world is the book of life and something can be recorded, reflected upon, and remembered about every single bit of it. A skilled art-critic “reads” a painting. A talented comedian “reads” a crowd. A thoughtful researcher “reads” literally anything and everything he or she can lay hands upon, the difference being that the researcher preserves, organizes, analyses, and presents what is read, in order to inform, persuade, and even sometimes to amuse. It is in assembling, mining, and evaluating these resources that quantitative and qualitative deficiencies in the ensuing body of notes will be translated into flaws, omissions, oversights, and other avoidable weaknesses in the ensuing draft.

Every field of inquiry is different, as are the capacities, incentives, needs, goals, and points of view of every author. What unifies them all in the modern age is unprecedented access to tremendous resources. Take full advantage of the internet while it lasts! An intrepid researcher will explore the local and regional libraries and locate their archives and special collections, but will also visit museums, monuments, cemeteries, courthouses, galleries, historical sites, and antique shops. A tenacious researcher will seek out witnesses for interviews, contact politicians and other officials for official statements, and reach out to established experts and published authors for their notes, comments, and guidance. A competent researcher will identify (and represent faithfully) the conflicts, contradictions, and controversies which give a degree of depth and dimension that no slouch-savant can ape.

In addition to these, it is important to point out the immediate resources which are most often overlooked. First, booksellers across the globe bulge at the belt with writing guides, research guides, guides for active reading and note-taking, desk-references, style guides, and so on. They are typically affordable, often well-written, and surprisingly useful (this writing guide boldly purports to be all three!). Don’t fall victim to the macho-man fallacy that instruction manuals are for those too dim to figure it out on their own. Neither NASA, nor the New York Times will ever hire that person. Second, no single human ever accomplished anything worth doing while working alone. Professors are there to provide guidance. Friends and family are there to provide support. Even the masses of anonymous strangers in the street have something to offer, as every veteran pollster will attest. Third, your own personal experience has extraordinary value. There exists, apparently, a common pedagogical trope among the present generation of fanatical technocrats that proclaims “I equals F.” In other words, breaking the fourth-wall is, in some environments, frowned upon as inappropriate and unscholarly. This is an appalling state of affairs which deserves more time and attention than space permits, and is often quite beyond the author’s control. To this we say emphatically: Reader, if you do not make a personal connection with your own work, no one else ever will. Look for it. Find it. Take possession of it. Display it with pride. Guard it with caution.

Once a sufficient supply of references and resources have been collected, examined, and evaluated, they can be organized in a variety of ways. Are they primary or secondary sources? Are they produced by individuals or groups? Published privately or by corporations? Are they scholarly studies or popular opinions? Were they written by first hand witnesses? Or during the periods they describe? Are they effective? Heavy-handed? Informative? Enjoyable? Each of these answers is potentially a useful bit of information for the reader, and should be noted for each available source, though none of these details are themselves likely to be directly related to the actual subject being written about.

Furthermore, the notes themselves should be reviewed carefully and organized. One useful strategy is to highlight important details on second and third readings of the final body of notes. Another is to color-code different elements being highlighted according to themes. For example: who, what, when, where, why, and how. Highlight all the names that appear in the notes in pink. Do the same for dates in orange. Mark passages explaining causal relationships and other societal influences in green. And so forth. Alternatively, try organizing the color-codes by chronology. For instance, yellow for the American colonial period, purple for the revolutionary war period, and blue for the constitutional period. Another method of organizing one’s notes is by color-coding according to source type, credibility, or the position taken in support of or in opposition to a given proposition.

Regardless of what kinds of resources are referenced, or the many ways they might be used, it is imperative that every available bibliographical detail is recorded. Failure to observe this simple rule can lead to catastrophic consequences. In practical terms, the sudden discovery of an omitted author, title, publisher, or date, at the very last minute especially, notoriously precedes the nightmare scenario of having to frantically rush back to the library (in some cases a logistical impossibility), exclude useful or even vital information from the work, or risk compromising the academic integrity of the finished product with a preventable case of plagiarism. Don’t write a single word without having first copied every possible part of a full bibliographical entry. This is where those style-guides mentioned above become critical make-it-or-break-it tools in the construction of a professional paper.

Citing sources may be tedious and tiresome, but doing so correctly comes with advantages. Authoritative sources lend credibility to scholarly work and help to persuade readers that its premises are sound. They enable the author to join an existing discussion of the subject and to proceed from a variety of vantage-points. They enable the reader to discover the truths of these matters on their own, independent of, but still inspired by the work at hand. Most of all, painstaking adherence to this protocol ensures that those who came before receive and retain just credit for their own diligent efforts and invaluable contributions to the advancement of the discipline.

Once all this is done, it is time to make some final decisions about which passages to select and how to present them to a reader. There can be no roadmap for this part of the process. However, armed with a well-read, well-organized, and well-cited body of research, the writer is certain to have a much easier time getting through it than with sparse, jumbled, and anonymous notes, scribbled carelessly. Try to answer some of the following editorial high points. What questions can your research answer? Why is the subject worth the reader’s attention? How was the research conducted? Who are the principle authorities on the subject? What facts are presently known and what major questions remain? Most importantly, what do YOU have to add? If these basic questions can be answered, the rest of the work is just presenting the information as it was discovered and citing it correctly.

It is also useful to determine a mode of communication as well. This is similar to the purpose of writing, but more specific. Will the article be persuasive? Informative? Entertaining? Will it dispute an existing paradigm? Or was the research process simply an act of discovery? Will it present all the facts, and then present an analysis? These are relevant questions whose answers should shape and mold the finished product. Be careful to pick a tense and stick to it. The same goes for the narrative voice. Is it first-person, third-person, omniscient, etc? Is it active or passive? Also, remember to use (or don’t use) pronouns consistently.

Now it is time to convert this dense pile of loosely sorted data into a solid structure of polished prose. This is perhaps the hardest part of the whole process for many writers. Inexperience and haphazard neglect of the preceding steps only exacerbates the stressfulness of this part. It is where some will shine and many will falter. It doesn’t have to be this way. It isn’t as hard as some insist on making it. The trick is akin to not trying to force wet clay into the shape of a hard brick. There are intermediate steps which, with practice, become intuitive. One is a bubble chart. One is an outline. One is a flowchart. Use them in this order. Begin with a bubble chart. Dump every unique topic into a bubble. Use branches, length, and other visual cues to associate related topics. Convert this bubble chart into an outline by organizing the topics into thematically related groups and then reproducing them in list form. Try to exclude poorly or partially developed themes which are not adequately supported or weighted among the notes. Focus on evidence and expertise! Finally, try to translate that outline into a flowchart. This activity can be very helpful for refining and perfecting the way a logical explanation or argument is delivered.

Ready to write now? Not so fast. Unanswered questions remain! What text-editor will be used? The expensive industry standard? The open-access freeware? The off-brand outliers? What file-format should the work be in? Is it a .doc? A PDF? A powerpoint? What additional structural requirements are there? A Title Page? A Table of Contents? Acknowledgements? A Dedication? An Introduction? An Epilogue? An Appendix? A Index? Many authors will develop a working bibliography as, or even before, they proceed with the research process, so that at the very least, that step is done before this point. These other elements require deliberate planning but also demonstrate attention to detail and aid the reader in navigation.

Ready now, for sure, right? Almost! The next step is to open up the text editor, start a new file, give it a clear and relevant filename, and save it somewhere where it won’t be lost, forgotten, or overwritten. Now, before doing anything else, set the font-size, the type-face, and the margins according to the required specifications. Set the proper line-spacing and indentation. Insert any headers and page numbers where applicable. Attend to any other technical necessities and then double check the whole list for accuracy and peace of mind. These are not quibbling superfluities. They may intimidate new writers, but with patience and discipline they become second nature to seasoned pros.

The next big phase is to convert that flow chart or outline into an essay form. An essay consists of an introduction, a main body, and a conclusion. The parts are not constructed in that order, however. The main body is the first part of the paper to take shape. Each paragraph should address a particular set of ideas. Each paragraph should rationally follow the one before it and lead the one after. All the paragraphs taken together should introduce the reader to the facts, figures, faces, and places involved, as well as effectively explain why they matter and how they are connected in time and space. Then the conclusion can be written, and it should be based on what was actually accomplished on paper. What questions were answered? How were they answered? Which remain? A well-written conclusion may have little to no connection to where the work began or where the researcher planned to wind up. What do the facts support? Everything else is arbitrary conjecture. Got it pinned down nice and tight? Now rewrite that conclusion as an introduction. What questions will be answered? What are the main ideas? What kind of sources will be used and what outcome should be expected? Most importantly, why does it matter?

Congratulations! The hardest parts of the process are truly complete. The next step can also be very difficult, but again, if all the previous steps were managed well enough, this part should be a breeze. First, it is necessary to pre-edit the paper. Look carefully for common mistakes, such as misspellings, grammatical errors, incorrect punctuation, uncapitalized letters, and sentence fragments and run-ons. Is it constructed properly? Does it ask and effectively answer an important question? Is it interesting? Persuasive? Informative? Are there citations missing? Is there any redundant or disconnected information that can be whittled away without undermining the whole? Are there transitions and signal phrases that aid the reader in keeping track of the developing lines of reasoning? Is there clear evidence of bias? Is the work courteous and respectful and professional? Is the work correctly formatted according to technical requirements? Are all the intended elements actually present and in order?

If the answer to all or most of these questions is yes, it may be time for peer-review. Family and friends are great choices for reading a rough draft and pointing out common errors, but classmates, professors, and other authors in the field are much more useful for critical feedback. Give them a red pen and a clean, double-spaced, pre-edited copy of the draft, and encourage them to be merciless. There is no upper limit to the amount of peer review that goes into a good paper. At the low end, however, serious scholars should consider getting at least one qualified peer-review before the project deadline. A fresh set of eyes always catches something. It never fails. Even the simplest mistakes (especially the stupid ones!) can undermine the credibility of a whole paper. Catching these mistakes before the reader does is a critical step.

Be proactive about getting that feedback, also. Ask specific questions to get useful answers instead of “yeah, I liked it, good work,” etc. Did the reader get the point as it was intended? Or did their reading produce something novel or unexpected? Did the reader learn anything new? And, fairly, did they enjoy reading the work? Any number of no’s in this process can be overt signals that the draft itself needs to be revisited and reworked. Otherwise, rewrite where necessary and make the appropriate corrections. Try to incorporate the suggestions of others, especially if there is an expectation they will be consulted again. No one wants to volunteer an hour of their time proofreading a twenty-five page travesty just to learn later that all their advice was ignored.

Once satisfied with the work, read it again. Have someone else read it again. Sometimes a single work can go into and out of post-edit many times. The level of patience with which this process is borne will be reflected in the quality and accuracy of the finished product. When the time comes to take the hands off the wheel and turn the thing in, some level of apprehension may be natural. Mostly though, acute anxiety tends to be a reliable indicator of subconscious dissatisfaction with the work. Go back over the notes, bibliography, the bubble chart, the outline, the flowchart, the essay structure, the continuity and clarity, the citations, and the marginalia from the feedback, and try to figure out how to improve whatever part of the work is lacking. If the author isn’t happy with a work, what hope has the audience? When it’s done right, odds are it will inspire confidence, as opposed to inducing cringe.

Is that it? Not quite. No one works this hard on something that doesn’t matter. And if it matters, what sense does it make to just up and abandon it all of a sudden? Every writer should write with some idea in mind of publication or presentation. Odds are, the professor or boss is plenty familiar with the subject. Everyone else is waiting for the aspiring writer to make a move. Submit papers to conferences and journals. Write a book or a weekly column. Adapt a screenplay or stage-production or short-story. Create a piece of companion art. Plop it up on a webpage. Whatever! Just DO something with it. And for Heaven’s sake, keep a crisp copy for personal enjoyment and posterity.

Self-promotion is the science of giving oneself a raise. It’s worth the effort! Don’t let your own voice be stifled by inertia and fear of rejection. You did the research. You wrote the paper. You stuck to the code and did everything right. You went back over it with a fine-toothed comb, as the expression goes. Why spend all that work getting dressed up and grooming just to crawl under the covers, turn off the light, and sleep alone in silence? Share your work with the world. And when they ask you how you managed to do such a good job, share our work with them too!

Finally, word on self-care. Even with a network of passionate and capable friends around, the research and writing process remains intensely immersive. Countless are hours spent alone, in the company of the dead, bearing witness to their testimony, their sins, weaknesses, failures, and flaws. These rapidly become days, weeks, months, and years spent in intimate proximity to acute and unadulterated reality. Hidden instabilities become the stuff of revelation. Optimism can sometimes be painfully elusive once all the patterns, cycles, trends, and tendencies of the grand machine are exposed and laid bare for scrutiny. The level of cognitive energy and focus that produces dozens of pages of thoughtful and well-executed prose can and will begin to encroach upon and mute and distort the personal world.

The consequences of ignoring this serious and real occupational hazard range from depression and drug abuse to destructive impulses and even death. Relationships suffer and responsibilities falter. Stress inhibits progress by means of distraction, disinterest, and despair. In that state, all of the many questions and details addressed in this writing guide are inverted, becoming problems without solutions instead of solutions to problems. The simple relationship between a case of writer’s block and a looming deadline can catalyze all sorts of other psychological and emotional maladies. Among the many strategies for coping with these problems, Time Management merits the most attention.

Carving out a specific time of the day to focus on working may not always be practical, but doing so is a time-honored tradition. Setting clear boundaries between obligations is a life-skill and a critical component of any system of personal accountability. This doesn’t just mean planning out time to study. Plan out time to spend with a spouse, child, or loved one to recharge the sense of community and self-worth. Allot time for household projects to maintain a sense of accomplishment. Make time right in the middle of that planned three-day book binge to stop and play a game with a friend, take in a movie, or stroll through a park while the sun is out. Make time to rest. Conversely, sometimes it is necessary to prioritize some obligations at the expense of others. Seek balance, set reasonable goals, and try hard. Discipline is the key.

The next one-size-fits-all strategy is to talk to people. Not just shop-talk either! Listen to their problems, ambitions, or just shoot the breeze. It helps to have some other voices intrude on one’s thoughts once in a while. Make it a point to seek out the people you care about and remind them of the fact. They don’t know what you’re working on. They don’t know the toll it takes. They don’t know you’re struggling. They are just as busy as you are, but it is easy to blame them when they are not around. And if you are struggling, let people know. Visit local support groups and take advantage of available counselling services. Communicate with parents, siblings, spouses, and children. Above all, remember that your life has value and that you are loved. Don’t give up. You can do this.

The Humanities provide an inexhaustible wealth of avenues and outlets for researchers, writers, and educators of all stripes. However, these many different paths are unified by common themes. As we have seen, there are discipline-specific stylistic requirements, brainstorming techniques, empirical standards, and other such parameters which all writers must consider alike, but which will not fail to produce a unique literary outcome in every individual application. Theses strategies and obligations are instituted for the purpose creating work that is not just thoughtful and informative, but also accessible, credible, and competently executed. And as there is much work to be done before setting out to print the first word, there is also much more to be done after the last word is printed, such as peer-review, publication, and presentation, as has been shown. Every aspect of the learning process plays a role in the writing process, from the impetus to inquiry, through the databases and archives, toward a coherent body of notes, through the process of organization, to the draft, review, release, and promotion. At each step, there are historical traditions and modern innovations which govern what is possible. Ultimately, these are there to help the writer achieve their goals effectively, but they are only useful if the writer has the confidence and depth of experience to make confident decisions along the way. It is our hope that this simple guide instills that confidence.

Popular posts from this blog

Review: The Black Side of Shreveport, by Willie Burton

Burton, Willie. The Black Side of Shreveport. Shreveport : Southern University of Louisiana, 1983, 159. Reviewed by Steven Harkness. With the Emancipation Proclamation, Abraham Lincoln set a race of people free from the indignity of slavery. With the Union victory over the Confederate states, the government promised reform via Reconstruction. With the contentious election of Rutherford B. Hayes though, the political will to carry those reforms forward in earnest fell subordinate to the need for compromise and continuity. Within a generation, the cause of the black citizen passed from pipe dream to political controversy to conflagration to compromise to catharsis. The white man would not help, and would not keep his promises, and could not be counted on for meaningful change. All truth existed on a continuum, and this truth was more true in the south than in the north, more true in the cotton belt than in many other southern areas, and perhaps nowhere at all more true th

Modernization and the Ottoman Empire

The Ottoman Empire is famous for its size, scope, and influence upon the histories of nearly every major European country. Why then, did the concurrent attempts at modernization seem to fail for Turks, where the Egyptians succeeded? In short, the Turks, who wielded so much power and authority, failed to solidify their gains. One argument, and a strong one, is that they bit off more than they can chew. Another argument, equally compelling, is that they were simply beaten into bankruptcy. And yet another argument contends that reforms failed for Ottomans because of an insurmountable surge of internal resistance, from basically every direction.

Cyber Bully: the Self-Perpetuating Cycle

The internet has evolved into a cradle-to-grave platform for social abuse. From the exploitation of small children by sexual deviants, to the pervasive bullying of students, to the radicalization and recruitment of young adults, to the global networks of hate groups and terrorist organizations which receive them, the digital age has failed to achieve the utopian ideals of enlightenment, social justice, and civility. Bullies, of all ages, races, and creeds, flock to the web to find easy targets to victimize, and to locate organizations of like-minded individuals to lend legitimacy and validity to their toxic worldviews. The net also provides them anonymity, and the tools to protect their identities from their victims, from the communities where they live, and from law enforcement agencies who would hold them accountable. And for many groups, the internet offers opportunities to finance those malevolent agendas. What all of these hate groups and bullies have in common is the desi