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Budgeting Your Time to Complete a Research Paper

In a perfect world, writing a major research paper would be such a delightful experience that you would eagerly jump right in and start writing a brilliant paper that's just the right length and completed on time. Unfortunately, real people living in the real world may have a tough time thinking about work that is not due for a month or so. (Actually, real people may have a tough time thinking about work at all. Life offers so many possibilities for fun!) Nevertheless, you should take a stab at creating a plan. This articles gives you guidelines for long (ten-week), medium (five-week), and short (two-week) assignments. There's even a plan to help you tackle a delicate question: What should you do when the paper is due tomorrow and you haven't even started yet?

Don't assume that all weeks are created equal. Before you make a paper-writing plan, consider everything else that you have going on, including events that have no relation to the research paper you're writing. Read this section with a calendar or day-planner in hand — one that has events like "sister's wedding," "voyage to the North Pole," and "math final" listed.

Now write start and end dates for each step in your research paper. Schedule a lot of work for weeks that look relatively free, and give yourself a free pass (or light duty) during busy times.

Work habits are as individual as fingerprints. Be sure to adapt the following guidelines to your own strengths and weaknesses. For example, the ten-week plan allots three weeks for research and three-plus weeks for writing. But if you are a jaguar when it comes to reading and a tortoise when it comes to writing, change the distribution to two weeks for research and four-plus weeks for writing.

If you're reporting on the results of your own scientific experiments, figure out how much time you need to do the actual lab work and add that time to the schedule below.

I've got all the time in the world: The ten-week plan

No, you don't have all the time in the world. Ten weeks will become a memory faster than a survivor who's been kicked off the island. Get started right away so that you have time to polish that paper into perfection. Here's a solid plan:

  • Selecting a topic (includes preliminary reading) — two weeks
  • Conducting research (finding and evaluating sources, note taking) — three weeks
  • Creating a thesis statement, writing a topic sentence, or formulating a hypothesis — three days
  • Designing the paper (choosing a structure, identifying subtopics, outlining) — four days
  • Writing first draft — three weeks
  • Writing final draft — four days
  • Making finishing touches (title page, bibliography, and so on) — three days

The thesis statement is a declaration that you will prove in your paper. Don't confuse a thesis statement with a thesis, which is a type of research paper.

Notice that there's a lot more time allocated for the first draft (three weeks) than for the final draft (one week, including the finishing touches). You will do better if you put most of your energy into a great rough draft, leaving the final draft for polishing your prose, checking details, and so on. Don't skimp on the rough draft! It's important. But don't skip the final draft, either. You'll be surprised by how much you can improve your paper if you give it two drafts.

I can take my time: The five-week plan

Depending on the length of the paper and the number of sources you plan to use, you may not be able to take your time at all. Here's a suggested budget:

  • Selecting a topic (includes preliminary reading) — one week
  • Conducting research (finding and evaluating sources, note taking) — ten days
  • Creating a thesis statement, writing a topic sentence or formulating a hypothesis — one day
  • Designing the paper (choosing a structure, identifying subtopics, outlining) — two days
  • Writing first draft — ten days
  • Writing final draft — four days
  • Making finishing touches (title page, bibliography, and so on) — one day

One day for finishing touches assumes that you have kept very good records and will not have to spend a lot of time worrying about the format of your citations (footnote, endnote, or parenthetical identification of sources). You should take care of those issues when you write the rough draft.

I'm in a hurry but not in a panic: The two-week plan

A two-week plan is called for because of one of two situations:

Situation #1: The Paper Assigner gave you only two weeks because he or she wants only a limited number of sources and a fairly short piece of writing.

Situation #2: The Paper Assigner gave you three months, and you spent the first two-and-a-half chasing the perfect wave on your surfboard.

If Situation #2 applies to you, ask (actually, beg) the Paper Assigner for more time. If the answer is no, you're going to have to compress a lot of work into a short period. (Also, you're going to have to put the surfboard — and everything else that is fun — away for the duration.)

Here's the timetable for either situation:

  • Selecting a topic (includes preliminary reading) — two days
  • Conducting research (finding and evaluating sources, note taking) — four days
  • Creating a thesis statement, writing a topic sentence or formulating a hypothesis — one-half day
  • Designing the paper (choosing a structure, identifying subtopics, outlining) — one-half day
  • Writing first draft — four days
  • Writing final draft — two days
  • Making finishing touches (title page, bibliography, and so on) — one day

It's due tomorrow!

Okay, you're in big trouble. You've got two possible situations here:

Situation #1: Your Authority Figure took part in the Spanish Inquisition and is keeping the old torture skills sharp by assigning impossible amounts of work in ridiculous amounts of time.

Situation #2: You went surfing (see Situation #2 in the preceding two-week plan) and left the work until the last minute.

Your only remedy is to come clean, confess that you can't do the job, and hope for mercy. If the answer is no, find out the penalty for late papers and work as quickly as you can. Load up on the major food groups — salt, grease, caffeine, and sugar — and unplug the phone. Turn off the instant messaging function on your computer, too. Pick a minimum number of sources (Internet or traditional) and read as fast as you can. You'll probably be able to create only one draft, but try (really, really, really try) to allow time — even an hour — to revise this draft. Your paper will be better in the long run. Also, after you hand the paper in, but before you go to sleep, take a moment to record your New Year's Resolutions:

Resolution #1 (for Situation #1) — I won't take any more courses from professors who have trained in dungeons, or I will read the want ads every day until I find a new job.

Resolution #2 (for Situation #2) — I will plan my time better so that I can avoid feeling as if my eyelids were glued to my forehead when the next paper assignment comes around.

No matter what the temptation, don't fool around with artificial stimulants (other than a couple of cups of coffee or a few sodas). Little pills guaranteed to disrupt the usual human need for sleep are not worth the risk to your health. Take the rap — the lower grade or the boss's wrath — and do better the next time. Stay on the safe side so at least you know that there will be a next time.

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