Wednesday, January 20, 2010

A Few Methods for Writing a Solid Paper

Hello Again-

Now that you're all living directed, healthy lives, I'd like to point you toward another critical facet of Art History...paper writing.

Writing papers is one of the most important skills within the discipline of Art History. Visual analysis and research would be my other two nominees, and I believe myself safe to say that the three are of a group, like the Graces or the members of Rush or the number of Star Wars films that are worth watching.

Thus, let me submit a brief and evolving list of pointers that I believe will serve you well. These are based on past papers and the problems that seem to emerge on a somewhat constant basis. This is not a complete list, but attending to the below will offer a sound foundation. In no particular order, because they are all critical...

  • Meet the minimum length requirements. If your Professor says "minimum four full pages," they are not kidding. Three pages won't suffice. Three and a half won't suffice. If I owe you ten bucks and give you nine, are we even?
  • Formatting is not a joke. Art History tends to use the Chicago Manual of Style. If your Professor asks that you do so, please do so. Do not use APA, MLA, or any other style.
  • Similarly, if there are guidelines for the actual formatting of the document, follow them. Check your word processing program. Their default settings are often not what your Professor may want. Honor these requests. The Devil is in the details. The Devil is a poor grade.
  • Edit! Reread your paper. Then let it sit. Then reread it again. Repeat this process at least three times. Ask a friend to read it. Ask someone who knows nothing about the topic. Their ignorance is your best defense. Let them tell you what is unclear, or convoluted, or lacking. Read your paper out loud. Things sound different than they look. Reading a paper aloud will help in ways much different than reading with your eyes. Trust me. This was advice given to me by my grad advisor. She was never wrong.
  • Understand what kind of paper you are writing. An exhibition review is different than a book different than a book different than a research paper. Know the difference.
  • Have a thesis. If you aren't arguing something specific and specifically, or aren't trying to demonstrate something, what are you doing? State your intentions clearly and early. Bind the rest of the paper to this purpose and follow through to the end.
  • Do not regurgitate class lectures. It is not acceptable to offer a prose version of what your Professor said in class. Any Professor who has a memory will remember what they've said and ask you why you are repeating them.
  • Avoid esoterica. If it isn't on topic, or in some way supportive of the topic, why are you discussing it?
  • Do not generalize. Be specific. Apples are apples. Oranges are oranges. Do not try to artificially group things that are independent and individual.
  • Do the research. Be purposeful with your research. Be skeptical with what you are reading. Just because it shares a keyword does not make it germane. Will every article ever published on Picasso have something to do with your paper on his ceramics? Probably not. Don't be a bibliographical Enron. Use what counts and what furthers your ideas. Just because it exists doesn't mean it is useful.
  • On the same note, be wise about your sources. An anecdote: I once had a student who was doing research for me. The topic doesn't matter. He found an internet resource (again, skepticism) that he was unsure of, so he asked me to look at it (smart move), which I did. Turns out that the individual who wrote and published said resource was not only younger than my student, but had a lower GPA. Hmm... Just because it exists doesn't mean it's quality.
  • Use the images directly. I may have said this in a bit of a huff, but I told a group of students that it's called Art History because the art comes first. If it doesn't, you're doing something else. I may have been overstating the case, but what we do deals with images and objects. Deal with them directly and thoroughly. They are evidence, not illustrations.
  • Know the difference between description and interpretation. If you are currently trying to figure it out, look it up.
  • If you are doing comparison or contrasting, integrate the two objects. This isn't the blues. A-B-A-B won't cut it. Mix them together. Play them off of each other. Dealing with the objects in isolation is neither comparison nor contrasting.
  • Use your human resources. Your Professor has office hours for a reason. There is a Librarian in the Library. Check the Writing Center. Go online and read websites about art writing. Read the books that exist about art writing. These are all endlessly useful and horribly underused resources.
  • My 8th grade English teacher told me this and I remember it every time I try to put pen to paper: Say what you mean and mean what you say.

Remember, writing is like riding a bicycle. The first few attempts usually involve a bit of pain and damage. But, with practice and diligence, grace and agility will prevail.

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