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Researching Your Writing

Okay, it’s taken two days to get here, but I’ve promised to tell you how to ace A. P. exams (and how to improve your writing research in the process).

Yesterday I explained everything needed for good research: analyzing the information you find for relevance to your topic, dangerous bias, and ultimate implications. The problem with all that, though, is that it takes too much time.

Especially when you’re on a deadline, and we’re all on a deadline.

Take a Stand

My A. P. teachers understood that, too, and they taught me how to get around it. It’s the most valuable lesson they ever taught me, too.

For a full semester they let us all try the test our way, banging our heads against the time limits again and again while we tried to evaluate our source materials, and every time we were stuck with something unsatisfactory when the buzzer went off.

Some of my classmates tried studying harder, memorizing everything, but there were too many topics, too many angles that could be presented in the tests. That was never a solution (and it’s certainly not one I would have tried).

No, the answer was a lot simpler than that. About halfway through the class, they finally taught us the trick.

Take a stand.

That’s it. Easiest thing in the world. Stop relying on all that readily-available information, and take a risk. Pick a side — the questions always required it anyway — figure out exactly what you want to say, and then start looking at the resources you’ve got.

We practiced that for weeks. Every class we’d get a question, and an info packet, but we were required to outline an entire five-paragraph essay before we were allowed to open the envelope. It was definitely a little bit daunting, wondering if I really understood the question, wondering if my opinion would sound stupid (or unsupportable, anyway) once I found out all the facts.

Defending Your Position

And you know what? Sometimes it did. Sometimes I had to trash 2/3 of my outline once I was confronted with the facts. Sometimes I just added a “not” to every claim I’d planned to make. It didn’t matter, though. Even with those necessary adjustments, I was able to finish in time.

Instead of blundering blindly into the implications of the data, or getting paralyzed by the tedious process of evaluating it, now I was spending most of my time writing. I was spending most of my attention on building an argument, taking a stance. Then, when I went to the evidence, I already knew what I needed.

Instead of evaluating each piece on its own merits, I evaluated how it fit into my message. That was not only a faster evaluation, it was also a much better one.

Using Your Voice

So how does that apply to you? It’s the answer to your deadline problem. It’s the answer to your information problem. It might even be the answer to your purpose problem.

Carlos inspired this post with one of the first of his Sunday Shorts, “Singing in the Shower.” He talked about that hesitation we all feel when it comes to blogging on any given topic. After all, everything we have to say…it’s all been said before, tons of times, often by people better than us. Right?

And the answer is yes. The answer was yes when I was writing essays for the College Board, the answer was yes when I was writing personal blog posts about religion and politics, and the answer is yes for everything I do here at Unstressed Syllables. You can get writing advice all over the internet.

The only thing that’s different here, is me — my voice, my perspective, my life experience and my opinions. And you know what? People keep coming back for more of it.

That’s the lesson I learned, those many years ago, toiling through a couple really hard high school classes. The testmakers aren’t looking for the truth. The testmakers aren’t looking for the right answer. They’re looking for your ability to express yourself. It takes good form and it takes a minimum level of understanding, but more than anything else, it takes you.

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