Last night, at the end of my graduate research seminar on slavery I asked the class about what they had learned about the research process in general rather than slavery in particular. All the answers tended to boil down to how to cope with information overload.
Keeping your work organized is a valuable skill, but at some point in your research, you are working on a project that is too large to hold in your head. There are too many citations, too many ideas for chapters, too many subtle differences in arguments. If you have been tagging information all along the way, then you have a way to search through your own stuff.
Or to put it another way, echoing something I’ve written before, I will never be impressed by the size of anyone’s bibliography again. When 8th graders have access to the world’s best research library through Google Books, finding cool stuff will not differentiate your work. What matters will be finding the right stuff and you’ll only know if you’ve found the right stuff AFTER you started writing. You’ll have to collect more, in order to be able to do better filtering. [Luckily, Zotero makes that collecting process so much easier.]
That’s takes me back to one of the things I’ve been stressing this semester in both my research classes: something you found that’s really cool doesn’t necessarily belong in your research paper. You want to make an argument. That argument should serve as a filter for all the stuff you have at your fingertips. If it doesn’t, your paper will be a disorganized miss even if it’s well-researched. Necessary background and evidence for your argument: those are the two things that belong in the body of a good research paper. Nothing more.
I heard lots of bellyaching last night about how hard it is to cut something you thought would go into your paper, particularly after you’ve written it up. I feel your pain, I told them. However, when everyone is drinking through a fire hose, the best writers have to know when to take their mouth away.