History · Nonfiction

The First Draft Experience

Pamela Samuel Richardson cover
I wrote about Pamela for Banned Books Week.

As some of you may be aware, I’m currently working on the senior thesis for my history B.A. — a 20-page historical research paper. (They get longer the further up you go). My topic is the history of literature combined with the history of human rights — specifically, how the novel Pamela by Samuel Richardson influenced human rights in the 1700s. I just turned in my first draft a few weeks ago.

I’d planned to post about what I learned from writing the first draft, but frankly, if I was still learning how to write research papers at this point, there would be a problem. Mostly I learned that if I write in a hurry I get repetitive and have no idea what I’ve already said, so frequent re-reads are important.

The process of turning in the draft was the really illuminating part, because I’ve never done that before. I’ve only ever turned in finished, polished, glistening research papers. (And if I have a choice, that’s all I’ll ever turn in again). I turned in an entire 22-page draft, which my professor then marked up for grammar. It was awful. I hadn’t prepared for that at all, I was still in the “Tell me whether I make sense or not” stage, not the “this verb is awkward” stage!

After conversing with him, I think he was just much further along mentally than I was, because he said I was 95% done. I didn’t (don’t) feel 95% done, but now I realize that if he thought I had structural problems then he would’ve said so. The grammar stuff is just extra to make things presentable. (I still hate that he slogged through all that for no reason, though — I swear, on the Great Bird of the Galaxy, that I was gonna edit all that later!)

They're all like this.
They’re all like this.

He did say it was reading like an annotated bibliography in the second half, which was helpful. It means I’m relaying other people’s work, rather than making my own statements. I need to chew it up more thoroughly and not expect readers to draw conclusions on their own. In other words. I’m not meant to be transmitting the existence of other research — y’all can conduct web searches just like I can. I’m meant to be making a new statement, with those works in mind. (I wrote 6-7 pages the morning the first draft was due just because the end was in sight, and it’s these pages that have the problem. I usually combine a bunch of drafts in my first-draft process, but when I pare down to the most basic “sketch it out first” draft, I don’t include as much of my own commentary. It’s sheer laziness. It just helps me to know that it’s going on, so I can specifically address it when I edit, or I might just read on through and not realize it since I know what I’m trying to say…)

I highly recommend getting extra advice when you’re doing projects like this. My professor (who is delightful when not marking up my grammar, by the way… 😉 ) connected me to an English professor early in the process. She’s writing about sensibility in novels during exactly my time period! I sent the paper to her as well and got some great targeted feedback about the context of my topic, as well as some resource recommendations to help round out the weak parts. Her resource recommendations have been so, SO important! She’s given me exactly what I needed every time I’ve needed it, before I even thought to ask her. That’s the huge advantage in having someone advise you who really knows your topic, that they’re able to say “THIS is the foundational work in this field, THIS is the most authoritative research,” etc. It’s really difficult to figure that out from library catalogs and Wikipedia! The other advantage is that they catch your dumb mistakes, like lumping Samuel Richardson in with “booksellers” when he was just a printer/publisher.

He looks boring, but he's a fascinating individual, I swear! Pic from Wikipedia
He looks boring, but he’s a fascinating individual, I swear! Pic from Wikipedia

So, here’s what I have left to do:

  • Finish the unimportant part of Pamela. (The last 200 pages are super boring and don’t have anything to do with my argument, so I didn’t take the time to read them during the biggest time crunch).
  • Skim a few more sources and integrate them, particularly where I only cite one source for several pages.
  • Make any structural changes I want to make.
  • Do a deep read-through to create seamless transitions, tie everything back to my argument clearly, and make those perspective changes regarding the sources at the end.
  • Convert parenthetical citations to footnotes. (I do this last because, for one thing, it’s much easier to see what I’m doing when the source is right there with the material. For another, my netbook only has Word 2007 Starter, which won’t do footnotes, so I have to borrow/find another computer for this step and I wait until I can just go through quickly and do it without having to change much later).
  • Edit out 2-4 pages (projected).
  • Re-send to professors, and make any other necessary edits.
  • Create a poster presentation for History Day in November.
  • Consider sending to a call for papers circulated in my Phi Alpha Theta chapter a few weeks ago. We were told senior seminar papers would be a good thing to send in, but the journal issue is dedicated to the Civil War or something like that, so I may not bother sending in human rights/18th-century English literature. I might send it somewhere else if it’s eligible.
  • Share it with y’all! 🙂
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9 thoughts on “The First Draft Experience

  1. Do you need anyone to read it over, besides professors? If you do, I’d be happy to lend a pair of eyes. I have a History BA myself, and even though it’s been a few years I’d like to think I’m not that rusty… 🙂

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    1. Awesome! I’m working on the second draft now, I’ll send it to you when it’s ready. Thanks!

      (My antidote to “Why am I writing something no one will read” is to get as many people to read it as possible. 😉 )

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          1. My geology topic was about trying to constrain the timing of certain parts of the formation of the southern United States (New Mexico, in particular). My history paper was about the assimilation of Japanese immigrants into American culture during WWII, and how those efforts changed between generations of immigrants. We had to do an American history topic that year, or I would have written about my real passion – Japan’s WWII biological warfare program. I wrote several other papers about it, though.

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          2. Those all sound like fascinating topics. I took a Japanese history course that touched on those things, and we got to Skype with an expert on Japan’s weapons research (mostly nuclear but touched on the biological stuff). That’s not to say I remember much about it, though.

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