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Emory Writing Center: Long-term Writing Projects

The Importance of the "So what?" Question

So what? Why is your topic important? What are the implications of your conclusions?

The So what? question can really be a thorn in the side of the student writing a research paper. You work hard to prepare for class, hand in your papers on time, and juggle four final exams in one week, and now you're expected to produce some brilliant, meaningful answer to why your topic is important?! What if you chose your topic because it sounds like it's related to the course, and you easily found a bunch of sources online? Isn't that enough of a reason to settle on one topic over another?!

In reality, your personal feelings about your topic might be very strong, or you might just be curious about it. Hopefully, you won't be totally indifferent to your topic--that just makes the whole process seem kind of boring, doesn't it? Why not choose something that holds at least a modicum of interest to you? And even if you end up researching the topic that most fascinates you in all the universe, that still doesn't mean that you have begun to address the So what? question.

When you ask it of yourself, the So what? question can serve to strengthen your research and writing processes by continually guiding you toward the most relevant, meaningful aspects of your topic. It also forces you to clarify your own perspectives and interests in the topic, which is probably what is so annoying about it in the first place.

 

* * *

Haiku Ambulance

by Richard Brautigan

A piece of green pepper   
   fell
off the wooden salad bowl:   
   so what?  

What Does a Thesis or a Dissertation Look Like?

Dating back to the fall of 2009, Emory BA and MA theses and PhD dissertations are searchable and viewable. They are all stored in Emory University's Electronic Thesis and Dissertation Repository (ETD). Some people find it helpful to see examples of completed theses in their department or discipline.

Some departments require their honors students to read Charles Lipson's How to Write a BA Thesis: A Practical Guide from Your First Ideas to Your Finished Paper. A general overview of his book is available here, and offers great advice for students engaged in any type of long-term research and writing project, from term papers to dissertations.

Establishing a Writing Practice

Contrary to the way many undergraduate and graduate students write their papers (all-nighters, anyone?), most people will tell you that better writing is produced over time, through regular writing and regular revising.

If you are just setting out to start a research paper, or if you are in the latter stages of your dissertation, we've put together a short list of online tools (some of them work more like tricks) for getting people to buckle down and write--not all night, unless that's especially rewarding to you--but each day, with a distraction-free interface, for a set amount of time or a set number of pages.

  • For a very respectable daily word-count goal and a cute reward system, try 750words.com.
  • Do you want to try out a full-screen writing environment to minimize your distractions? Check out WriteRoom (currently for Macs and iPhones). 
  • If you like the old school typewriter aesthetic, you might enjoy The Internet Typewriter.
  • Do you work better when your time is micro-structured? Check out Focus Booster, which chimes every 25 minutes to signal a short break, or the Emergent Task Timer, which dings every 15 minutes so you can check off another chunk of work time. These timers are great for when you need some external motivation and help sticking with your tasks.
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