Like Water for Horses; or, Why even good students don’t do multiple drafts

Every year, it seems, lecturers and tutors grapple with the same basic enigma: Why do our students, even our really keen students, never begin writing their final papers until the very last moment? It’s easy to blame this on laziness or poor time management, but there seems to be something else at play as well; one-more-article syndrome.

One-More-Article syndrome (a variant of Sid Meyer’s One-More-Turn syndrome) is the condition in which a student  feels, with absolute certainty, that if they simply read one more article or book, they will find the perfect piece of evidence, quotation or argument that will bring their entire paper together, propelling them from mediocrity to greatness. Without it, their paper will be considered incomplete rubbish, unworthy of being marked. It is a very serious condition.

OMA syndrome and I are old nemeses. I fought him throughout my undergraduate career and he nearly won the battle during my MA. Indeed, it was probably only a fear of deportation that defeated him during my PhD. Although I still cannot claim to know his Achilles heel, I can offer my students these word of advice, which may help them rebuff his advances.

  1. There is no article. No matter how long you search your university library, JSTOR, Google Scholar or any other repository, you probably won’t find an article that perfectly proves your argument. But, if you did, what would have been the point in writing your paper ion the first place? What would you be contributing to human knowledge (or, at least, to your own)?
  2. Synthesis is the name of the game. When you are writing undergraduate essays (and historiographical reviews later on) the name of the game is synthesis. No lecturer wants to read a list of vaguely related facts taken directly from your reading; nor do they want to read a summary of a book they’ve already read (unless that was the assignment). What we want to see is that you can read half a dozen different sources, which make related but not identical arguments, and bring them all together in a cohesive and thoughtful way. What do your case studies tell you about your overarching narratives? What do historiographical rebuttals tell you about the evidence in both? If all of these historians could sit in a room together and hash out their differences, what conclusion would they come to?
  3. There probably is an article. I lied. There probably is an article. But you won’t be able to find it yet because you don’t really know what you are looking for. Nine times out of ten you are simply searching for something that will make your paper better. By putting your reading on hold, and hammering out a first draft, you will be able to see what your paper is actually missing (if anything) and be in a much better position to search. Think back to your past essays. How many of your notes actually made it into your final paper? Could that time have been better spent writing and polishing your argument?
  4. You’ll never finish, only stop. And that’s okay. This is true of all writing. There is always a better way to state your case, a better piece of evidence to use. But, if you simply keep waiting to find it , you’ll never make your case at all, and that would be a shame.
  5. Presentation counts for more than you think. Students often fail to realise just how important spelling, grammar and presentation are to their papers. Yes, we want you to be factual and to have a wide range of reading, but its how you convey that knowledge that’s critical. Imagine that you’ve found the cure for cancer, or the perfect path to world peace. Now imagine that your explanation of it was so cluttered with grammatical errors, missing clauses and circular sentences that no one could understand you.  You can be the most intelligent, knowledgeable person in the world, but if you can’t communicate your thoughts, the world will never know.
  6. Peer review is your friend.You cannot possibly read every book or article on a subject during your research. But someone else might have read the perfect piece for your essay, so go ahead and ask. Have friends read through your early drafts and see if they’ve read anything relevant. You never know, they may even lend you their copy of it!

Any other words of advice? Post them below and help stamp out One-More-Article Syndrome once and for all!

*Image Courtesy of bgblogging


3 thoughts on “Like Water for Horses; or, Why even good students don’t do multiple drafts

  1. All of the above is spot on – particularly the realisation that “You’ll never finish, only stop”. I was the incarnation of OMA for almost the entire course of my PhD 🙂 My “I wish I’d known” tip would be that writing and thinking are interconnected. Writing early and writing every day not only helps you synthesise all that material and locate your own ideas in the context of your topic, but also helps you to maintain your own voice and gives you a greater measure of control over the huge, sprawly, messy process that is research.

    Join (or start) a writing group, give yourself a set number of words to achieve per day, do messy/free writing for a set period of time every day – whatever it takes, make writing part of the process right from the start. You can read my cautionary tale at !

  2. When I began my PhD I truly believed that I had to read everything ever written about, for example, Victorian factory life. I just got bogged down and led down research areas that were not relevant to my core beliefs in the thesis argument. It is the argument that is important, this is led by the archives, secondary writing is important, but clarity of your own voice should lead. Trust your original archive research, and trust your belief in the argument. There will be plenty of time to argue over it in conference papers and so on.

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