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Learn from a senior: Talk to a librarian!

by Max Schulman

An excellent staff of research librarians offers just one of the many opportunities Harvard students don’t take full advantage of. In my four years here I met with a librarian only once, to help me find sources for my thesis research. That forty-minute meeting saved me countless hours of muddling through online portals and search interfaces. I would have done myself an even bigger favor by making use of this excellent resource early and often in my Harvard career. A Harvard librarian can give you advice on how to find and evaluate sources for your topic, how to organize your citations, and whom to ask if you need more guidance. Each department has its own library liaison or research contact who can give you advice specific to your discipline, by email or in person.

Harvard’s library collections and online resources present unparalleled research prospects for nearly any paper topic, but it’s not always clear how best to access this wealth of information. HOLLIS, JSTOR, ProQuest—all this can be confusing if you’re not an expert. Harvard librarians are, and they can answer your questions and point you in the right direction. Whether you’re starting research for a senior thesis or an Expos paper, save yourself some time and trouble. Talk to a librarian.

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Tear Down This Wall!

by Max Schulman

I spend most of my time at the Writing Center giving advice on a paper’s structure or clarity of ideas rather than simply proofreading. But if there are persistent stylistic or grammatical errors in a student’s work, I’ll usually point out an example after my more substantive comments.

And of these easily fixed technical and aesthetic issues, the one I see more often than anything else is the dreaded Wall of Text. It often shows up a page or two after the introduction, as the writer dispenses with background information and launches into a series of massive body paragraphs a page and a half in length. It’s great to have long, complex ideas; it’s not so great to unload them in uninterrupted torrents of verbiage.

 What do I do to get rid of This Wall of Text?

 Have someone else read it.

The benefit of having someone else read and critique your work is that it forces you to explain your ideas to someone not immersed in the ideas and subject matter that you’ve had filling your head for so long. This ideal of the intelligent layman reader may be something of an illusion in college courses where your professors write syllabi and assign paper topics. But it’s nevertheless helpful to keep in mind that you’re writing for a reader, not for yourself. And no reader, no matter how enthusiastic and well versed they may be in your subject, will be excited to see page-length blocks of unbroken text.

 Break up your paragraphs.

Paragraph breaks exist for a reason. They help readers keep track of the main points and logical flow of an argument. They can mark the introduction of new ideas or new sections in a paper. A paragraph’s topic sentence naturally draws the reader’s eye and is a great tool to connect your ideas and relate detailed points back to your main thesis. This helps the reader understand your work as a coherent, well-constructed paper rather than an unconnected series of sentences.

 Don’t limit your arguments to a single paragraph, especially if the paragraphs are getting long.

Some student writers seem to think that even the largest and most complicated argument should be fully contained in one paragraph. This is how they end up with gigantic blocks of text stretching from page to page, glazing over eyeballs and scaring off readers. This is an impulse to avoid: you shouldn’t be afraid to partition a point into its constituent sections if necessary. If you create effective transitions with your topic sentences, it will actually make it easier for the reader to follow the thread of your argument once it’s been broken up into more manageable chunks. When your paragraphs start to stretch towards a (double-spaced) page in length, it’s usually a sign that you should check them for natural subdivisions or places where they could be split.

As with anything in writing, these rules are not unbreakable. Some ideas do require more explanation than others and you shouldn’t forcibly split up a paragraph that doesn’t have a natural breakpoint. But more often than not, as a tutor, when I see a Wall of Text I’ll start reaching for my pen to scribble “TOO LONG—BREAK IT UP!”