This week the difference in writing between a class paper and a conference paper was driven home to me.  The hard way.

I have 2 conferences coming up for which I need to write the papers.  They are variations on the same theme, so the background research is all the same, which will save some time, but they are a lot of work none the less.

At the same time I am finishing out my methods classes; The historical research methods class asks us to write a history paper on anything we want, showing what we’ve learned.  That was due on Friday.

Now, I was aware from the beginning that I couldn’t entirely double (triple?) dip here;  The class paper is much shorter (12 pages or so) than the conference paper (30).  But I wanted to make as much reusable as possible.

That proved far more difficult than I had anticipated.  While I do think the paper I turned in can be used as a very early first draft of the conference paper, it has a much different tone from the one I intend to use for the final conference paper.  Moreover, the audience was entirely different, which caused me to write differently.  The class paper went to a historian who knows little about the history of education.  The conference paper will be going to historians of education who may know as much, if not more, about my topic than I do.

I also cut the class paper off from revisions at an entirely different (and frankly lower) level than I will the conference version.  I must admit, I am at the point in the PhD program where my attitude is “I just need a B; no one will look at class grades ever again once I write my dissertation”.  So I can see the flaws in this paper; It is probably better than many other papers in the class, but I can do much better.  And will, for the conference, where (frankly) it counts for a lot more.

My husband, however, pointed out that this was an important lesson for me.  I’ll be the first to admit that I am a perfectionist.  I was getting stressed about this paper in an unhealthy way because I felt it wasn’t up to my standards, when in fact it was just fine for its purpose.  He forced me to ask some really important questions about the paper that I wanted to share:

  • What is the purpose of the paper?  “Passing a class” is very different from “Impressing future potential hiring committees” and the effort you put in should reflect the purpose
  • Who is the audience?  Again, “one history professor teaching a masters class” is different from “many history of education professors at a conference” and changes not only what you write but what background and context is needed to make the paper make sense?
  • What are the requirements/parameters of the paper? If I failed in any one respect here it was that I failed to meet one of the requirements of the class paper; I was over in length.  He said 2500-3500 words, what I turned in was nearly 4200.  I’m sure he’ll dock me for it.  On the other hand, I added a section that will be removed from the conference paper as unnecessary in itself.  It’s points will be embedded in the broader paper, which is likely to end up around 10,000 words before its done.
  • What is my most important point and do I succeed in making it? I am finding it hard to write about a topic I am becoming so intimate with.  I want to include everything I’ve learned when in fact I need to focus on a single thesis and make it cleanly. 

Once I answered these questions for  myself I was able to make better progress.  I knew when to stop, and I also cut more than 500 words of details that were likely to make little difference to this audience and got me at least a bit closer to the requirements. 

Now I need to revisit those questions as I write the two conference papers.  The thesis is slightly different between them, and one is a more prestigious (national as opposed to regional) conference and therefore needs my best work.  The first needs to be done by the end of the month, the second by October 10th.  Wish me luck.