Going through any school means that at some point, you’ll be writing pretty long papers, whether it be lab reports, essays, or some other form of writing.
Writing a long paper may sound daunting at first, but work away at it slowly and you’ll find it more manageable, I promise! I’ve just finished writing a 50-ish page long paper called the Major Research Paper (as part of the Masters of Planning program at Ryerson), and below are some of my reflections for anyone interested in learning what it’s like to write a 50-page mini-thesis. I’ve also included some tips at the beginning of each section, with the hope that it may make the process less daunting for anyone who needs to write similar papers in the future.
Stage One: Picking a Research Topic and Defining Your Research Question(s)
My writing process began with some observations and reflections on my personal experience interacting with different parts of the city. As a second-generation immigrant, I knew I wanted to speak to the dynamics of the immigrant experience. I also knew that I wanted to avoid a solely extractive research process (i.e. when the research is done in a manner that only benefits the researcher and not the participants), and in order to do so, I would need to be a topic where I could contribute takeaways that would be useful to those involved in my research.
Drawing on my observations of busy suburban mall food courts from my childhood, I had initially settled on the topic of 1970s suburban malls as informal community gathering spots for the elderly folk living out in the suburbs. However, the pandemic soon hit and malls closed entirely, so I was back at stage one — brainstorming my topic.
Turning to my supervisor, Dr. Zhixi Zhuang, I asked — what kind of research would be both topical and useful for an unprecedented time? With guidance and a bit of thinking, I landed on my final research topic: exploring how immigrant small business owners have adapted to Toronto’s COVID-19 pandemic within two case study areas, the Willowdale BIA and the Scarborough East Village BIA.
I wanted to pick areas that were comparable enough, yet different:
- Start thinking about your research early! Just let the thoughts dwell in the back of your head, because maybe one day you’ll be reading something on the Internet and think, “ah! this could potentially be a topic I’d like to research”.
- Check out the current hot topics in your field. This could be through the social media accounts of different planning firms, podcasts, or blogs and websites. You can draw inspiration from them for your research topic, and it becomes useful later on during any job interview process as interviewers do ask about your knowledge of current issues in your field.
Stage Two: Starting the Research Process
Fast forward a couple of months, and I was beginning the ethics approval process. Ethics approval took around a month, and while I was waiting to hear back, I slowly worked my way through the literature review and sent informal introductory emails to individuals I was interested in interviewing.
For my research methods, I chose to mix qualitative and quantitative research because it was the best way to ensure that I had both broad-ranging views (the quantitative side) balanced with more individualized perspectives (the qualitative side).
Upon reflection, I think the quantitative research made my findings more robust, as it gave me a better comparison of my case study areas. The qualitative research was equally as fruitful, as I was able to draw on individual business owners’ experiences and relate them to one another.
- Once you find 2 or 3 articles relevant to your research topic, use their citations to find more papers on the topic. Keep a list of your citations as you go, so that you don’t need to go back later on and frantically search up which citation goes with what idea.
- It’s easy to get stuck in the black hole of research, so ask your teacher/supervisor/professor/TA to help you with scoping your literature review. They may suggest search terms you can begin with, or propose sections to help you break down your literature review.
Stage Three: Writing the Paper (!!)
This stage definitely sounded the most daunting to me, but by this point, I had all my sources collected and organized, and my research was beginning to take shape. In terms of the actual writing process, I’ve broken it down by section, because the approach I took was slightly different for each.
For this section, I looked at past MRPs and identified a couple that used similar data collection methods. I read through how their sections were structured and used that as a basis for writing my section. Generally, I found the methods section to be pretty formulaic and straightforward to write.
Personally, I hadn’t written out my findings as I collected my data, so I needed to review the findings from my interviews and other data sources prior to writing this portion of the paper (though I do wish I had — it would have saved some time and effort). After identifying major themes, I sorted my findings under each theme and began typing away.
Here, I began connecting and comparing my findings to what existing literature had said. I actually had written way more than necessary, and when I sent my draft to my supervisor, she advised me to cut it down by approximately 20 pages. If you face this scenario, don’t fret! I found it quite useful to read through everything I had written and ask myself critically whether or not certain paragraphs were worth keeping.
The top three findings from my MRP were as follows:
- Firstly, I found that some of the general coping strategies that immigrant small business owners used were similar to those that all other business owners were using, such as discounting menu items to incentive customers to call or pick up orders in person, and using e-commerce platforms and social media to reach new and existing customers.
- Secondly, I found that business owners who were well integrated into an existing association/network adjusted better to the pandemic environment. For example, all immigrant business owners from the Willowdale BIA were actively involved in the Steering Committee for the creation of the BIA. In addition, two of them were serving as board members on business associations for their respective ethnic communities. Both expressed generally fewer difficulties adapting because of their strong ties to existing networks.
- And lastly, I found that the use of place-making strategies impacted immigrant small business owner’s adaptability. The establishment of the Willowdale BIA was a great example of deliberate place-making. This BIA had just formed and was functioning without a formal Coordinator, so the board members were active in planning, networking, and building relationships with each other, forming more cross-ethnic ties while increasing the BIA’s reach. This shows how, during a time of crisis, immigrant small business owners came together to create long-term working relationships in an effort to strengthen their local community.
Introduction and Conclusion:
I had already written my introduction for my ethics approval, but ended up re-jigging it to better reflect my findings and discussion. Since I had broken down my findings and discussion into three corresponding sections, I provided the main takeaways for each in my conclusion, and reviewed my introduction to ensure that it connected well with my conclusion.
Proofreading the Paper:
When proofreading my paper, I found it helpful to print it out or have my computer read it aloud to you. By this point in the process, I was nearing the end of my degree and definitely feeling a bit of “… do I really need to do this?”, so using these tools definitely assisted me in the final step before submission.
When choosing a title, try to think about how to draw in a wider audience. You can always use a subtitle to provide a greater description of your title!
For me, learning how to organize my time and keep myself accountable to deadlines I set for myself was the greatest takeaway from the MRP process. It prepared me for the independent type of work that is common to most workplaces. Two equally significant learnings were knowing when to ask for assistance with setting the scope of a project, and when to lean on the knowledge of others around you. Your supervisor and peers are there as sounding boards for ideas, comments, and feedback, and discussing thoughts out loud often makes the writing process more succinct.
I hope that my breakdown of the MRP makes writing long papers less daunting, and if you’ve written anything similar, I would love to learn about your experience.