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8 tips to write a research paper from start to finish (relatively quick and easy)

I promised a few weeks ago that I would blog about how I write a paper from start to finish. I was hoping to have screenshots of every stage of my paper writing, but obviously doing my own research, fieldwork and travelling to academic conferences to present papers (and writing those papers in haste!) didn’t allow me to do this in a much more planned manner. So here are 8 tips I use to write a research paper from start to finish.

1. Create an outline

This tip would be kind of obvious, but I am far from being the first one to suggest that writing an outline allows you to put complex ideas on paper in a sequential, articulate, cohererent form. If you’ve already started writing the paper, then Professor Rachael Cayley’s approach is the best – e.g. create a reverse outline. At any rate, you should have a skeleton of what your paper is going to look like. One way in which I do this is I break down my abstract into the sections that I need to fill out and/or the questions I need to answer to have my paper actually show my full argument. So, the outline comes directly from the paper abstract. What I have found is that often times, my outline doesn’t show the same thing that the paper does at the end of it. That’s fine. At least you answered the questions and/or filled the sections you needed to and refined your abstract and paper on the basis of these responses.

2. Write the abstract and introduction first

#AcWri on the plane (finishing a paper)

The one sure way in which I know I am going to make progress on a paper is writing the abstract and the introduction. Normally what I do is I expand the abstract and write the introduction from the abstract. I also make sure that I develop the structure of the paper as I write the introduction. Often times, this will change and I will have to come back and redraft this section, but at least I have a basic structure for the paper.

2. Break down the paper into separate documents.

I am someone who doesn’t react well to word counts. In fact, I loved a recent blog post by Tseen Khoo entitled “Your Word Count Means Nothing to Me“. I am disciplined about writing every day for two hours, but I don’t really like the idea of “I write 3,500 words every 1.5 hours”. Some days I write a lot, some days I write much less. And some days, I just simply can’t write (though I summarize papers and reflect on them during my #AcWri period those days to keep generating text that I might use at some point, particularly research and reading memoranda).

So what I do instead is, I break the paper down into sections for which I then create separate documents. For example, for my recent paper on environmental mobilizations against Nestlé in British Columbia and in California, I created a separate document for the story around Nestlé in British Columbia and another one for the story on Nestlé in California. To avoid getting frustrated, I just focus on writing on one of the sections at a time.

4. Begin drafting some conclusions as you complete the analysis

#AcWri on the plane (finishing a paper)As I write my paper, I always make sure to include some early conclusions. For example, for my recent paper on the comparative analysis of 6 remunicipalization cases, as I completed each section and the history of each remunicipalization, I started integrating and summarizing my results in the analysis section and immediately after, I wrote a couple of sentences about the implications of my analysis for the conclusions section. By the time I finished the sixth case, I had 6 paragraphs in the conclusions section of my paper. This is particularly important as it helps me see the light at the end of the tunnel. As I was finishing the table that summarized my paper’s findings, I was able to also have a feeling of completion. By the time I had completed 3 case studies, my table looked quasi complete and I began feeling excited about finishing the paper.

5. Make sure you’ve told all the stories

Comfort Inn Santa Fe (Bosques, Santa Fe, Ciudad de Mexico)

As I was trying to finish my MPSA 2016 remunicipalizations paper (with a comparative table of 6 cases – Paris, Grenoble, Berlin, Atlanta, Hamilton and Buenos Aires), I got frustrated that I had assembled the paper too early for my liking and therefore I was not sure if I had completely told all the stories. For me, a story is fully told when there is at least 4-6 paragraphs that outline the overall issue and provide some analysis. That’s why at least 4-6 paragraphs would be necessary (history, the issue at hand, why is this issue relevant, what does my theoretical framework say about this particular issue) to fully outline and sketch the story. So, while I recognize that I had assembled the paper early, I used a summary table to ensure that I had already completely told all the stories. This table also helped me finish the paper because I could use the insights gained from this exercise for the analysis section and the conclusions section (see tip 4).

6. Leave text for the next day

AcWri in pyjamasThis tip sounds counter-intuitive, but this is exactly how I finish papers: I leave myself some room to complete sections, paragraphs and sentences. For example, for my environmental mobilizations paper, I wrote the section on the history of the environmental protest against Nestlé in British Columbia, on the Tuesday, and even though I wasn’t exhausted, I decided to just start the first few sentences of the California case. This tip is particularly important to me because I write in the morning. I start at 4 or 4:30am, wake up, start a pot of coffee, and write from 4-6, 4:30-6:30 or 5-7 am, because those are the hours when I am most productive.

7. Don’t write beyond your physical limits

Recently, I finished a book chapter by inserting 3,500 words that I wrote in the first 1.5 hours of the day into a draft that had 3,400 words. So I finished an 8,000 word paper in about 2 or 3 days. Obviously this only works if you’ve already simmered and thought about the paper for a very long time. I had been spinning my wheels for the past few days when I knew that I had made no progress on this paper in the past 4.75 months. This week, I just decided that I needed sleep and I stopped trying to write (yes, I too try to push my limits and do some “spree-writing”) so I went to sleep early. I woke up on Wednesday at 5 am, and by 6:30pm, I had finished the book chapter.

The reality is that academia has this toxic culture of overworking as though it were a badge of honor. But I can’t do that anymore. I used to work 24 hours in a row, sometimes even 36. Right now I can’t push my physical limits and I will not endorse overwork. So I know for a fact that I improved my writing since I started sleeping at a decent hour and at least 6 hours a day. And that’s exactly why I never write beyond my physical limits even if I am not done with the paper and I have a deadline. I prefer to ask for an extension or simply say “No, I can’t write your book chapter/paper/article” because I will no longer push myself beyond my physical limits.

8. Assemble the paper 80%-90% into the process

When I assemble a paper too early into the process, I end up seeing all the gaps in the paper and this demoralizes me. So now what I do, is I assemble the paper about 80-90% into the process. I assemble the introduction, conclusion, body of the paper and I collect my handwritten notes of what needs to be improved and corrected. And then I go over the paper and figure out if I am missing something. That way, whenever I sit down and work on this paper again, I feel that I am about to be done.


Applying this process helped me complete 3 draft papers (2 for MPSA, 1 book chapter, and two I’m working on) in about 5 weeks, all the while travelling every week and teaching one class every week. This is not to brag, but it’s just to show that if I follow a systematic process, I can move forward even under conditions of relative duress (e.g. when I am travelling). So, every single day I was able to work on research and write for a few hours because I was working every day on a different, single component of my paper and research project. As I have often said, I follow Aunty Acid’s advice: I take life one panic attack at a time.

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Joining the editorial board of Politics, Groups, and Identities

I am always honored when I am invited to join an editorial board, particularly when it’s the flagship journal of one of the associations I belong to and I really love, the Western Political Science Association. At the recent Midwest Political Science Association, Dr. Nadia Brown, the incoming editor of Politics, Groups, and Identities, and an Associate Professor of Political Science and African American Studies at Purdue University, was kind enough to ask me to join the new editorial board. So I’m at the same time honored and excited to be part of this effort. Thanks, Nadia, for inviting me! I am very much looking forward to contributing to the editorial work of PGI.

You can read a virtual special issue on gender and politics of Politics, Groups, and Identities by clicking on this link.

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Water Centric Cities Conference 2016 at University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee

You can follow along or read stored tweets from the Water Centric Cities conference where I presented on the regulation and governance of bottled water in cities. The program for the conference is located here:

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Governing Bottled Water: Water-Centric Cities and the Commodification of the Human Right to Water

I just presented a paper on “Governing Bottled Water: Water-Centric Cities and the Commodification of the Human Right to Water ” at the Water Centric Cities conference here in Milwaukee. My panel was on Water Commodification, where I spoke alongside my good friend and coauthor Dr. Oriol Mirosa, who is an Assistant Professor of Sociology and Global Studies at UWM. I’m grateful to the organizers, Patrice Petro from the Center for International Education and Jenny Kehl from the Center for Water Policy, both at the University of Wisconsi-Milwaukee, for the invitation.

My slide deck is below, in case you’re interested in reading it. The conference ends tomorrow and it has been so far a fantastic event. I will also be posting my photos of the event on Flickr. Check the full program for the conference here.

Posted in academia, bottled water, conferences, water governance.

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Upcoming talks: Midwest Political Science Association #MPSA2016 (Chicago)

I do not know how I decided that it would be a good idea to do WPSA, MPSA, CPSA, and LASA, and two academic workshops by invitation, but well, I’m getting close to my last few weeks of extended academic travel. At least, I’m not missing any of my classes (I fly back to Aguascalientes so I don’t miss my lectures). But I’m definitely getting physically tired. Anyways, if you would like to catch me in Chicago next week for MPSA, here is my schedule:

Thursday and Friday I’ll be a Faculty Mentor at the MPSA 2016 networking sessions.

My two papers are the following:

Thursday April 7th, 4:45-6:15pm
58-500 Symposia:
Environmental Politics and Policy

The comparative politics of institutional diversity in water policy reforms: Six case studies in private water supply remunicipalization

In recent years, remunicipalization has been hailed as a policy reform that enables the implementation and operationalization of the human right to water. By bringing back the public into public service delivery, remunicipalization is perceived to ensure water policy objectives’ robust implementation. Remunicipalization of public water supply at the local level has been proven successful in at least six major cities worldwide: Atlanta, Berlin, Paris, Grenoble, Hamilton and Buenos Aires. In this paper, I assess whether human-right-to-water-inspired policy reforms could have played a role in the de-privatization of municipal water supply in these cities. I also explore whether any patterns have emerged from published studies on remunicipalizations worldwide, and from these six case studies. I test the hypothesis that remunicipalization can be used as a policy reform to implement the human right to water. I examine six case studies of remunicipalization in five countries and link across the human right to water literature with the policy outcomes that came out of it.

Saturday, April 9th, 3:00-4:30pm
58-9 Interest Mobilization in Environmental Politics

The comparative politics of environmental mobilizations against bottled water companies in Canada and the United States

The governance of bottled water offers an interesting challenge given its pervasiveness worldwide, in the face of increasing global water stress. Swiss company Nestlé controls 70% of the global bottled water market of around 200 billion dollars. Many of the protests that Nestlé faced occurred in two currently drought-stricken areas: California, in the United States of America, and British Columbia, in Canada. Alarming figures around how much water Nestlé was extracting practically for free in both regions circulated on social media, news sites, and newspapers, giving rise to a series of online mobilizations to rally against the multinational. This paper explores the political dynamics of online activism in California and British Columbia, and evaluates Nestlé’s response to civil society pressure in the face of a global water crisis. In this paper, I compare strategies of anti-water privatization environmental non-governmental organizations and their impact in the US and Canada. I argue that subnational politics interacts with global-agenda setting to bring bottled water into the policy agenda.

I will also be participating in a roundtable on integrating research and teaching

66-110 Roundtable: Integrating Teaching with Your Research
Friday, April 8 11:30 am
Roundtable(s): Integrating Teaching with Your Research
Discussion on integrating teaching and research
Chair: Michaelene D. Cox, Illinois State University
Amber Dickinson, Oklahoma State University
Kellee J. Kirkpatrick, Idaho State University
Elizabeth Wheat, University of Wisconsin, Green Bay
Raul Pacheco-Vega, CIDE

I will be there from Wednesday through Sunday evening so feel free to reach out to me if you want to chat.

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Religion and Climate Change Workshop at American University (Center for Latin American and Latino Studies)

Yesterday and today, I have been participating in a workshop organized by Rob Albro and Eric Hershberg from the Center for Latin American and Latino Studies at American University, and Evan Berry from the Department of Philosophy and Religion at American University. It was an honor to be invited, and a great opportunity to share my research on public policy, water governance and climate change, and use the religion and climate change lens to shed light into how we can engage from a multidisciplinary perspective on this topic.

As always, I look at these things from a public policy analysis perspective, and as a comparativist. Methodologically, I am really excited about the prospects of comparing the Andean region with small islands, India and possibly Mexico. Today we are discussing the methodological and process approaches to undertaking this project. This workshop was possible with generous funding from the Henry Luce Foundation to AU CLALS for the project Religion and Climate Change in Cross-Regional Perspective.

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Water Centric Cities 2016: My talk on Cities and Bottled Water

Last year, I was invited to join a roster of experts on water at the Center for International Education of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee for a conference on Water-Centric Cities. I am very excited about this conference, because for a very long time, I’ve thought that issues of water availability, water security and insecurity, and water governance are all interrelated and we should talk more about how cities cope with these challenges through time.

bottled water

My paper is titled: “Governing Bottled Water: Water-Centric Cities and the Commodification of a Human Right

I’m focusing this particular paper on the lack of a robust regulatory framework to govern how bottling water companies extract, package and distribute bottled water. While we can argue that bottled water is supposed to comply with health and safety regulations, there are many instances of water extraction where permits enable multinational corporations to extract thousands of gallons per day of the vital liquid without having to pay so much as a penny. My argument is that we need a robust regulatory framework to govern bottled water before we are faced with extreme scarcity and an inability to drink water from the tap, a challenge many jurisdictions like California and Michigan in the United States are already facing.

Posted in academia, bottled water, conferences.

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Upcoming talk: PhD Colloquium, School of International Service, American University

Bottled waterI will be presenting my ISA 2016 paper on the global politics of bottled water today (March 30th) at 2:30pm during the American University School of International Service PhD Colloquium. It’s always nice to be back among friends (many of the faculty at SIS AU are focused on environmental politics, and are good friends of mine), and it should be good to present my emerging research to a sympathetic audience. This is work in progress, and I’m often a bit weary from presenting such early drafts, but that’s how one learns. The abstract is shown below:

The global politics of bottled water

Raul Pacheco-Vega, PhD
Assistant Professor, Public Administration Division
Centro de Investigación y Docencia Económicas (CIDE)

Bottled water is considered a growing business, soon to overtake soft drinks as the beverage of choice. Yet the growing phenomenon of consuming water packaged in a plastic bottle seems ill conceived given current global conditions of water shortage. Understanding the paradoxical global patterns of bottled water production, distribution and consumption necessitates going beyond an international political economy explanation to generate one that integrates national patterns of consumption, public health concerns, varying degrees of water stress and domestic, transnational and international politics. In this paper I examine the global politics of bottled water through a combination of comparative politics and international relations lenses. I set forth a number of questions that require addressing in our quest to understand the paradox of bottled water consumption. I then offer suggestions that outline how we can explore this phenomenon through a global environmental politics lens. Finally, I posit a research agenda for future scholarship on the global politics of bottled water.

Bottled water

You can check my slide deck below:

Posted in academia, bottled water.

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The Politics of Water Governance at a Time of Crisis: Creating Opportunities through new Analytical Lenses #WPSA16

I am in San Diego, California, for the Western Political Science Association (WPSA) just the second of six conferences and workshops I am attending and presenting at in the next six weeks. At the time, obviously, it seemed like a great idea. Right now, I am surviving through all of them, and will write about my experience, as soon as I have a minute.

Panel 04. 06 – The Politics of Water Governance at a Time of Crisis: Creating Opportunities through new Analytical Lenses
Date: Friday, March 25, 2016, 3:15 – 5:00 PM
Chair(s): Harris, Leila,, The University of British Columbia

Paper(s): Narrative, Storytelling, and Arts-based Engagement: Revisiting Water Governance
Harris, Leila,, The University of British Columbia

Coalition Dynamics under Collaborative Norms: Using the Advocacy Coalition Framework to Understand Collaborative Policy Processes
Koebele, Elizabeth,, University of Colorado Boulder

Testing the Water: Investigating Water Manager Responses to Ecological and Institutional Change to Understand Adaptive Governance
Childress-Runyon, Amber,, Colorado State University

The politics of bottled water at a time of crisis: Mobilizations in California and British Columbias against Nestle
Pacheco-Vega, Raul,, Centro de Investigacion y Docencia Economicas (CIDE)

Public Adaptation through the Backdoor: Can We Move Toward Adaptive Water Governance?
York, Abigail,, Arizona State University
Eakin, Hallie, , Arizona State University
Smith-Heister, Skaidra, , Arizona State University
Bausch, Julia C., , Arizona State University
Aggarwal, Rimjhim, , Arizona State University
Anderies, John M., , Arizona State University

Discussant(s): Pacheco-Vega, Raul,, Centro de Investigacion y Docencia Economicas (CIDE)

Posted in academia, policy analysis.

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What counts as academic writing? #AcWri

TW: On the use of the “binge” word: I disapprove of the actual use as it will be shown in my post, but I would like to acknowledge that the reason it is problematic is that it links a real eating disorder with a writing behavior. This obscures the realities and challenges facing folks with eating disorders and therefore I am uncomfortable using it and moving forward will not use it anymore, instead using “sprint writing” or “writing spree”.

#AcWri on a planeAnybody who reads my research blog and/or follows me on Twitter knows that I have very specific approaches to writing. Because I need a disciplined approach to life, I do things like the following: I schedule my life to the every minute, I organize my office every day, I organize my research notes and books/journal articles almost obsessively. Writing every day has become my mantra and my daily discipline.

Because I need the peace of mind of having accomplished something every day, I write every day, instead of spending extended periods of time cranking out text (what often is called “binge-writing“, though I hasten to add that binging has a very negative connotation associated with eating disorders, and we may need to change the language around that). I write every day because I’ve made writing my priority. Everything can wait but not writing. I can’t leave my house without doing some writing.

My academic writing #AcWri processEvery single researcher (and writer) out there will provide the advice that works best for him or her. A recent piece on Inside Higher Education(which I loved by the way, because she’s such a great writer) by Dr. Jane Ward suggests that you should “binge write” (e.g. write for extended periods of time), instead of writing every day. She also suggests (which I find is one of the most powerful piece of advice anybody can give) to self-identify as a writer.

This is something I do (identify myself as a writer), because in a former life, I wrote PR and marketing copy. Ask me one day over cocktails. Her third piece of advice is also extremely powerful: don’t absorb other people’s anxieties. If somebody else is stressed, don’t let that stress get you down.

But I want to go back to the first piece of advice, because that’s the one I find most people struggle with – should you write every day or should you binge-write (we seriously need a replacement word for this, people). Inspired by Dr. Wendy Laura Belcher (whose 12 weeks to a journal article book is an absolute gem that you should buy this very second, and whose writing advice is stellar), I went on Twitter to rant about this notion of “don’t write every day”.

#AcWri and reflection and highlightingThe truth is: YOU ARE WRITING EVERY SINGLE DAY. Even if you are sending emails to a coauthor about how to craft a specific section, THAT COUNTS AS WRITING. Why? Because you are sharing concept notes. You are shaping how your argument is going to be structured. You are discussing the data. Are you reading and taking notes off of each paper you read? You are WRITING.

Are you drawing tables by hand to decide how you’re going to present them in your paper? YOU ARE WRITING. You are, in fact, WRITING.

Most people who write about academic writing (now that’s writing-ception) will differentiate between “generative text” (words you will end up putting into a paper or grant proposal) and “non-generative text” (bits and pieces of writing here and there). In reality, even if you don’t structure full sentences or write a full paragraph, every time you write something that pushes your work forward, you ARE writing, and you ARE writing “generative text”.

Handwritten notes

One of the problems I have found with recently published papers (and this may be the result of our publish-or-perish attitude) is that their literature reviews are exceedingly poor. Sometimes I find that key citations are absent from papers whose authors should know better. I believe one reason for this is that we don’t take the time to read and write notes about what we read. And we don’t because, WE SHOULD BE WRITING. If we don’t take reading seriously, if we don’t write notes and assemble robust literature reviews, our writing will end up being quite poor.

Our obsession with producing generative text has also led us, I believe, to relegate reflection to a distant second place. We don’t make time for proper reflection and digestion of ideas and thoughts on an every day basis. What is important in my daily academic practice? WRITE. WRITING. I NEED TO BE WRITING. But we don’t make the time to reflect. And the notes you write to yourself while you read and reflect on ideas? THAT COUNTS AS WRITING. That IS, in fact, writing.

I think we owe it to ourselves to recognize that no writing practice is perfect, or ideal, or that every single piece of advice you receive will work for you. You need to build your own writing practice. But to do so, you also need to recognize that many of the activities you don’t reward yourself for doing (like writing notes by hand, like emailing colleagues with ideas and thoughts, like reading, reflecting and taking notes about what you read) are in fact, whether you recognize it or not, writing.

My Twitter rant below:

UPDATE: Dr. Melissa Terras suggested a change in the wording of “binge-writing” that will shape how I write about this topic in the future. As Katrina Firth aptly suggested, the word “binge” suggests some sort of abnormalcy. We usually associate binging with “binge eating” or “binge drinking”, both of which may lead to physical illness.

Melissa Terras suggests “writing sprints” instead of “binge writing”, and I love this idea.

Jo Van Every had already written about the use of “binge writiing” and I didn’t recall until I searched for associated tweets. I also thoroughly agree with Professor Myriam Houssay-Holzschuch that if you want to sprint, you can’t do it unless you’ve trained daily, which is the theme of this post (how every writing you do can actually count as #AcWri).

FURTHER EDITS: Wendy Laura Belcher and Jane Ward had a dialogue in the comments on the Inside Higher Education piece, and also with me.

Furthermore here are a couple of additional thoughts by Pat Thomson who also has written on the idea of binge writing (I’m changing my vocabulary to “sprint writing”).

And the book recommended to me is one I already own in PDF version. “How We Write” edited by Suzanne Conklin Akbari. Great read.

Posted in academia, writing.

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