Why writing a paper is like going on a backpacking trip

Backpacking is probably one of my favorite activities.  I feel the most alive, the happiest, when traveling through unknown places, preferably 3rd world countries, because they are cheaper and still full of incredible experiences.  My husband and I went to Belize a few months ago, and I did not want to leave.  I was imagining us extending our trip, going to Guatemala, and then further south, not returning home for months.

Wouldn’t it be great to feel like that about writing a paper?

Most people see paper writing as a burden, as something they have to do to get through school.  But in reality, writing papers is one of the most authentic learning experiences we have in college.  Just like traveling, we decide where to go.  We immerse ourselves in learning.  And, unlike when traveling to third world countries, we can’t get giardia from doing so.

I find that when I have a task to accomplish which I perceive as unpleasant, it is helpful to reframe it for myself to make it more enjoyable.  For example, I can see working out as a way to become more fit, instead of an hour of my day spent grunting and sweating.  In doing so, I try harder and get more out of it.

So here are a few ways you can look at your paper writing assignment as a backpacking trip. In doing so, you will hopefully become more invested in your paper, enjoy it more, and come out with a better paper in the end.

1. Choosing a topic = Deciding where to go

You may be thinking yeah, but my professor controls the topic of my paper.  It has to relate to the course topic.  You are right.  And when planning a trip you are limited by a specific budget, a certain time frame, flight availability, etc.  However, when choosing a destination, you also think about places you really want to see and explore.  Can’t paper writing be the same?  Choose a topic you really want to explore and about which you’ll enjoy learning.

2. Doing initial research = Reading travel guides before you leave

When I am going on a trip, I love visiting book stores and paging through travel guides.  What can I see in Italy?  Where do I want to go in India?  Finding research for your paper can be the same.  I think that most people look for sources as if they are shopping for paper plates for someone else’ s party.  They know they need  them, and they know the basic size and material they want, but other than that, anything will do.  The moment you begin choosing boring sources, that’s when the paper writing process begins to suck.  Instead, look through your research database like you are looking through a guidebook.  Be selfish – where do you most want to go?

3. Writing an outline = Creating an itinerary

You have done a little bit of research about where you want to go within your paper.  Now it’s time to plan your trip.  What are the main places (ideas) you want to visit in depth?  When planning a trip, you decide on a few places to stay and learn even more about them, and that’s also what you do in the outlining phase of writing your paper.  When my husband and I went to Italy, we decided we would first go to Rome, then Venice, and then down to Florence.  Once we knew where we were going, we looked into the deeper details of where to stay, which museums and sites to visit, etc.  It is the same with your paper.  Once you know your subtopics, you can begin the exciting part – figuring out more about each topic.  As you identify further subtopics, write them into your outline. Now you know where you will go in your paper.

4. D

oing deeper research = Packing for your trip

Once your initial outline is roughly complete, go back to your sources and pull out specific quotes to use in each section of the paper.  I find it very helpful to write these into the outline, citing them as I go, so that I don’t have to go back and type them up later.  Doing this is like packing the essentials in your backpack before a trip.  Do you have enough sources?  If not, keep looking.  But don’t include random sources just to fulfill your professor’s requirements.  Make sure that everything you put in your paper is essential.  Backpacking can be a pain in your back when your pack is filled with nonessential items. Trying to shove unrelated articles into your paper will make the process painful as well.

5. Beginning your paper = The plane flight over

I admit it – beginning a paper is my least favorite part.  Why?  It is hard to know where to start.  I usually start with my first subtopic, rather than the introduction, because the introduction is a preview of the rest of the paper, and until I know what is in the rest of the paper, I think it is fruitless to try to write an introduction.  But forcing myself to sit down and begin writing can be difficult.  I have to get the first few sentences down, and then it takes off.  Similarly, plane flights are usually one of the low points of the trip.  But you have to go through them to get to your destination.

6. Writing the body of the paper = Experiencing the trip

As you write the paper, you learn so much about your topic.  You explore ideas you never knew about previously.  As you learn more about your topic, your initial outline sometimes changes.  You decide to explore new ideas as they are revealed to you.  But you still stay in the same subtopics and stay focused on the same overall topic.  After all, if you are in Florence, you aren’t going to wake up in Guatemala City.

7. Writing the introduction and conclusion = Creating an album of your trip

After I return from traveling, I like to create an album showing where I was and what I experienced.  It is the same with your introduction and conclusion.  Now that you know the specific subtopics and the details within them, you can write your introduction, showing the reader where you will go, and the conclusion, showing where you have been.  Make the introduction exciting by beginning with a grabber, and the conclusion satisfying by tying it all together with a call to action.

8. Editing and revising = Telling exaggerated tales about your trip

Lets face it – no trip is perfect, and without editing, your paper won’t be perfect, either. But we don’t go home from a trip and tell everyone about the moments we wish hadn’t happened.  Instead, we embellish the good parts and conveniently leave out the less than savory moments.  When you edit and revise your paper, you get the chance to remove the imperfections before handing it in.  Do you really want your professor to know about that night in Roatan when you got locked out of the hostel?  I didn’t think so.

You also don’t want him to see all of the mistakes in your first draft.

So you see, paper writing can be like going on a great trip.  The key is to see this as a great learning opportunity and be picky about your topic and your sources.  Make sure you really care about your paper.

And while you’re at it, send a postcard or two to share your learning.