The Higher ED Blog: End the dread and quick start your Year 1, 2, or 3 paper now
Michelle Madden / May 30, 2016
Why is writing so hard? For most economic developers, there’s no time to sit down and do it. But the challenge isn’t just time, is it? It’s standing at the base of a beanstalk rising into the clouds and feeling tired before the climb even starts.
Everyone who comes through our Certificate in Economic Development program (Year 1 and Year 2) and Fellowship program (Year 3) needs to write an academic paper. Without that paper, the course is not complete—that means no EDAC points, Certificate, or “F” on the end of your Ec.D. I promise that the intent is not to torture. Rather, we see the papers are opportunities to learn in depth about an economic development topic of your choosing. This is your chance to test a theory, measure an outcome, or just explore, when normally you would struggle to carve out the time from your busy life.
The trick to getting started is to get started. That may sound like a truism but it’s amazing how much time is wasted thinking about writing when it could be spent more productively. The goal of this blog is to turn the beanstalk into something more manageable, like a reasonably sized tree, and give you a boost so you can reach that first branch.
For the certificate, you can write two 10 page papers or one 20 page paper. The fellowship requires at least 15 pages. Papers of all lengths should follow some basic academic conventions, but don’t get bogged down by that if you haven’t written a paper recently (or ever). We’re essentially looking for a paper that has a clear topic, explores the topic with research, provides due credit to the sources used, and ends with a conclusion that logically comes from the research presented. If that still sounds lofty, read on for a step-by-step breakdown for getting started.
Breaking it down
The best way to overcome the dread is to break down 10-20 pages into manageable chunks. The first step is to consider what kind of structure your paper will be. A literature review is the most common format and basically just explores a specific topic by looking at sources like reports, white papers, and news articles. Sara Chamberlain’s paper Economic Development and Social Media is a good example. Alternatively, you can dig deep on a particular community or initiative, like Jennifer Schnier did in her Honey Harbour case study, or you can take inspiration from Greg Landry and dive into some data.
These are just suggested formats and breakdowns but should give you an idea of how 10 pages can fill up fast. The choice of format and exact page breakdown will mostly depend on your research question and what you need to do to answer that question.
Choosing a topic and forming a research question
You probably have a topic floating around your mind right now. It’s that thing you’ve been curious about for a while, or the challenge your boss gave you, or maybe something you’re really passionate about. Perhaps it’s all of those things!
Once you have a topic in mind, the next step is to narrow it down to a research objective, which is a clear and concise statement or series of questions that declare what you’re trying to accomplish with your paper. Just like the objectives in your strategic plan, it needs to be specific and achievable in the time (a few evenings and weekends?) and space (10-20 pages) available.
Let’s say you’re really interested in tourism. Tourism is obviously way too broad, so you’ll need to narrow it down. Tourism marketing is a good practical area to focus on, but marketing to whom? If your community has access to great natural resources, then it would be most useful to focus on visitors interested in outdoor recreation. Now you’re ready to frame the research with an objective like “What are the characteristics of outdoor-focused travelers and how can my community attract them?”
A good example of a research question can be found in Jennifer Lake’s paper, Socio-Economic Benefits of Trail Development in Conception Bay South: “This paper will qualify the socio-economic benefits that can be realized with strategic, well-planned trail development, and will use that information to justify continued investment in the T’Railway in Conception Bay South”. It’s short, clear, achievable, and we always like to see papers with real world applications.
Keep in mind that your objective might shift a little as you research and write, but it’s important to have a touchpoint that will keep you from falling down the rabbit hole.
Create an outline and start researching
Once you have a research objective and format, you’re ready to start exploring. It’s helpful at this point to create a point form outline. This will get you thinking about what kind of information you need and will serve as a rough roadmap to follow. Keep your research objective top-of-mind to stay focused.
Once you’re ready to dive into the research, avoid getting overwhelmed by setting small goals, like finding a few good sources at a time. Government reports and studies, private sector white papers, Papers in Canadian Economic Development, Google Scholar, and Google (especially the news tab), are all good places to look for quality information. Wikipedia isn’t considered a quality source, but it’s helpful for generally learning about new concepts and the sources at the bottom of the page are fair game.
Today—yes, today—resolve to choose a topic, craft your research objective, or collect 5 solid sources…whichever is easiest branch to grab. You’ll be amazed at how much momentum a few small moves can create.
I’ll leave you now with two pieces of advice from great writers. The first is from Ernest Hemingway, who says you should never write yourself dry. If you stop when you know what’s coming next, it will be easier to start again the next day, or whenever you get back to it. The second is from Pulitzer Prize winning poet Carl Sandburg: “Beware of advice—even this.”
About the authors
Michelle Madden is the editor of Higher ED. She is also the Outreach Manager for the Economic Development Program and a graduate of the LED master’s program. She has authored many Higher ED articles sharing information relevant to economic development practitioners, and has written several on behalf of students. She has published several of her own blogs on economicdevelopment.org as well. Follow her on Twitter at @michelle_mad.
About the series
Higher ED: Insights for the Next Economy is a platform for students, guest speakers, staff and faculty of the University of Waterloo’s professional and graduate economic development programs to share knowledge with the field at large. The series takes works destined for an academic audience and reworks them into a fresh, easy-to-digest blog article.
Established in 1988, the Local Economic Development program is the only master’s program in Canada devoted solely to local economic development. It offers a balance between theory and practice by combining coursework, a major research paper, an internship, and weekly seminars featuring guest speakers. Students are prepared for careers in local, community, or regional economic development.
The Economic Development Program is a nationally-accredited provider of professional training. It delivers certification programs and seminars that offer a deep understanding of the Canadian context in a convenient block format. Peer learning is combined with informative lectures and practical case studies to provide dynamic instruction that is beneficial for junior and senior-level practitioners.