All My Dirty Little Secrets for Writing Quality Seminary Papers FAST
I still remember my first Seminary Class. I was so exhillirated to be there. The questions were so deep – I could barely follow the conversation. But powerful! And exciting! …then there was the paper. Oh, how I slaved over the paper! Months later, I handed something in…sub-par, but all I could come up with, in the time I had.
Flash forward to the present. My last class I took by correspondence. Finished the reading, lectures, papers and assignments in a week flat. I felt the need to hand in the assignments staggered over a month, just so my teacher thought I was slaving away for all that time. Incidentally, I got about the same grade on that last class, as for my first.
Now, I’ll have to confess that last class was on a slightly different level from the first one. However, it underscores the point that I have learned a few things along the way which make writing papers a whole heck of a lot easier. In the true spirit of Christmas, I thought I would share a few study tips, that may help other students write their papers faster, and spend more time with their families this Holliday Season!
1) Start With Wikipedia
Seriously. They have good stuff. And it often comes with good links that will get you started. A few things must be said: a) take it with a grain of salt, b) NEVER quote or footnote it. The teachers don’t want to know, and it won’t exactly add weight to your paper to say you cited wikipedia.
Wikipedia may not always be very reliable, but if someone took the time to write the article, they probably know more than you on the topic. Think of it like this: you are sitting down with someone who claims they know something about your topic. Maybe they are full of knowledge, maybe they’re full of something else. Either way, it’s probably worth your time as a first-stop, before beginning the serious study.
2) Browse the Web
Depending on your topic, there are some stops you should make.
Theopedia is the Christian version of wikipedia. Check if it has an article on your topic – their pages also sometimes come with audio resources.
A Puritan’s Mind also has tons of free resources, especially…well…if you’re into Puritan/Reformed stuff.
Also, you can just do a google search for your topic. A few tips: first, select “google scholar” in the drop-down menu. This will eliminate a lot of the fluff, and make sure you mostly see real scholarly articles. Secondly, try typing your topic in, followed by .pdf For example, “The Atonement .pdf” Chances are, somebody out there has written an article on the atonement, which they are making available in PDF. Most of these can be cited as reputable sources – and even if it is not written by a real scholar, you can still cite it as a source depending on the topic.
You can also print out and use web-pages and blog posts, especially if the person is a scholar or teacher or pastor. If they aren’t a specialist, but they have some really good points, you may also want to cite them – but as an interesting voice, not an expert.
(For example, You would quote an expert thus: “This topic is confusing, but DA Carson explains….” You wouldn’t quote Joe-blow blogger in this way, because his explanation may or may not be credible. However, once the argument has been solved, you may say, “I think Joe-blow’s illustration of _________ is helpful at this point…” Sometimes non-professionals come up with the most unique illustrations and helpful ways of explaining things!)
If you find something good, print it and highlight the quotes. That way, you can go back and find your quotes easily, and you won’t waste hours trying to remember who wrote what where when.
3) Find some Audio Resources
If you have time to listen but not write/read (for example, you work out or have a commute) then you may be interested in audio resources. Download iTunes and go to the iTunes store. Type in your topic, then filter it to only show iTunes U. These will all be genuine college/university/seminary classes – all scott free for your use! I recommend especially Westminster Seminary, Covenant Seminary and Reformed Theological Seminary’s materials. You will be able to find an amazing amount of information, and you can cite the teacher/class as a resource in your bibliography. (Just try to have a pen and paper on hand somehow, so you can jot down what they say. Try to get the wording right when you are quoting people!)
You can also do this by simply typing in your topic to Google, followed by .mp3 You’ll be surprised how many resources, sermons, lectures and audio-books will be available on your topic!
If you are searching for older, primary-source material stuff, Librivox has a huge data-base of open-source audio books, completely free. I listened to Augustine’s City of God and Confessions on there, as well as Josephus and Calvin many others.
Finally, check out the MacLauren institute. If they have your topic, you’re in luck! They have some great audio-lectures on various topics! Again – this material can be cited on your bibliography.
The great thing about listening to people like this talk is that they are usually experts and they will often make candid remarks like, “You know, the best book I’ve read on this topic is…” or “This whole discussion started when so-and-so wrote such-and-such…” STOP THE AUDIO AND WRITE DOWN WHAT THEY SAY!! Now, go and find the books they say are important. This will give you a great head-start on your topic!
4) Move on to the Encyclopedias
The BEST way to get info on a topic is an encyclopedia article. Most libraries have several encyclopedias on various topics, such as The Concise Evangelical Dictionary of Theology or Dictionary of the Old Testament: Pentateuch. If you have access to such works, GREAT! Find the appropriate dictionary, and look for appropriate articles.
If not, you may be able to call a library (or, if you are already in a seminary, e-mail the librarian) and hire someone to photo-copy and mail you some articles. The prices are usually under $10.00, and it’ll be worth it to get the paper done!
Again – if you find something good, photo-copy it and highlight the relevant quotes.
4) Look for articles
I don’t know why I saved this ’till fourth – it’s the primary thing I do, and it is just AMAZING!!! If you have access (and I just don’t even know how writing a paper is even possible without this anymore!!) through your school library, log onto jstor, atlas or Routledge. Those are internet databases for storing articles from zillions of scholarly articles.
What is so great about an article is that it is short!! Also, they are usually written specifically on your topic, and they are always written by experts. Obviously, this doesn’t apply to magazines that aren’t peer-reviewed. I’m not talking about the glossy, picture-ladened type of journal. But writing articles in serious, peer-reviewed journals such as the Journal of Evangelical Theology or the Princeton Theological Review is how the experts test out new ideas. It’s how they talk to one another, debate and work out their theology. It is a mine-field of information, on most of your theological topics!
Best yet, you will often be able to find your way back to the source of the debate. Keep your ears peeled for the words, “Seminal.” When someone says, “In his seminal work, so-and-so says this….and my response to what he says is ….” PAY ATTENTION!! Go and find that work, whatever it is. You will raise your grade by %20 just by finding that book or article – not even reading it! If there is a seminal author on a topic, find some way to slip that into your paper, to prove you know a bit about the current discussions. (e.g. Harnack was the first in modern scholarship to propose that the early Christians were pacifists. I needed to mention his book militia christi in my paper, even though I never read it. Also, E.B. White was the first to propose that Christianity is bad for environmentalism in a famous article which slips my mind at this moment…these sorts of things are very important when writing a major paper!)
The best part of articles is that you will have people on both sides of the debate, so you can say, “So and so says this. But then so and so says this…but I side with this guy on this point, this guy on this point, and I make my own theory in this way.” If you do your work right, your paper will almost write itself, just in quotations!
5) Find Free E-books
If you’re not aware, you can go to google books, and read a significant portion of many books for free. You can even search within a book to find a key-word. It’s difficult to read much of a book like this, but you may be able to get that one key quote you need, so that you can cite it and add it to your bibliography. You can do the same thing with many books on Amazon.com
You can also search for a free copy of a book by typing the name of the book followed by .pdf Who knows – maybe the author is so excited about their book, they want to give it to the world for free! (This is exactly what Wayne Grudem and Vern Poythress did with their book on the gender-debate.)
6) Buy Logos
This is another one which should be higher on the list. To do it over again, one of the main things I would have done differently is to buy the Logos Library earlier in my seminary. What Logos library is is a database of books you can download onto your computer or mobile device. You can purchase I purchased additional books at a price. I bought the Scholar’s Library over the phone for about $450.00 (students get a discount…then if you ask please they can give you I think another 10% off). That package comes with all the basics, like several very extensive encyclopedias of Christianity.
What is so cool about this is that it is SOOO easy to build a list of quotes. Just copy and paste the relevant quotes into a word document. Then, when you are ready to write, all your quotes are right there.
Also, when you copy, Logos automatically creates a footnote for you! That part is way-cool, and saves a lot of time!
7) Get real books
Yeah. Some people do that still. You can too. If you go to Briercrest, they will mail you out 15 books at a time to study with, all free of charge. You can also go to your library and ask for an inter-library loan for most books…but this is a pain, and they tend to have a hard time locating the types of books needed for theological papers.
Of course, if you are on campus, a trip to the library is an enviable priveledge.
Generally, my research is divided into written and audio. I have a notebook I carry with me everywhere. I jot down things said in audio lectures, and all books/articles (and also important names) that I need to look into later. I also print out all the articles, good internet pages, and photo-copied encyclopedia articles I can.
I then sit down, read and re-read, highlight and scribble for a while ’till things start making sense.
If it’s a really big paper, I then go through and cut-and-paste all the best quotes out of my articles onto a seperate document. (You see, I saved all the articles in text as well as printing them off). I then scratch my head over my rough notes until I figure out an outline. WIth an outline in place, I can organize my quotes in approximately the order they appear on my outline. With that done, I can type away and my quotes are all right there.
Well, that ended up being a bigger post than I thought it would, and it is now later than I intended. But I hope this post is helpful to someone out there, who is serving the Lord by pursuing excellence in academics. God bless you and have a happy new-year!