Filling the Bucket: How to Research for a Paper (or Sermon or Lecture)

I've posted portions of many of my papers on this website as I was marching my way through Liberty Baptist Theological Seminary.  As a result, I now see specific spikes in traffic on certain pages, suggesting that somewhere in the world a Bible college or seminary professor has assigned a similar paper.  I wonder how many attempts are made to plagiarize from this sight?  I hope instead, students are simply looking to see what others have done and find sources and points they might not have previously considered.

Occasionally I get questions about writing papers or finding resources.  Living in Salt Lake City, resources are a little more difficult to come by.  BYU has the closest library of religion but the materials I needed from BYU could only be found on the comparative religion shelves next to the rows and rows of LDS materials. (By no means are they shelved together; and in fact, they're separated by all the other religions of the world.)

I also receive questions about doing well in seminary and having any kind of life. Therefore, I thought I would share the method I found most helpful while living with limited resource books, under crushing deadlines.

If you're in seminary, you're working full-time, and you have a wife and two kids, you've got to find methods to work fast or you'll go down in flames.  It would be nice to have ample time to fully read and re-read many books on whatever topic you're writing on, survey every piece of material ever written, request library loans from other parts of the country, travel to rare manuscript museums, and thoughtfully compare everything you find.  That, however, is called a dissertation and you should keep in mind people take years to write them.  You are most likely writing a 6 to 25 page paper and you'll have 5 more this semester alone.  You don't have the luxury to mosey through your topic or deal with it as thoroughly as you'd probably like.  If writing a seminary paper were archeology, you'd be working like Indiana Jones. 

The key to a good paper is getting a full bucket of information and then finding the exact right thimble's worth to print.  The same is true for a sermon, lecture, or discussion lesson.  But filling the bucket can be very time consuming.  Here's how I did it in seminary (and often still do it for sermon or class preparation):

1. Start with a healthy amount of prayer.

2.  Find every passage of Scripture on the topic you are dealing with, in favor or not. (If you're writing or preaching on a specific Scripture passage, you've just saved yourself some time!)  It often helps to scan systematic theologies for passages you might not have thought of.  Use cross references and take rabbit trails from the texts you have to those you don't yet have.  Write down a list of all relevant Scripture you find.  Keep it organized and close by.   Also, if you find anything in those systematic theologies related to your topic jot a brief summary note of what you found, where it's located, and the title. Put a sticky note to mark the page and start an organized pile on your desk, kitchen table, or some other place where you can work. Pray about what you've found thus far.

3.  Pray as you start step 3.  Search the academic journals (I had access through the Liberty library to a huge amount of resources and digital articles.)  Look for other papers on your topic and also search your list of Scriptures to see if anybody used the same text to deal with your paper subject.  If there's anything remotely dealing with your topic or the Scriptures, skim it to see if it has any gems that will contribute to or argue against your thesis.  Sometimes a larger paper on the passage doesn't have anything to do with your topic but might still have something that contributes in a helpful way.  Quickly read the section you found to get a feel for what you've got.  Bookmark, download, or print the article if it may be usable.  Jot a brief summary note of what you find, the title, and where you found it. Keep your summary notes organized!  If you print the articles, start more organized piles. Pray about what you've found thus far.

4.  Pray as you start step 4.  Look through every introduction, biblical encyclopedia, and dictionary you can get your hands on. If you find anything interesting at all, put a sticky note in the page and add it to the appropriate pile.  Jot a brief summary note of what you find, the title, and where you found it.  Keep an eye out for any additional relevant Scripture passages to add to you list. Pray about what you've found thus far.

5.  Pray as you start step 5.  If there were any relevant words in the Scripture that were cause for debate or simply left you curious, go to the lexicons.  As many as you can get your hands on.  If you are able, look at the original languages.  If you find anything interesting at all, put a sticky note in the page and add it to the appropriate pile.  Jot a brief summary note of what you found, the title, and where you found it. Pray about what you've found thus far.

6. Pray as you start step 6.  If there's anything historical that may have something to do with your topic, look at the historical events. Who were the players?  Did they write anything? Did they make any arguments?  What were the outcomes?  Are the events significant, strange, interesting?  (For example, if you're writing on works vs. grace, you probably should read about how that thing with Augustine and Pelagius went down.  If you're writing on specific spiritual gifts, it might help to look at stuff like Azusa Street. What's up with the two Great Awakenings?  How did Edwards read his sermons in such a boring fashion and yet people were getting radically saved?  Might Spurgeon's salvation story be relevant to your topic on providence or the work of the Holy Spirit?)  This stuff may help with your argument but more often than not, it adds some points of interest that make the paper interesting.  Of course, be sure to add something to the effect of, "While this story is but a single instance it should cause us to wonder how. . . "  (Academically, it's wise to concede that it's merely anecdotal evidence.)  Also, look for any additional mentions of Scriptures you may have missed.  Jot a brief summary note of what you find, the title, and where you found it. Put a sticky note in the page and put the book in its appropriate organized pile. Pray about what you've found thus far.

7.  Pray as you start step 7.  Go through every commentary you can get your hands on for all of the Scriptures in your list.  If you find anything interesting or relevant, put a sticky note in the book and jot a quick note.  It is also helpful to start noting where scholars are in disagreement.  Keep an eye out for additional Scriptures, theological arguments, and interesting or debated original language items you may have missed.  Lay the commentaries out on a table or floor in organized piles.  Agree, disagree, or supporting info in other areas.  Do whatever helps you to visually organize what you've got.  Also, get a wide breath of commentaries from newer to older, liberal to conservative.  Based on what I could get my hands on, I often had an occasional obscure commentary from the early 1800 or 1900's that I could connect the dots between differing ideas, saying something to the effect of, "However, so-in-so's later scholarship lends greater credit to/ or discredits. . . ." It's also nice to take a view through other faith positions such as the Catholic and Jewish commentaries.  I recommend checking out for some additional ideas.  Sometimes these will allow you to present a wider range of information as you narrow your topic or argue against some counter-positions.  Unfortunately, you may not have access to all these commentaries so you need to go with what you can get.  Don't hesitate to ask local area pastors what they may have in their libraries. And you might need to make a personal investment.  Jot a brief summary note of what you find, the title, and where you found it. Put a sticky note in the page and put the book in its appropriate organized pile. Pray about what you've found thus far.

8.  Pray as you start step 8.   Go back through the systematic theologies, introductions, histories, and other resources, looking in the Scripture index for all the Scriptures on your list.  (Most Christian books have and index of Scriptures mentioned. That's your new best friend!)  Determine if any of these Scriptures were used in a discussion helpful to your topic.  Is there anything you missed?   Also look through the table of context for your topic as you now understand it, more formed and specific.   Skim every thing you find to see if it has anything to do with what you're dealing with.  If so, jot a brief summary note of what you find, the title, and where you found it.   Don't forget the sticky note so you can come back to the page fast.  Put the book in the pile. Pray about what you've found thus far. Thank God for what he's shown you up to this point and ask for energy to keep going. 

9.  Pray as you start step 9.  Based on all the information you've looked at, you now probably have some buzz words that run through the arguments.  You've seen them often.  Google the buzz words.  But by all means, DO NOT TRUST what people write on the internet unless it's absolutely credible and truly helpful for your argument.  This even includes  (Only on very rare occasion, might it be helpful to use something just point out how people may understand something or how nutty the fringe views might be, but that's it.)  Instead, look at what they quote on the topics.  Check their footnotes.  See if they use anything you've missed and then see if you can find that resource.  Did they mention any Scripture you missed and should check out?  But don't jot a note yet. You really aught not quote what you found on the internet unless it is absolutely necessary.  Look at the resources and Scriptures first.  If the stuff you found on the internet was correct and used in the proper context, go the corresponding section above and follow those directions for the original sources.   Then jot a note.  Pray about what you've found thus far.  

10. At this point, these resources and commentaries may have provided you additional Scriptures along the way.  Look through your Scripture list.  Do you have any that have not been run through this process?  If so, repeat steps 1-8 for your new finds. Pray for perseverance; you're almost done! If you don't have any more Scriptures to explore, it's probably time to move to the next step.

11.  Thank God for everything he has shown you.  You've made it to the outline and writing phase. Pray you'll find the right thimble to take from this huge bucket.

Now your bucket is so full and the pile of books on your table is so large you're paper is about to write itself.  You should have a ridiculous amount of resources based on what you could find AND it's all centered around the Scriptures.  In addition, you'll have some resources that nobody found and that should be refreshing to the professor.  (I'm sure they get really tired of Matthew Henry!)

Pray again.  Re-read all the Scriptures on your Scripture list.  Go back through all your notes.  Reread the places where you've put sticky notes.  Are there any books you can remove from the table?  Do you see the various sides of the arguments?  Are you starting to come to conclusions yourself?  Are there counter-arguments against your thesis that you can't account for?  How will you deal with them?  Start asking yourself as many questions as you can think of.  Pray.  If you were teaching a class, what would people ask you?  If you were asked to sit in on a debate, what would your counter-parts bring to the discussion?  What would you bring?  How would you summarize your thesis for a closing statement?  Who would win the debate?  As you lay all this out, start creating your outline. Start narrowing.  Find your thimble.  Pray some more.  Once you're outline is done, it's time to start writing.

Now you'll need to do the hard work of figuring how to turn your thimble into a paper.  You'll probably have a hard time getting under the maximum page limit, but that's much better than stretching to reach the minimum.  This is because your thimble is still too big.  Keep working at it. Get the best in and don't worry about the rest.

You certainly won't use everything you found as you start writing.  Even if it seems good, compelling, or witty, if it's not relevant toss it out.  Only use what really deals with your topic well.  And by all means, don't just create a laundry list of quotes.  The quotes come along to support the logical direction of where you're going and what you're arguing.  You did the research, now write a paper that shows of the very best of what you found.  Be happy to leave the crap on the cutting room floor.  Take control of the material.  Pray about what stays and what gets cut.  

Researching is fun if you think like Indiana Jones (if you need to, get a good hat).  If you learn to enjoy the process, you will likely learn and remember a great deal that will help you long after you finish school.  And you may earn good grades AND have a life too!