Day 29: Writing Research Papers
Any good book on writing will contain the suggested basic steps for writing research papers. What follows are my variation on these steps–a process that has worked for the students in my research paper class, as well.
- Choose a topic. This should be a topic you are very interested in, and one that might provide ample material for an argument. Do not choose a topic as broad as WWII, or a topic so narrow that finding resources will be difficult.
- Read a great deal about your topic. As you read, think about what you might like to argue in your paper. Remember that some things are simply facts (dates, etc.) that will not be arguable. “The Life of Abraham Lincoln” may not be a persuasive paper. You could summarize the facts of his life, but you would be simply informing your audience instead of arguing a point. You could instead argue about whether or not Abraham Lincoln was a good president and present your reasons for why (or why not). As you read, consider whether your idea is reasonable, in light of what you are reading. “Abraham Lincoln was really an alien” is obviously something that will not be supported by any research you may do.
- Create a thesis statement. This is a one-sentence statement of your argument. It should be clearly and assertively stated. “Abraham Lincoln was an excellent president.” That is a clear statement. “In my opinion, Abraham Lincoln was an excellent president,” or “I think that Abraham…” are not assertive statements. State your thesis boldly and then present your reasons.
- Draw up a preliminary outline. Write your thesis statement at the top and then list the major points you can think of that support your thesis.
- Think of counterpoints. Carefully think of anything someone else could argue against your thesis. You will need to mention these potential objections and then explain why they are either untrue or unimportant in your paper.
- Do some hard-core research now. Your goal is now to find sources that support your major points as well as some that have to do with your counterpoints. For every point that you have, find a few instances where another author agrees with you or where a primary source backs up your claim. Carefully write down the citation information for these sources and keep track of the page numbers and quotes you find. You might want to keep a Word document for this purpose. Do NOT find some research and forget to write it down or forget to cite it or you will deeply regret it later.
- Write a more thorough outline. This outline should have several levels. You should even write down the sources you plan to mention under each point. By the time this outline is written, all of the hard work has been done!
- Format your paper. Go ahead and set up your MLA or Turabian format (margins, font, spacing, etc.) before you begin any writing. It is much easier to set it up ahead of time than to reformat it later.
- Write a rough draft based on your outline. You’ve practically written the paper already–you just need to state everything nicely and properly quote and cite all of your sources in your text.
- Revise, revise, revise. Rearrange things if necessary, fix spelling and grammar errors, read your paper aloud so that you notice any awkward phrasing, and ask other people to read over your paper.
Some people suggest that you think of a topic, then read a bunch for your research and write down all the random and interesting things that might pertain to your paper. They suggest you put each of these on notecards or a Word document and then rearrange them into a paper afterwards. I certainly do agree that you need to do a variety of reading in the beginning to become knowledgeable about your topic; however, I think you should wait to write down your research until after you have a preliminary outline. You need to have a focus for your research, and you need to specifically look for things that will relate to your points. If you do not have this focus as you research, organizing your paper will be a nightmare, you will have to cut many of the things you found (what a waste!), and some of the bits you are determined to mention in your paper might be a little unrelated to your overall goals. Organizing a bunch of unfocused research can be a recipe for stress and confusion. Instead, do two periods of research–one in which you learn about your topic and shape your ideas and another in which you comb your resources for quotes and statements that support your points.