Introduction to Writing Research Papers Holgate Library—Bennett College 7/07 Introduction to Writing Research Papers I. Getting Started Writing a research paper is a big project, but it doesn’t need to be overwhelming. Approaching your paper in an organized fashion will help you stay in control and do a better job. It's important to stay flexible and give yourself time to work through the research and writing process. Writing a research paper is not always a linear process, with one step immediately following another. Sometimes, for example, you must retrace steps or write one section of your paper while continuing to research another. Your topic or focus may change, and you may need to revise your research strategy as you discover new information. If you discover something new or find an interesting twist in your topic, don’t be afraid to follow its lead or reconsider your purpose or position. Serendipity—the element of surprise or discovery—may lead to a more interesting final product! II. Selecting Your Topic If you are given the task of selecting your own paper topic, it’s essential that you spend time thinking about and researching possibilities and options. Whatever you do, don’t pick the first idea that pops into your head because you may end up writing about something that doesn’t motivate or interest you in the long run. Usually, you can find a good topic by identifying an issue that touches your life in some significant way. Perhaps it’s a problem that you have experienced at home, school, work, or in your community. The best topics are ones in which you have a natural interest, ones you would want to read about, discuss, or pursue on your own. When selecting a topic, keep the following in mind: • Be sure that your topic addresses your instructor’s assignment. • Be sure that your topic is manageable and narrowly defined, such that it can be effectively addressed within the parameters of the assignment. • Be sure that your topic is something in which you have a natural interest. • Be sure that your topic allows you to offer insight and enlighten others. • Be sure that your topic lends itself to questions. In addition to selecting a topic you find interesting, you need to think about your writing situation. What kind of paper does your instructor want? How you frame your topic is closely linked to your audience. Here are some questions to keep in mind when thinking about your audience: • Who is my audience? • Is my audience interested in my topic? Why or why not? • Why should my audience be interested in my topic? • What does my audience likely already know about my topic? • What does my audience need to know about my topic? • What experiences has my audience had that would influence its impression of my topic? • What do I hope my audience will gain from reading my paper? III. Surveying Your Topic Once you have identified a topic for your paper and given some thought to your audience, you are ready to start your research. The first thing you will want to do is survey the literature on your topic. Surveying your topic is always a good idea at this point because it lets you see how other people have thought and written about it, as well as you want to be able to refine your topic before jumping in too deeply! A good survey or overview usually consists of two parts. First, locate background information on your topic by consulting a general encyclopedia like Britannica Online, the Columbia Encyclopedia, or a subject-specific encyclopedia or reference work. Most libraries have subject guides—in print or online—which list subject-specific encyclopedias and reference works. For example, take a look at Holgate Library’s online Virtual Reference Shelf and Subject Guides. Second, use an appropriate database like Academic Search Premier, Business Search Premier, or Newsbank to locate current information on your topic in popular journals, magazines, or newspapers. While you may not always want to use popular sources in your paper, these are invaluable for orienting yourself to contemporary discussion on your topic. Introduction to Writing Research Papers Holgate Library—Bennett College 7/07 IV. Evaluating Print and Electronic Sources Once you have spent some time surveying and refining your topic, take some time to re-read your instructor's directions for any limitations or specific requirements for the kinds of resources you may use for your paper. If your instructor has told you not to use specific sources, then avoid them! You are now ready to begin evaluating and selecting resources for your paper. Remember, it is important to evaluate your sources as you select them—the quality of your sources directly impacts the quality and reliability of your paper! Just because you find a book or journal article in the library or some information on the Internet does not guarantee that it is a good source for your paper. As a researcher, it is your responsibility to determine the “goodness of fit” between your information and your topic. Evaluating Print Sources • Is the information recent? Select up-to-date, current information unless you are conducting historical research. This is particularly true in the sciences. • Did an expert in the field prepare the information? Look for the author's credentials and affiliations. • Is the information from a reliable source and/or publisher? Choose information from a scholarly journal or from a book published by a reputable publisher. Choose books that have received favorable reviews. • Does the writer appear to represent material fairly and accurately? All argument shows bias because it attempts to persuade or influence its audience. However, guard against using information that seems unreasonably or unfairly biased. • Who is the intended audience? Is the information for a specialized or general audience? Evaluating Electronic Sources • Who is the author of the page or site? Does the author appear to be qualified to write about the topic? • Is the site affiliated with any institution, company, or organization? If so, does this affiliation add bias to the information? Or, does it suggest that the source is credible? • When was the site created or last modified? • Is the design of the site effective? Do graphics interfere with the site's readability? Do links to other sites work? Is it easy to navigate the site? • Who is the intended audience? Is the information for a specialized or general audience? • Does the information seem unreasonably or unfairly biased in any way? (Avoid any sites that appear to be advertising a product or service.) • See Holgate Library’s Website Analysis Quick Guide for more information. V. Working with Your Sources Start reading your sources as soon as you begin evaluating and selecting them. Don't wait until you think you have gathered everything together. As suggested above, your reading may lead you to revise your topic. As you are reading, keep in mind the following tips: • One source will often lead you to others. Check out the bibliographies and notes at the end of the books and articles you're reading to see if they list other materials that you want to locate. • Make copies of printed materials and print out or download electronic materials so you can mark on them. Try using a highlighter to mark useful information, main points, and references in your materials. Write your own notes in the margins or on the back of pages. This is easier than making note cards. • Keep a research journal in which you write your responses to what you're reading. In most cases, your instructor is as interested in what you think about your topic as what your sources say. Writing your own notes will help you to develop your own ideas and arguments, as well as figure out what additional information you need. • When your sources make arguments, take some time to analyze their positions. Take note of the writer's relation- ship with the topic, the position she takes, the main ideas used to support the argument, and the kind of supporting evidence provided. This will help you get a clear idea of where different writers stand on a subject. Introduction to Writing Research Papers Holgate Library—Bennett College 7/07 VI. Pre-Writing Now that you have begun to evaluate and select your sources, take some time to think and write about what you have discovered so far. What does it all mean? What do you want to say? The best way to start the writing process—and to avoid writer’s block later on—is to spend some time playing out your ideas on paper. Brainstorm. Gather as many good and bad ideas, suggestions, examples, sentences, false starts, etc. as you can. Perhaps some friends can join in. Jot down everything that comes to mind, including material you are sure you will throw out. Here are some additional ideas: • Talk to your audience, or pretend that you are being interviewed by someone or several people. • Imagine trying to teach your topic to a group or class. • Try to summarize your whole idea in three sentences or less. • Tell it to someone in three or four sentences. • Devise a way to diagram your major points somehow. • Then, if possible, put it away. Later, read it aloud or to yourself as if you were someone else. Watch especially for the need to clarify or add more information. You may find yourself jumping back and forth among these various strategies, and you may find that one works better than another. You may find yourself trying several strategies at once. If so, then you are probably doing something right. VII. Developing Your Thesis Statement Now that you are well into your research and have done some prewriting, you are ready to begin working on your paper. Your first task is to write an effective thesis statement. As suggested earlier, your thesis statement may change over time and as your write, however you will want to start with a good “working statement” to help direct your writing. Similar to when you were selecting your paper topic, you will want to keep the following in mind: • What does your assignment require that you discuss? Does your thesis statement cover this? • Who is your audience? Does your thesis address the interests and knowledge (or lack thereof) of your audience? • What kinds of arguments are other people making about your topic? Think about the sources you've been reading. What kind of arguments do they offer? You probably want to make a similar kind of argument, though you'll present your own opinion, not someone else's. • What kind of paper are you writing? Typically, papers fall into one of the following three categories: 1. An analytical paper breaks down an issue or an idea into its component parts, evaluates the issue or idea, and presents this breakdown and evaluation to the audience. 2. An expository paper explains something to the audience. 3. An argumentative paper makes a claim about a topic and justifies this claim with specific evidence. The claim could be an opinion, a policy proposal, an evaluation, a cause-and-effect statement, or an interpretation. The goal of the argumentative paper is to convince the audience that the claim is true based on the evidence provided. Example of an analytical thesis statement: “An analysis of the college admission process reveals two principal problems facing counselors: accepting students with high test scores or students with strong extracurricular backgrounds.” The paper that follows should explain the analysis of the college admission process and the two problems facing admissions counselors. Example of an expository (explanatory) thesis statement: “The life of the typical college student is characterized by time spent studying, attending class, and socializing with peers.” The paper that follows should explain how students spend their time studying, attending class, and socializing with peers. Example of an argumentative thesis statement: “High school graduates should be required to take a year off to pursue community service projects before entering college in order to increase their maturity and global awareness.” The paper that follows should present an argument that gives evidence to support the claim that students should pursue community projects before entering college. Introduction to Writing Research Papers Holgate Library—Bennett College 7/07 VIII. Outlining Your Paper Once you have drafted a working thesis statement, take some time to write an outline of your paper. An outline is helpful for organizing your thoughts and putting your resources and arguments into a logical order. When writing an outline, keep the following principles in mind: Parallelism: Each heading and subheading should preserve parallel structure. If the first heading is a noun, the second heading should be a noun. Coordination: All the information contained in your first heading should have the same significance as the information contained in your second heading. The same goes for the subheadings (which should be less significant than the headings). Subordination: The information in your headings should be more general, while the information in your subheadings should be more specific. Division: Each heading should be divided into two or more parts. Here is an example of an outline that displays parallelism, coordination, subordination, and division: The College Application Process I. Choose Desired Colleges a. Visit and evaluate college campuses b. Visit and evaluate college websites i. look for interesting classes ii. note important statistics 1. student/faculty ratio 2. retention rate II. Prepare Application a. Write Personal Statement i. Choose interesting topic 1. Describe an influential person in your life a. favorite high school teacher b. grandparent ii. Include important personal details 1. volunteer work 2. participation in varsity sports III. Compile resume a. List relevant coursework b. List work experience c. List volunteer experience i. tutor at foreign language summer camp ii. counselor for suicide prevention hotline For more information on how to write a paper outline and examples, see Section 1.8 (pp. 48-56) of the MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers, 6th ed. IX. Using Sources Fairly and Accurately In order to avoid plagiarism—or the unfair use of someone else's words or ideas—you must properly cite all quotations and paraphrases, and include a works-cited page at the end of your paper. Follow a standard documentation style when citing sources and writing your bibliography. Most disciplines have a preferred documentation style; however, you should always ask your instructor which style to use. Various style manuals are available in the reference section at Holgate Library, as well as be sure to check out the following resources: • The Style Manuals and Citation Guides page on Holgate Library’s Virtual Reference Shelf webpage. • The APA and MLA Formatting and Publication Manual Quick Guides available at the Holgate Library circulation and reference desks. • The APA and MLA Citations and Reference Lists Quick Guides available at the Holgate Library circulation and reference desks. • The Avoiding Plagiarism Quick Guide available at the Holgate Library circulation and reference desks. Introduction to Writing Research Papers Holgate Library—Bennett College 7/07 X. Revising Your Paper The first and most important thing to keep in mind about revising your paper is that it is not the same as proofreading; in fact, the two are barely related. Proofreading is actually the final step before you turn your paper in while revision is part of the ongoing cycle of writing. Remember that a good deal of your thinking comes to you as you are writing and revising, not before you sit down to write. Often your thinking on a subject doesn't develop fully until you write it out and rethink it, so plan on revising. Expect to scribble things out, tear sheets up, and occasionally start all over; all good writers do! Recondition yourself to think of revision as an important part of your writing process, and leave the proofreading and editing until last. Trying to perfect your paper the first time through is time-consuming and often good ideas are lost. Rather, get your ideas down on paper, revise them, and then proofread as a final step. Some of the strategies listed below may help you revise more effectively: • Try the cut and paste method. On the computer screen, cut your paragraphs apart. Then arrange and re-arrange them in various ways. Can you spot any holes, such as a lack of transition between paragraphs? Could your introduction make a better conclusion? • Mark up your draft with a pen or pencil. Scratch things out, draw arrows and circles, jot down new evidence or ideas as they hit you, etc. Don't let what might be your most effective idea get lost because you don't want to mess up the paper with chicken scratch. • Understand why you are making changes to your writing. If you've changed your title, know that your intention is to be more specific to your subject or to be more humorous. If you're adding text somewhere, know that it's relevant text that will clarify your thesis. In other words, don't make changes just for the sake of making changes. • When you're basically satisfied that you've accomplished in your paper what you intended to do, when you feel that your audience will understand (and perhaps even applaud) your thesis and its support, set it aside for a few hours. Return to your draft with fresh eyes, revise it again and only then proofread for sentence structure, spelling, punctuation, etc. XI. Editing and Proofreading The last thing to do before turning in your paper is to edit and proofread carefully. You want to focus on revising sentences for correctness and clarity. Editing and proofreading are difficult, largely because it's hard to see errors in your own work. However, with some patience, you can really make your paper sparkle! Some tips for effective editing and proofreading: • Give yourself a break between the time you complete the final version of your paper and the time you sit down to edit. Approaching your writing with a clear head and having at least an hour to work on editing will ensure that you can do a thorough, thoughtful job. • Ask someone else to read over your paper and help you find sentences that aren't clear, places where you're being wordy, and any errors. • Read backwards, a sentence at a time. This will help you focus on the sentences, rather than getting caught up in the content of your paper. • Know your own patterns. Your instructor can probably help you identify the errors you've made most often in your previous papers. Focus your attention on finding and fixing these problems. • Read through your paper several times, once looking just at spelling, another time looking just at punctuation, and so on. • Use the spell-checker on your computer, but use it carefully and also do your own spell-checking. Computer spell- checkers often make errors—they might suggest a word that isn't what you want at all, and they don't know the difference between there, their, and they're, for example. • Get help. If you're not sure if you need a comma or whether to use "affect" or "effect," look it up in a writing handbook or ask your instructor for help. • Remember that editing isn't just about errors. You want to polish your sentences at this point, making them smooth, interesting, and clear. Watch for very long sentences, since they may be less clear than shorter, more direct sentences. • Pay attention to the rhythm of your writing; try to use sentences of varying lengths and patterns. Look for unnecessary modifiers and phrases, repetition, and awkward spots.
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