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Presenting Your Research: Writing a Research Paper

You have been assigned a research paper for a class. You are told to find information from several different kinds of sources, but not to use the class textbook. Your paper has to present and discuss an idea, and take a position about it at the conclusion. What do you do, and how do you start?

Choose a Topic
  1. Find a subject area that interests and challenges you. You might have studied a certain topic in class that you would like to research further or you may be able to research and write about something you are particularly interested in. Writing about what you know can help you throughout the entire researching and writing process. If you are choosing a research topic from a list that your instructor distributed, again choose something that you are interested in.
  2. If you are having trouble finding a topic that interests you, read through some current newspapers and magazines. You might find a news story or a subject area that you would like to research further.
  3. You can also use the Issues & Controversies Issue Index by Subject to help select your topic. You can access specific parts of this index by clicking on any of the categories under Subjects at the top of any page in the database.
  4. Once you have chosen a topic, decide whether you need to narrow or broaden its focus. If your topic is too broad, you might become overwhelmed by the amount of resources available on the subject and your research paper may prove almost impossible to write. If your topic is too narrow, you might have trouble finding resources and your paper might not be long enough. For example, writing about the Internet is too broad. Writing about publishing on the Internet is narrower. Writing about one document published on the Internet might be too narrow.
  5. Ask yourself some questions about the topic. These questions will help you to focus on a certain issue or problem. One of these questions will form your research question, which your thesis statement will answer. For example, if you chose to write about publishing on the Internet, your research question might be "Has the fact that it is so easy to publish on the Internet made it difficult for students to find reliable information?"
Choose a Thesis Statement
  1. Your thesis statement is the foundation of your research paper and is an answer to the research question that you formulated. Your thesis statement is not the title of your paper; it is a single sentence that summarizes the argument you intend to make or the point you want to prove throughout your paper.
  2. A thesis statement should be something that you can argue or debate; it should not be a fact. It focuses on a particular aspect of an issue and indicates the side you intend to take. For example, a thesis statement that says "Anyone can publish on the Internet" is a fact. Most people already know this, and it is not something that can really be debated. However, a statement such as "Because of the ease with which material can be published online and the growing number of user-edited Web sites, many students find it difficult to find reliable information on the Internet" is a statement that can be debated. It also indicates the side you intend to take on an issue (that it is difficult to find reliable online information).
  3. Because it is the basis of your paper, the thesis statement should be found in the introductory paragraph or near the beginning of your paper.
  4. Your thesis statement may change after you have conducted research. You might have a new idea you want to include, or you may wish to change the focus of the statement. As you write your paper, remember to change your thesis statement if you think it needs to be changed. At this stage, a thesis statement is important because it helps you to refine your topic, which in turn makes it much easier to conduct research.
Conduct Research
  1. Once you have written a preliminary thesis statement, you will need to conduct research. Look through any bibliographies or lists of suggested reading material that your instructor may have distributed in class. Are any of these titles about your topic? Often, these lists can be great starting points for research.
  2. Visit the school library. Type words from your thesis statement into the library's catalog. Read through the list of titles and write down the call numbers for any books or journals that are of interest.
  3. Use the variety of online databases that your library subscribes to. Subscription databases contain up-to-date, authoritative information on a huge variety of topics. Type key words or words from your thesis statement into the database's search engine. Read through the list of titles to determine which titles are of interest to you. Most databases allow you to search by relevance, which means that the articles that relate most closely to your search term(s) appear at the top of your results list. Many databases contain current newspaper and magazine articles, as well as live news feeds from major media outlets.
  4. Once you have gathered some reading material together, examine each source carefully. Decide whether the source is useful by:
    • Checking the date when it was written. For some subjects, the date is not important, but for others it is crucial. For example, if you wish to write about the Internet, a book dated before the mid-1990s probably will not contain any information about it. However, if you want to write about the American Revolution, it may not matter how old the book is. Also, remember to check the date of journals, newspapers, magazines, and database articles.
    • Checking the author's credentials, and/or the publisher. Who wrote the book or journal article? How can you tell whether it is authoritative? If no author is listed, how can you tell whether a source is reliable? Often, a good indicator is checking who published the book or article. If it is published by an academic institution or a news agency, it is generally trustworthy and reliable. If the publisher seems as though it might have a bias, be a little more suspicious. Remember that people can omit or skew facts. For example, a conservative news source and a liberal news source might both write about the same story but treat it in very different ways and give different information.
    • Reading selectively. Read through a book's table of contents and index to look for entries on your chosen topic. If you are still not sure about its usefulness, read the introduction or the opening and closing paragraphs. Read the abstract before a journal article; an abstract summarizes the entire article and is an excellent guide to the article's worth. Read through a database article's opening and closing paragraphs to determine whether it is of use to your paper.
  5. Search the Internet. Remember to search the Internet with care! Although the World Wide Web is an excellent resource, anyone can publish online. How can you tell whether this information is trustworthy? For more information on choosing reliable Web sites see Evaluating Online Sources.
  6. Take notes. No matter which source you use, you will need to take notes that you can use when writing your paper. Write down or enter into an electronic document all the citation information about your source at the top of the page; you will need this information when you compile your Works Cited or References list. Summarize key points in your own words. If you wish to use another's exact phrase or sentence, place it in quotation marks or highlight it so that you know this is someone else's phrase. Make sure to note the complete source (printed page number, exact section) of any quotation you intend to use. Draw a circle around your own ideas or highlight them so that you know they are yours.
  7. Avoid information overload! Because information is so readily available today, it can be easy to read too much about your topic. Ensuring that your topic is narrow enough will help somewhat to avoid this, as will allowing your paper's length to guide you. For example, if your paper is 5 pages, read about 5 to 8 sources on your topic. If it is 10 pages, read about 10 to 12 sources on your topic. Remember that it is much better to read 5 reputable articles on your topic than 25 untrustworthy articles that vaguely relate to your topic.
Make an Outline
  1. The outline serves as a type of road map for your research paper. It lists in order each of the main points you wish to argue in your paper. As you write your paper, it will serve as a reminder of the points you want to make and will help you avoid writing about irrelevant information.
  2. Begin by reading through your notes. Then write your thesis statement at the top of the page. Underneath the statement, write down each of the main points you want to make in your paper (leave some space between each point). Underneath each point, write down about three facts or pieces of information that support that point.
  3. Examine the outline. Could some related points be grouped together? Do any of your points appear to be weak? If so, you may need to conduct some extra research on that point. Do the points support your thesis statement? If they do not, you may need to revise your statement.
  4. Decide the order in which your points will be argued. Arrange your points in the way that best fits your research paper. Remember to include a sentence at the end of each point that shows how the point and facts or pieces of information support your thesis statement.
Write a Draft
  1. Before you begin writing a draft, make sure that you have written a preliminary thesis statement, conducted research, and made an outline. These parts of the research writing process are essential in order to write a research paper.
  2. Your first draft will probably be very rough and disorganized. Do not be concerned if this is how your first draft reads. The purpose of writing a draft is to flesh out your ideas and produce new material. Try not to revise your sentences as you write; you will have time at the end to revise your paper.
  3. Try not to procrastinate! Many students put off writing a paper until the night before it is due because they are not sure how to begin. Allow yourself enough time to write a rough draft before you write the final version—there is a big difference between the two.
  4. Many students, and writers, suffer from writer's block. If this happens, read through your outline. Try to find a section that you really want to write about or that looks inviting. You do not have to write about each section in order; writing is often not a linear process. If you still have trouble, try reading through your notes and outline or reading over anything you have already written. Lastly, do not be afraid of how your writing sounds at this point. Remember that you will have time at the end to revise your paper.
  5. Use your outline to help you achieve unity. Each point you make should have its own paragraph, and the main idea of the paragraph should be covered in a single sentence, preferably located at the beginning of the paragraph. Your paragraph should not discuss other points. For example, if you are writing about the reliability of user-edited Web sites, you should not discuss the technology behind those sites in the same paragraph.
  6. Keep your points obvious and coherent. Do not assume that a reader will be able to deduce your exact meaning. Try to keep your points as clear as possible. Use the key words from your thesis statement as often as possible and connect your ideas together by using transitional words and phrases such as "therefore," "thus," "in addition," "as demonstrated," etc.
  7. Use your sources as support. A research paper should contain references to supporting sources, but should contain your ideas, too. When you use sources, try to put others' ideas and sentences into your own words. (Remember to include a parenthetical reference or a footnote.) Only use quotes if you think it is really necessary. If you do include a quote, remember to include an in-depth explanation about it and introduce it by stating something like "As Gibaldi states,...." For more information on paraphrasing and using quotes see Avoiding Plagiarism.
  8. Include parenthetical references or footnotes as you write your draft. Include information about your sources as you write. This will help you to avoid unintentional plagiarism and will save you time when you are revising your paper. It is much easier to reference your sources as you write than to insert all references at the end.
Write the Final Version
  1. If you have not already done so, write the introduction. It is often easier to write the introduction to your argument after you have argued it. Write a sentence that will serve to introduce your thesis statement. If you wish, begin the introduction with a quotation, an interesting fact, or a question. You should also identify the main topic of your paper and provide some general background information about it. If your introduction is particularly long, feel free to break it up into several paragraphs.
  2. Refine your thesis statement. If you feel that your paper does not fit your original thesis statement, rewrite it so that it is an accurate summary of your argument.
  3. Write the conclusion. Writing a conclusion can be the most difficult part of writing a research paper. Your conclusion should restate your thesis statement, but should also show why it is significant. Do not just summarize your paper—leave your reader with an understanding of your argument. You might decide to end your paper with a question, an appropriate quotation, or a possible solution. It is important to include a strong conclusion; your paper should not just trail away at the very end.
  4. Check the layout of your paper. Does each point have its own paragraph? Are any of your paragraphs too long or too short? Are you satisfied with how each point flows into the next? Are you satisfied with the facts or pieces of information that support each point? Do any of them sound weak or unconvincing? You might decide that some material needs to be moved to a different section or that another sentence is needed. You might decide that some material needs to be cut or replaced with a different paragraph.
  5. Decide on a title. If you can choose your own title, it can help to write it after you have written your paper. For example, you might title a paper on the reliability of user-edited Web sites as "User-Edited Web Sites: A Reliable Resource?"
Copyedit and Proofread
  1. Read through your paper again. It is good practice to read it a day or two after you have finished writing it. Often, you will spot mistakes that you may not see if you read it as soon as you have finished writing it. Sometimes it can be helpful to have a parent or friend read through it, too.
  2. When copyediting and proofreading your paper, check your spelling and grammar. Do not rely on a computer's spell check to find mistakes! Spell check will not find all spelling and grammatical mistakes. For example, it will not differentiate between "their" and "there" or among "to," "too," and "two."
  3. Check your parenthetical citations or footnotes. Each time you quoted, paraphrased, or used someone else's ideas you should have included a parenthetical citation or footnote. Are these all complete?
  4. Check your Works Cited or References list. It should be complete; make sure that it lists sources mentioned in your paper. If you read a source but did not use it in your paper, make sure it is not in your works cited or references list.


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