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How to Write a Research Paper

You wouldn't jump into the deep end of a swimming pool without knowing how to swim, so don't do the same thing when you take on a research paper. Glide into the project by breaking it down into manageable chunks.

"It's a huge task. Without the steps, many writers would just freeze," says Lynn Burley, teaching assistant at Purdue University's Online Writing Lab (OWL). "Breaking it into steps helps keep one focused and offers little victories along the way to keep one motivated."

The 10 fundamental steps in the research paper process have been compared to building a house. Be aware that there's no one right way to write a research paper. You should consider the steps as a guide, then adapt things to meet your needs. Only you know what works for you.

The Architect's Job -- What you're going to build

This may sound like a stupid step because you already know that you're writing a research essay! But are you really? Do you even know what one is?

A research paper can be loosely defined as an essay which requires you to gather information from outside sources -- books, journal articles or interviews -- and incorporate them into your paper. If you're doing this, you're writing a research paper.

However, these papers come disguised in many forms -- from summaries to literature reviews to your own personal research studies. Research papers come in all shapes, sizes and forms!

If you don't understand what's involved in an assignment even a little bit, ask your instructor for clarification. You wouldn't want all your work to be for nothing.

The Architect's Idea -- What topic you're going to do it on

Before you can construct anything, you need to have an idea around which to build your research masterpiece.

Often this is taken care of when the instructor hands out sheets of possible topics. But if you're forced to go on your own, or don't like any of the choices you're given, your next step is to choose a topic on which to write.

Is there a particular subject area you're interested in? Have you recently heard something in class or read something in a textbook that piqued your curiosity? Is there something worth exploring that will help you with an upcoming exam or future course?

If these questions don't help you find a suitable subject, Muriel Harris of OWL recommends browsing through an index of topics such as the Library of Congress Subject Headings or the Readers' Guide to Periodical Literature or other such catalogues at your library.

Be sure to choose a topic worth arguing about -- a problem that is still controversial.

And remember that you should be writing with more than your professor in mind. You're writing with the intent that a reader is going to care about what you say because you took the effort to take a stand and support it with data.

Scoping Out the Area -- Getting general information about the topic

Before a construction crew builds a dream house, they've got to check the building site to see if it's suitable. You must do the same, but you head to the ibrary.

Go to the card catalog, computer database or Internet and enter in some keywords related to your subject. The idea is to get a sense of how many resources are available.

Scan through the appropriate books to get a sense of how your topic is being treated by scholars. A flip through the pages can also expose you to ideas related to your topic that might work better for you.

Once you've settled on a general subject area, you'll need to either broaden or narrow your topic. Let the amount of resources be your guide. If you only need eight to 10 references for your paper and there are 50 books, better narrow your subject. On the other hand, if, for instance, there are too few books, try widening your search.

Be aware that the popularity of a subject will affect your available resources. Choosing a topic that everyone in your class is doing is going to limit your resources. Be more original if you can: it might also be a refreshing change for your instructor!

The Tentative Blueprints -- Your first plan of attack

Architects don't build a house on a whim or on luck. They need to start by sketching out some preliminary plans. So does the student researcher. You'll need a working thesis statement and an outline.

Say you're writing a paper on the impact of pets on the quality of family life -- which is merely a topic. A thesis states an opinion on the issue. You might come up with a controversial argument like this: "Contrary to popular opinion, pets in a family environment create more tension and conflict in a home."

If you believe there's evidence to back it up, this seems a worthy argument -- considering so many millions of people own pets. You've passed the first test of worthiness. People would be interested in following your opinion on this issue.

So you've got a sketch of your thesis; what else do you need to know? Your first outline should include the main points or ideas that you want to find out more about to support your thesis.

What's the opinion of the effect of pets on people and why? What are psychological differences between families and single people? What kinds of pets are important here? What issues are involved in taking on a pet that might cause conflict? Have studies been done? These are the counter-arguments you'll have to address. A list of questions functions as an outline to help you focus your research and note-taking.

Instead of an outline, you may prefer combining the thesis and outline into a research proposal. Your proposal -- basically a paragraph that details what your plan of attack is -- should also identify your audience and the purpose of the paper. Are you supposed to explain? Argue? Analyse? Summarize important issues?

Gathering Outside Materials to Build the Framework -- Getting your resources and recording the information

You're building an essay and, so far, after checking out the construction site, you've got your purpose, idea, and initial blueprints. Now you need the lumber and the tools -- your resources.

Use the Internet to find up-to-date online sources. Try community records, government documents, or almanacs for statistics. Find real people who can be interviewed. All of these are valid resources.

The library is still the most popular venue for research, and with good reason. Here you have access to books, encyclopedias, dictionaries, handbooks, manuals, audio and video materials, magazines, literary publications, scholarly journals, newspapers, CD-ROMs, microfilm and microfiche, and online databases for easy searching.

Look for data that can help you with the questions you compiled in the previous step. If the resource is current (especially important in the sciences), or the author is an authority on the subject or has been mentioned in other texts, and if the resource is useful to you, then consider it a relevant resource.

Practice the art of skimming; don't read everything. Look out for key words, headings, tables of contents and indices that will point you toward the useful parts of the resource.

Once you've gathered a heap of helpful tools -- about twice as much as you think you'll need, just in case -- begin jotting down a bibliography.

Before you even take notes, neatly record all the bibliographical information (author, title, publisher, date of publication, volume) so you won't forget when it comes time to draft the paper. If you photocopy anything, don't cut off the page numbers. They can come in handy.

Whether you like using index cards or a laptop, there are a few things to keep in mind when taking notes:

  1. "Think of making notes instead of taking notes," advises Wendy Strachan, an English professor with the Center for Research in Professional and Academic Writing at Simon Fraser University. "A good way to do this is to construct 'gists,' where you write in your own words what you understand to be the meaning of a sentence or block of text."
  2. If you don't understand a particular resource, don't use it. You risk misinterpreting the information and undermining your argument.
  3. Special shorthand can help save time, but keep a legend of unusual abbreviations or symbols or else you might be confused come drafting time.
  4. Be careful to distinguish between background (facts you can assume your audience already knows), other facts, and finally, opinions.
  5. If ideas or reactions come to you while you're researching, make sure you keep your thoughts separate from your other notes.
  6. Use a variety of sources to give weight to your argument. In other words, don't depend heavily on one or two sources.
  7. Above all, keep it legible; you'll thank yourself later.

Shaping the Material to Meet Your Needs -- Incorporating sources into your plan

You've got your own views and now you also have outside sources to back them up. The trick is to integrate the two without plagiarizing.

Plagiarism is an academic crime. It's when you steal someone's ideas, opinions or wording without giving them the proper credit. It's when you pass off some, or all, of someone else's work as your own. If you have a good plan, it will never happen to you.

If you want to copy an exact phrase because the wording or writing style adds power to what you're saying, you may use a direct quote. You must use quotation marks around it and reference it properly at the end.

Don't make the mistake of using too many direct quotations because you're too lazy to paraphrase, or you think they get you off the thinking hook.

Getting Organized for Construction -- Refining and evaluating your preliminary work

You're almost ready to become the contractor who's going to building your dream . . . essay. But you still need to do a bit of organizational work before you put pen to paper or fingers to keyboard.

Most experts recommend that you compose a detailed outline of what your essay is going to look like. The better your outline is at telling you how your paper will be organized, the better and faster your drafting time will be.

To compose an effective outline, organize your notes. Select relevant notes and group similar concepts together to form paragraphs. If you like putting notes on index cards, then shuffle them around to achieve the best order of ideas. This can also be done on paper -- using arrows and labels so you know the sequence.

Once you have a sequence of concepts, you may find that some sections are strong where others are weak. Or, after examining your thesis, you may realize some modifications are necessary and more research too. Make changes to get topic, thesis and relevant sub-points acting coherently.

Re-evaluate your thesis. If your thesis doesn't work, your paper won't hold together very well.

The Basic Structure is Up -- The first draft

Plans become action as 2 x 4s are laid down, drywall goes up, and the house takes shape. For you, construction means gathering your abstract ideas and concrete details and linking all the pieces together with flowing prose.

Writing takes patience, perseverance and practice. But if you have a thesis and outline that you're confident about, you shouldn't feel lost.

If you get stuck, try brainstorming to bring key ideas to the forefront of your mental desktop. Then, maybe a little free writing -- where you just let your pen ponder your topic for 10 minutes -- will get the creative juices flowing.

Remember, you're mainly concerned with content and getting your point across in the best way in the right order. Don't worry about surface details like grammar or spelling. Just write!

Renovation and Home Improvements -- Revision, editing and rewriting

The resulting structure is starting to look like a building and not just a junkyard. But there are a few rough spots and some windows are missing. It's revision time.

Revision is just that -- re-vision -- looking at your work a second, third or fourth time, each time with a critical eye for places that need improvement or further elaboration.

If you haven't written an introduction or conclusion that will put your paper in a larger context, work on that now.

How about the clarity of what you've written? Would a reader understand what you're getting at without having to reread? Remember you won't be there to say "This is what I meant." Your writing should speak for itself. Ask some friends to read your paper and give you objective feedback on what works and what doesn't.

How about the flow and movement of ideas? Do you move from more abstract, general ideas down to supporting examples and back up again? Are there transitions between paragraphs and sentences so that a reader knows -- and doesn't have to assume -- the connections between ideas?

Let the draft sit for a day and come back to it. Read it aloud. If something sounds puzzling or awkward to you, then change it since it will probably sound strange to other readers as well! Polish, polish, polish, until things start to feel right.

Landscaping and Design -- Final proofreading touches

Plans become action as 2 x 4s are laid down, drywall goes up, and the house takes shape. For you, construction means gathering your abstract ideas and concrete details and linking all the pieces together with flowing prose.

Writing takes patience, perseverance and practice. But if you have a thesis and outline that you're confident about, you shouldn't feel lost.

If you get stuck, try brainstorming to bring key ideas to the forefront of your mental desktop. Then, maybe a little free writing -- where you just let your pen ponder your topic for 10 minutes -- will get the creative juices flowing.

Remember, you're mainly concerned with content and getting your point across in the best way in the right order. Don't worry about surface details like grammar or spelling. Just write!