What is a Research Paper?
"Research paper." What image comes into mind as you hear those words: working with stacks of articles and books, hunting the "treasure" of others' thoughts? Whatever image you create, it's a sure bet that you're envisioning sources of information--articles, books, people, artworks. Yet a research paper is more than the sum of your sources, more than a collection of different pieces of information about a topic, and more than a review of the literature in a field. A research paper analyzes a perspective or argues a point. Regardless of the type of research paper you are writing, your finished research paper should present your own thinking backed up by others' ideas and information.
To draw a parallel, a lawyer researches and reads about many cases and uses them to support their own case. A scientist reads many case studies to support an idea about a scientific principle. In the same way, a history student writing about the Vietnam War might read newspaper articles and books and interview veterans to develop and/or confirm a viewpoint and support it with evidence.
A research paper is an expanded essay that presents your own interpretation or evaluation or argument. When you write an essay, you use everything that you personally know and have thought about a subject. When you write a research paper you build upon what you know about the subject and make a deliberate attempt to find out what experts know. A research paper involves surveying a field of knowledge in order to find the best possible information in that field. And that survey can be orderly and focused, if you know how to approach it. Don't worry--you won't get lost in a sea of sources.
In fact, this guide is designed to help you navigate the research voyage, through developing a research question and thesis, doing the research, writing the paper, and correctly documenting your sources.
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The Process of Writing An English Research Paper
(printable version here)
1. Choosing an Area of Focus
One of the most important steps in the process of writing a research paper for the English discipline is choosing an interesting, engaging topic. An instructor may offer students a range of topics from which to choose or allow students to choose their own areas of focus. If the teacher does provide a list of possible topics, students may respond by feeling either reassured or stifled by the narrowed topic choices. If you find yourself feeling stifled or have a specific interest in another topic not listed, approach your teacher and express your reservations. He or she may very likely allow you to investigate a topic not on the list. If the instructor does not offer a list of topics and you are having difficulty choosing your own, consider adressing the teacher for more guidance. Most importantly, take your time and don't feel rushed to choose a specific topic.
- Your choice of topic will influence both the effort you invest in your research and the degree to which you enjoy the process.
- Choose a topic you find challenging and interesting. Don't shy away from controversial topics. Be aware of how much research is available on your topic of choice. Although it is important to offer readers a new interpretation or perspective of the work under investigation, you need not be deterred if your area of focus is widely discussed. It is useful to learn how to incorporate the insights and ideas of other scholars within your own personal findings.
- Before narrowing your focus to a specific claim or interpretation, conduct research in order to gain an understanding of what other individuals have said about the topic. Most students find it useful to examine a wide range of sources before deciding on a specific area of focus.
- Select a topic you feel equipped to handle. Avoid topics that are: (1) too general- try to be specific about what you seek to investigate, (2) too specialized- remain mindful of the preexisting knowledge you possess, in choosing an overly specialized topic you may find you are not qualified to discuss some of the material, (3) not worth arguing- a reasearch paper should always make some sort of central claim and your topic should therefore enable you to make a clear, concise claim.
2. Seeking Instructor Guidance
Before beginning in-depth research, consult your instructor. He or she may be knowledgeable about the research available on your topic and different scholars you may be interested in investigating. In addition, your instructor may well suggest your topic is too general or specialized and be able to aid you in the process of refining or reworking your topic of choice.
3. Conducting Research
This is perhaps the most important step in the research paper writing process. Your research not only provides you ethos as a writer by revealing your knowledge and understanding of the topic, but also will very likely shape both your understanding and interpretation of the topic. Listed below are several important tips for conducting research and notetaking:
- In order to avoid later confusion, begin each section by recording the author's name, book or article title, and page numbers (if relevant).
- As you examine each source, record important or unique notions which you may wish to incorporate within your paper. Make certain to outline the general arguments of each source by including a descriptive heading after the citation. This will aid you in more quickly and easily distinguishing between sources in the future. Additionally, it may be useful to group sources into categories based on more refined topics.
- In order to diminish the risk of plagiarizing, do NOT directly lift phrasing or entire segments of the text from sources without properly indicating that you have done so. If you find it necessary to directly quote an author, clearly indicate what has been copied from the author and record the page number on which this information can be found.
- Remain critical of your sources: Do not assume that an idea or criticism is valid, because it appears in the argument of a single critic or even multiple critics. It is important to remain criticial of your sources and their interpretations. Additionally, it is not necessary to exclude a source with whom you disagree. Recognizing and reflecting on claims in opposition to your own both strengthens and substantiates your own interpretation.
- There are a wide range of potential sources available to researchers, but not all sources are created equal. In order to ensure your sources are of a high quality, seek sources from respected academic journals and books. It is possible to find valid sources outside of these perameters, however, you should primarily focus on using these resources. The Research References section at the bottom of the page contains links to helpful databases.
4. Creating a Tentative Thesis
After rereading your notes and reflecting on the topic, formulate a tentative one-sentence thesis. A thesis states your stance on a specific issue regarding the text. The remainder of your essay should expand upon and strengthen your primary claim or interpretation. Note that this claim need not refute other literary scholarship; however, this claim should either shed light or extrapolate upon an existing interpretation or offer a new interpretation. It should not consist of the writer merely restating the claims of other authors. Refer tothe Writer's Web page on the thesis for guidance in constructing a clear, well-formulated thesis .
An initial thesis should be tentative. Remain willing to change your thesis throughout the writing process. You may very likely end with a thesis quite distinctive from your initial thesis. If this is the case, be certain to revisit your paper in order to ensure that this transition in opinion is not inapproriately evident. Leading the reader through your thought process is not problematic, but a conclusion in opposition to your initial thoughts is.
5. Constructing a Comprehensive Outline
The primary purpose of an outline is to help the writer reflect on his or her research/interpretation and to create an organized (and tentative) vision of the research paper. An organized, fluid outline is the start of any good research paper. It aids the writer in constructing a paper which logically proceeds from one related point to the next. An outline should consist of three primary headings--the Introduction, Body, and Conclusion--as well as a number of subheadings regarding more specific categories of discussion.
Look at this example of a model outline; note that all outlines need not follow this exact format--this is merely an example which one may tailor to one's own personal needs. Also see the Writer's Web page on creating outlines.
6. Organizing Research
Analyze, sythnesize, and organize research according to your outline. Research should proceed sequentially in accordance with your tentantive outline.
It may be helfpful to include an additional means of indicating specific subcategories discussed by different authors. For example, you may choose to highlight all discussion of Lady Macbeth in a specific color; as a result, your notes will be organized both by author and specific subcategories.
Some research may prove irrelevant to your topic and should therefore be excluded. If you find yourself strugging with specific notions set forth by an author, it is likely in your best interest to either seek faculty help or exclude such materials. This is also an opportunity to juxtapose the views of different authors in order to guage the efficacy and validity of specific interpretations.
7. Writing Your Research Paper
Once you have created a compehensive outline and organized your research, it is time to begin writing your research paper. Begin by writing a first draft, taking time away from your work, and then revisiting it a day or two later. A first draft is simply a jumping off point--remain willing to rework your ideas, reorganize the structure/flow, and reassess your claims. Refer to the Writer's Web pages on using sources for guidance on how to use sources effectively. Consider taking this draft to the Writing Center to have a second pair of eyes examine it, as it is very common for writers to fail to recognize their own errors. Before submitting, make certain you have completed the following checklist:
- Is your thesis clear and precise?
- Does your argument flow logically from one point to the next?
- Does each new paragraph begin with a topic sentence which links it logically with the preceding paragraph?
- Are all your sources clearly cited? Is source information included within your text on the page numbers you have cited?
- Are all your outside sources ethically cited? Have excluded any sources or directly quoted from a source without including quotation marks/the page number on which this information was found?
- Have you quoted source accurately, including correct punctuation and spelling?
- Are citations in the correct format (i.e. APA, MLA, Chicago Style- different teachers demand different formats, MLA is the most commonly accepted format for the English discipline)
- Are your claims properly supported with outside research findings?
- Have you recognized and discussed opinions in opposition to your own?
- Is the overall intent or purpose of your research paper clear?
- Have you thorougly revised and edited your paper?
As Hjortshoj notes in The Transition to College Writing, "In general, teachers view the typical student paper to be comparable to a rough draft that needs further thought, development, revision, and editing" (57). Most teachers stress the revision stage as one of the most important stages in the research paper writing process. Provide yourself ample time to properly and thoroughly review and edit your paper. Consider making an appointment to take your paper to the Writing Center. A consultant can adivse you on the clarity and overall strength of your paper, along with other integral shortcomings.
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