The process for writing a research paper can be broken down into four manageable phases.
Phase 1: Searching for a Topic and for Sources
Arriving at a topic can be a difficult process, if the choice is left to you. Since you will be putting much effort and time into this paper, choose a topic that interests you. Once you pick a topic that interests you, more often than not, you will have to do some preliminary research before you decide on a specific topic. For example, you need to find out:
1. what the scope of the subject is
2. what information is available (ask the librarian about an interlibrary loan if Simpson’s library does not contain the information you need)
3. whether you can find the information in the required time, and
4. whether the time required to explore the subject adequately and write your paper corresponds to the time you have.
In addition to choosing a topic that interests you and finding out which sources are available on that topic, it is also important to choose a topic that is not too big, but that is also not too narrow. For example, it would be very difficult to write a three-page paper on World War II. People have written volumes and volumes on World War II – it is too big a topic to cover in such a short paper.
In contrast, it might be difficult to write a ten-page paper on paper clips. There may not be enough information about paper clips to fill up ten pages effectively. Therefore, make sure you keep in mind the appropriateness of your topic in relationship to the length of your paper.
After you have decided on a topic and done some research to explore your topic, skim through your sources and develop a rough thesis statement (a rough idea of what you will prove in your paper). This thesis statement will guide you in finding information in your sources that is relevant to your paper. Be ready to revise your thesis statement as you continue to research various materials. Once you have a rough thesis statement, you can also jot down some ideas about what the different subtopics of your paper will be.
Phase 2: Reading Sources and Reaching Conclusions
After you have constructed a reasonable thesis statement and have attained a sufficient number of sources, you will then be able to take notes using your sources that will relate to the thesis statement of your paper and your various subtopics. Again, your thesis is apt to change with further research. When you have completed your research, make sure your thesis statement reflects the full scope of your research paper.
Note: Keep in mind that not all sources provide high quality information. Don’t believe everything you read in your sources (including everything you see on web pages!); instead try to determine (by learning about the author’s background, the publisher, etc.) whether or not the source is providing valid information. If you are unsure about whether a source is providing valid information, ask a librarian for assistance.
Phase 3: Writing the paper
Using a rough preliminary outline as a guide, arrange your notes into a sensible order. Create a more precise statement of your thesis. Revise your outline as you go so you have a visual representation of your paper’s organizational structure to work from.
As you begin to write using your outline, remember that writing a research paper is a lengthy process. It is not something that can be done overnight. Allow yourself enough time to construct at least three drafts: (1) a rough version, concentrating on the flow of thought; (2) a first version, reorganizing the paper and improving the style, and (3) a second version, eliminating all mechanical errors. You may also want to ask a friend to look over your paper for you for errors. After you have worked with a paper for a great length of time, it is easy to overlook mistakes.
Phase 4: Preparing the Final Draft
Following the correct structural format, prepare the list of works cited (or bibliography), showing all the sources that contributed information to the paper (books, periodicals, interviews, television productions, etc.). The format of your bibliography will depend upon which form of citation you are required to use (MLA, APA, or Turabian). You also need to make sure that you are citing information within your paper correctly. If you are unsure about which form of citation is required for your paper, ask your professor. For more information about these different citation methods, pick up the free handouts available at the Hawley Academic Resource Center or downstairs in Dunn Library.
Note: After you have looked over your paper for mechanical errors and created a works cited page, it is often a good idea to make two copies of your paper, one for your professors and one for yourself. This will safeguard you in case of accidental loss. You may also want to save your paper on more than one disk to safeguard against computer viruses or crashes.
Once students have chosen a topic for a research paper, have researched their topic, and have begun writing, their next concern is often how to cite the information that they want to use within their paper. The most important thing to remember about citing sources is that you must give credit to the sources you are usingwhether you are taking the information word-for-word (a direct quote) or just paraphrasing (putting the information in your own words for an indirect quote). You also need to provide the proper citation when you are summarizing information from an outside source (stating in your own words information from a source briefly but concisely).
Another important part of citing sources is to be aware of when you are over-using outside information in your writing. For example, some students write papers in which almost every sentence is a direct or an indirect quote. There is nothing in a paper like this that is contributed by the student. The point of a research paper is not just to provide a lot of information through outside sources, but to analyze that information and comment upon it. You need to include your own opinions, observations, and analysis in your research papers; otherwise, there would be no point in someone reading your paper – he or she could just go to your outside sources and get the same information.
To stop yourself from over-using outside sources, keep this simple rule of thumb in mind: For every line of a direct or indirect quote that you use, have at least one line of your own commentary or analysis regarding that quote. For example, if you have a quote that is three lines long, have at least three lines of your own writing in which you comment on that quote. This way the reader knows (A) that you understand what the quote means and (B) that you are using the quote for a reason, not just to take up space.