A college research paper requires a more abstract, critical, and thoughtful level of inquiry than what you are probably accustomed to.
Your professor may hand out sheets of possible topics or actual thesis statements to defend. You may be able to approach your instructor with a topic idea that exists at the same level as the suggested topics. You may be forced to do this if you are given few guidelines. Some instructors give students a word count and a deadline with little direction on subject matter. You may get frustrated from the beginning if you feel you don’t have any knowledge or authority about your subject. Have faith in your own abilities. Nobody expects you to be an expert.
Start by jotting down anything that comes to mind about your assigned or chosen topic. Do not edit your ideas. You are looking for related concepts, associations, and connections.
After you’ve come up with a clearer idea of your topic, do some preliminary research. This will help to refine your topic. You are looking to see if there is sufficient information available about your topic to write your paper. If you find a great deal of information, you may need to narrow your topic. If you find very little information, you may need to broaden your topic.
You should now have enough information to write your thesis statement. Determine what kind of paper you are writing. An analytical paper breaks down an idea into its component parts, evaluates the idea, and presents this breakdown and evaluation to your audience. An expository (explanatory) paper explains something to your audience. An argumentative paper makes a claim and justifies the claim with specific evidence. A thesis statement should be specific, covering only what you will discuss. It should be supported with evidence. The thesis statement usually appears at the end of your first paragraph. If your topic changes as you write, you may need to revise your thesis statement to reflect what you have discussed in your paper.
It is now time to research your topic more thoroughly. There are two types of research – primary and secondary. Primary research is an original document that stands on its own. Secondary research is an interpretation of primary research.
To research a primary source, look for information that supports your topic or argument. Note any contradictory evidence you find. You’ll either need to acknowledge these contradictions or revise your thesis based on them.
Secondary-source research usually begins at the library. If appropriate, start with a book search. Most colleges have online library catalogs. When you find a book of interest, write down the call number. Use this number to locate the book in the library. Scan the books found nearby. You might find additional relevant material. Check the bibliography of the book for additional resources.
Journal articles can also be a valuable resource. Journals go into greater depth and target a more specific audience than magazines. Your focus should be on academic journals. Some journals can be found online – check with your library to see which ones they offer. Keep in mind that journals usually can’t be removed from the library. If your library doesn’t subscribe to a journal you need, talk to the reference librarian about an interlibrary loan. Articles can usually be faxed in less than a week from other libraries.
The internet is another great resource, but should be used carefully. Anyone can post information to the internet. This brings up questions of authority and validity. Look for information from government sources, professional associations, large organizations, and academic institutions.
It’s now time to critically analyze the information you’ve gathered. Structure, purpose, audience, and author are four important things to pay attention to.
If you are analyzing the structure of a book, look at the table of contents. Is anything obviously missing? Skim the preface or introduction to establish context and to determine the author’s intent. Glance at any appendices, tables, diagrams, and figures. Look at the topics listed in the index. If you are analyzing a journal article, read the abstract for a summary. If the abstract seems to address your thesis, then read the introduction or background. Finally, check the conclusions or discussions. If you can see clearly that the author answered the research question and supported the thesis, go back and read the article thoroughly.
Read the title ad first few paragraphs. What is the author trying to convey? Is there a bias? Look at the publisher or affiliations of the author. Does the author have a vested interest in swaying you one way or another? Authors should be upfront about any platform they take in their writing.
Who is the intended audience? Look at stylistic choices such as diction and tone. Are there a lot of technical words? Look them up if there are. Ask yourself why the audience would be reading the text?
Who is the author? Have you come across their name before? Scholarly presence is one way to establish authority. Education and expertise can also establish authority. Is the author affiliated with a reputable academic institution? Is the author considered knowledgeable? Is the author respected?
You can now start taking notes on your research sources. Write down anything pertinent that will support your thesis statement. Remember, you will probably not use all of your notes. It’s a good idea to document one or two key sources when taking notes. Using a variety of sources will give weight to your argument, broaden your understanding of the topic, and demonstrate the thoroughness of your research. Record all of the necessary bibliographic information you’ll need for citations – author, title, editor, edition number, publisher, city of publication, year of publication, issue number, volume, and page numbers.
You can outline your paper after taking notes. Outlining provides a structure for what you need to say and where.
Use your outline to write a first draft. You are not expected to come up with a polished paper at this point. It can be as rough as you want it to be. After several papers, this part will get easier and faster. Let your final draft sit for a few days and then look at it with a critical eye. Note what works and what doesn’t work. Revise your paper at this time. Remember that revision is not proofreading. Revision deals with content issues while proofreading deals with surface details and presentation. Ask yourself the following questions during the revision process:
After making your revisions, it is time to proofread your paper. Focus on copyediting, not content. Some things to check include:
It is important that your work is your own. Plagiarism is the uncredited use of somebody else’s words or ideas. This can be an intentional or unintentional act. American academic culture insists that you document your sources for words, images, sounds, ideas, etc. Plagiarism is a serious charge with severe consequences. Every school has an established policy on plagiarism. Understand your school’s policy.
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