Writing a Research Paper

Picking up from my final post in May, I shall continue with the theme of nonfiction writing this month, beginning with the humble old research paper.

The arch nemesis of many a student (and numerous professionals as well), research papers are a fact of life that just about everyone has to deal with sooner or later. Therefore, it’s only fitting that I devote a few words to the subject. Hopefully by the end of this, you will find the task of writing these annoying but useful works a tad easier–or at the very least, not as daunting.

Step 1: Choose a topic

The first step in writing a decent research paper is, rather obviously, to select the topic you intend to look into. Sometimes it will be chosen for you, in which case you need only pray it’s not too incredibly boring and move on to step 2. There are occasions, however, when you are given some flexibility as to what your subject matter will be. In these cases, it is probably best to select something that has at least a modicum of genuine interest for you, otherwise the task is going to be arduous at best or impossible at worst. On rare occasions, you may be given free range to research anything you want, which is a joy for some and a nightmare for others. If you’re in the latter category, then you might consider creating your own parameters with which to narrow down the options.

Another consideration to bear in mind is how much research has already been done on a particular subject. If there’s lots of material to work with, you’re probably going to have an easier time of it. If, however, it’s a newer or more marginal topic with very few available references, you may want to reconsider. If you’re really enthusiastic and you have the means, you’re free to conduct your own studies in the area, of course. But bear in mind that such a move will take time that you may or may not have.

Step 2: Research

It should go without saying, but research papers are going to involve a heavy amount of research. This can be the most tedious stage for many, though those who have chosen their topics well will most certainly have an easier time of it. As stated previously, it’s sometimes possible to conduct your own studies in a particular field, but even in this case it’s a good idea to look into what’s been done before, and use that as a basis for your own work. In the majority of cases, however, this will be highly impracticable, and so the best course of action will be to take what you need from what is already available.

As a result of the often immense amounts of reading required, this is also likely to be the most time-consuming part of your project, so it’s good to get started right away. As soon as you have your topic, start identifying sources you can use to look into it. Naturally, you won’t have time to look into absolutely everything that’s been done on 99% of topics, so it’s also important that you choose quality sources to review. This means selecting sources that are reliable, informative, and ideally not too long.

For instance, reading a hundred elementary school texts on gray wolves isn’t likely to be very information-heavy. On the other hand, gaining an encyclopedic knowledge isn’t going to be helpful if it leaves you no time to actually write your report. Just gather enough info to satisfy the requirements for your project, and maybe a little more if you’re interested. Also, be sure to choose sources that aren’t beyond your level of comprehension: It won’t do any good to read an entire medical dictionary if you don’t know what half the terms mean by the time you’re finished.

Websites can be a tricky one as well. You can usually rely on sites ending in .edu or .gov (assuming you trust your government, that is). .org sites can be dubious at times, but are supposed to be created by groups who have a dedicated interest in that subject, and so can usually be trusted, especially if they have a number of reliable sources cited in their material as well. If nothing else, they may be good gateways to other, more definite sources. Be very cautious about sites ending in .net or .com–the former can be a toss-up on quality, and the latter are usually trying to sell something.

The number of sources you use is entirely up to you. Different papers will have a set minimum you want to reach, of course, but which sources make up that total will be your call.

Whatever you do, be sure to keep track of what information came from which sources. Use notecards to help with this, if you so desire, but don’t mix up sources. This will help you avoid sticky situations in both academic and legal spheres.

Step 3: Write the Paper

Once you’ve done all the hard work, writing the paper itself is just the standard task of recapitulating the information you found in a concise but thorough manner. You’ll want to conform to the guidelines set by the person(s) who assigned you your research project in the first place, of course (correct spacing, font, format, etc.). Otherwise, this step is pretty much the same as it is for writing anything. If you use in-text citations, be sure to mark them as you go so you don’t have to go back and find places to insert them later. Include a comprehensive list of all the books, websites, etc. you used at the end of your paper on a separate “Works Cited” or “Bibliography” page.

Once you have completed the rough draft, you’ll want to let it sit for a while before coming back to it (or better yet, have somebody else look at it and give you his/her opinion). The longer you wait, the fresher your perspective will be, but of course, you won’t want to wait too long where deadlines are involved.

That’s about it. Choose your topic and sources well, cite your sources thoroughly, and don’t procrastinate. Follow these simple guidelines, and you should have a mighty fine paper indeed. Or at least one that will earn you a passing grade.

Published by J. S. Allen

J. S. Allen is a writer, linguist, historian, and nature-lover from Kansas City, Missouri. He is the author of the young adult series Sauragia and Knights of Aralia, as well as the 'Woodland Tales' anthology for children. Several of his shorter works have also appeared in various print and online periodicals over the years. In between writing and publishing, he likes to draw, spend long hours outdoors, and read. His favorite authors include M. I. McAllister, Brian Jacques, and Alexandre Dumas.

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