Books Writing College Research Papers

1. How do I pick a topic?
2. But I can't find any material...
3. Help! How do I put this together? Research Guide and Writing Guide

See also Robert Pearce's How to Write a Good History Essay 

1. How do I pick a topic?

Picking a topic is perhaps the most important step in writing a research paper. To do it well requires several steps of refinement. First you have to determine a general area in which you have an interest (if you aren't interested, your readers won't be either). You do not write a paper "about the Civil War," however, for that is such a large and vague concept that the paper will be too shallow or you will be swamped with information. The next step is to narrow your topic. Are you interested in comparison? battles? social change? politics? causes? biography? Once you reach this stage try to formulate your research topic as a question. For example, suppose that you decide to write a paper on the use of the films of the 1930's and what they can tell historians about the Great Depression. You might turn that into the following question: "What are the primary values expressed in films of the 1930's?" Or you might ask a quite different question, "What is the standard of living portrayed in films of the 1930's?" There are other questions, of course, which you could have asked, but these two clearly illustrate how different two papers on the same general subject might be. By asking yourself a question as a means of starting research on a topic you will help yourself find the answers. You also open the door to loading the evidence one way or another. It will help you decide what kinds of evidence might be pertinent to your question, and it can also twist perceptions of a topic. For example, if you ask a question about economics as motivation, you are not likely to learn much about ideals, and vice versa.

2. But I can't find any material...

No one should pick a topic without trying to figure out how one could discover pertinent information, nor should anyone settle on a topic before getting some background information about the general area. These two checks should make sure your paper is in the realm of the possible. The trick of good research is detective work and imaginative thinking on how one can find information. First try to figure out what kinds of things you should know about a topic to answer your research question. Are there statistics? Do you need personal letters? What background information should be included? Then if you do not know how to find that particular kind of information, ASK. A reference librarian or professor is much more likely to be able to steer you to the right sources if you can ask a specific question such as "Where can I find statistics on the number of interracial marriages?" than if you say "What can you find on racial attitudes?"

Use the footnotes and bibliographies of general background books as well as reference aids to lead you to special studies. If Carleton does not have the books or sources you need, try ordering through the library minitex. Many sources are also available on-line.

As your research paper takes shape you will find that you need background on people, places, events, etc. Do not just rely on some general survey for all of your background. Check the several good dictionaries of biography for background on people, or see if there is a standard book-length biography. If you are dealing with a legal matter check into the background of the judges who make the court decision and the circumstances surrounding the original incident or law. Try looking for public opinions in newspapers of the time. In other words, each bit of information you find should open the possibility of other research paths.

Learn to use several research techniques. You cannot count on a good research paper coming from browsing on one shelf at the library. A really pertinent book may be hidden in another section of the library due to classification quirks. The Readers' Guide (Ref. A13 .R4) is not the only source for magazine articles, nor the card catalog for books. There are whole books which are listings of other books on particular topics. There are specialized indexes of magazine articles. Modern History Journals are indexed in the Social Studies and Humanities Index (Ref. A13 .R282) before 1976 After 1976 use the Social Sciences Index (REF A13 .S62) and the Humanities Index (Ref. A13 .H85). See also Historical Abstracts (Ref. D1 .H5). Reference Librarians would love to help you learn to use these research tools. It pays to browse in the reference room at the library and poke into the guides which are on the shelves. It also pays to browse the Internet.

3. Help! How do I put this together?

A. Research Guide
B. Writing Guide


A. Preliminary Research:
If you do not already have a general background on your topic, get the most recent good general source on the topic and read it for general orientation. On the basis of that reading formulate as clearly focused question as you can. You should generally discuss with your professor at that point whether your question is a feasible one.

B. Building a Basic Bibliography:
Use the bibliography/notes in your first general source, MUSE, and especially Historical Abstracts on cd-rom in the Library Reading Room (the computer farthest to the left in the front row as you walk past the Reference Desk - or ask there). If there is a specialized bibliography on your topic, you will certainly want to consult that as well, but these are often a bit dated.

C. Building a Full Bibliography:
Read the recent articles or chapters that seem to focus on your topic best. This will allow you to focus your research question quite a bit. Use the sources cited and/or discussed in this reading to build a full bibliography. Use such tools as Historical Abstracts (or, depending on your topic, the abstracts from a different field) and a large, convenient computer-based national library catalog (e.g. the University of California system from the "Libs" command in your VAX account or the smaller University of Minnesota library through MUSE) to check out your sources fully. For specific article searches "Uncover" (press returns for the "open access") or possibly (less likely for history) "First Search" through "Connect to Other Resources" in MUSE can also be useful.

D. Major Research:
Now do the bulk of your research. But do not overdo it. Do not fall into the trap of reading and reading to avoid getting started on the writing. After you have the bulk of information you might need, start writing. You can fill in the smaller gaps of your research more effectively later.


A. Outline:
Write a preliminary thesis statement, expressing what you believe your major argument(s) will be. Sketch out a broad outline that indicates the structure - main points and subpoints or your argument as it seems at this time. Do not get too detailed at this point.

B. The First Draft:
On the basis of this thesis statement and outline, start writing, even pieces, as soon as you have enough information to start. Do not wait until you have filled all the research gaps. Keep on writing. If you run into smaller research questions just mark the text with a searchable symbol. It is important that you try to get to the end point of this writing as soon as possible, even if you leave pieces still in outline form at first and then fill the gaps after you get to the end.

Critical advice for larger papers:
It is often more effective not to start at the point where the beginning of your paper will be. Especially the introductory paragraph is often best left until later, when you feel ready and inspired.

C. The Second Draft:
The "second draft" is a fully re-thought and rewritten version of your paper. It is at the heart of the writing process.

First, lay your first draft aside for a day or so to gain distance from it. After that break, read it over with a critical eye as you would somebody else's paper (well, almost!). You will probably find that your first draft is still quite descriptive, rather than argumentative. It is likely to wander; your perspective and usually even the thesis seemed to change/develop as you wrote. Don't despair. That is perfectly normal even for experienced writers (even after 40 years and a good deal of published work!). You will be frustrated. But keep questioning your paper along the following lines: What precisely are my key questions? What parts of my evidence here are really pertinent to those questions (that is, does it help me answer them)? How or in what order can I structure my paper most effectively to answer those questions most clearly and efficiently for my reader?

At this point you must outline your paper freshly. Mark up your first draft, ask tough questions whether your argument is clear and whether the order in which you present your points is effective! You must write conceptually a new paper at this point, even if you can use paragraphs and especially quotes, factual data in the new draft.

It is critical that in your new draft your paragraphs start with topic sentences that identify the argument you will be making in the particular paragraph (sometimes this can be strings of two or three paragraphs). The individual steps in your argument must be clearly reflected in the topic sentences of your paragraphs (or a couple of them linked).

D. The Third or Final Draft:
You are now ready to check for basic rules of good writing. This is when you need to check the diction, that is, the accuracy and suitability of words. Eliminate unnecessary passive or awkward noun constructions (active-voice, verbal constructions are usually more effective); improve the flow of your transitions; avoid repetitions or split infinitives; correct apostrophes in possessives and such. Make the style clear and smooth. Check that the start of your paper is interesting for the reader. Last but not least, cut out unnecessary verbiage and wordiness. Spell-check and proof-read.

--Diethelm Prowe, 1998




Chapter One


You clipped your fingernails, You cleaned your room. You even subjected yourself to watching The View.

At some point, even the staunchest of procrastinators has no choice but to fire up the computer and knock out that ten-page assignment,

The actual process of writing a paper is almost never as daunting a task as it appears at the outset, The hard part is getting started. A blank page can be far more intimidating than the actual paper assignment.

As for getting started -- often the most difficult thing for a writer-there is one piece of Information that has always made my writing process easier: No matter how long you've been writing, It never really gets any easier. I have been writing full time for nearly 10 years and I sweat blood every single time I sit down in front of a blank page to begin a story. But somehow, knowing that many writers, no matter how seasoned, face this same dilemma makes me feel better
-- Jordan Smith, freelance writer, master's candidate at the University of Texas -- Austin

FINDING A TOPIC (or Without a Purpose Your Paper Is Worthless)

The first, but by no means the easiest, task in front of the paper writer is to select a topic for the future masterpiece. If the subject of the paper is assigned by the professor, this shouldn't be a head-scratcher. Read the question and see what it tells you to do. Professors vary in the amount of direction they give. Some will give guidelines, while others prefer that the student think of a topic independently.

Read the essay assignment. You wouldn't believe how many times I've written on the wrong subject or forgotten key aspects of an essay.
-- Brad Olson, Harvard, government major

When students are asked to write a response to a multipart question, they often fail to address all the parts in their response.
-- Lynn Marie Hoffman, Professor of Education, Bucknell University

Really read the question, several times. Scrutinize it, comprehend it, interpret it. Look for those key words that tell you what the professor's looking for. Does it say argue or analyze? (See below for the difference.) How about: criticize, define, describe, discuss, evaluate, explain, reflect on, or summarize?

If the professor's a nice person, he or she might throw you some bones -- hints as to what to include, specific topics, that sort of thing. Write those down right away so they'll make it into your outline.

If you have a choice on topics, pick one that truly interests you. Not only will it not seem like as much work, but you will accomplish the goal of the paper: You will learn.
-- Susan Reynolds, American studies major/art history minor

You and this topic are going to be spending a lot of time together, so you want to be sure you get along well. Remember that time you decided to drive across the country with a "buddy" you wanted to kill about three days into the trip? No? Well neither do we, but you get the idea.

I would not like students to get the idea that clear writing is something that can be grafted on to sloppy thinking. Clear writing comes after, or during, the process of clear thinking.
-- Roger Brockett, An Wang Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, Harvard University

Drawing a Blank

If nothing comes immediately to mind, think way back to the beginning of the semester. There's probably a particular reason you decided to take the course in the first place.

If you're having a hard time coming up with a good topic, gripe about it periodically. Sounds stupid, but it helps keep the subject bubbling away on a back burner, which means you may actually come up with something good.
-- Becky Cary, Princeton University, molecular biology major

Maybe you have an interest that you could turn into a decent paper topic. If the only reason you decided to take the course in the first place was because it only had one paper and no final, you're going to have to dig a bit deeper.

Never, ever, write the story about a college student waking in either a fraternity or sorority house, or a shabby apartment, hung over or strung out, and recalling that he or she had unprotected sex the night before. Write no stories about freshman mixers or last year's high school dance; this injunction includes the one about the parental car that was borrowed without permission, as well as the damage done to it before it was returned. Try not to pay homage to a parent for bailing you out when you were arrested for some combination of the elements referred to above. All stories about high school friends killed or wounded in vehicular accidents should be written only after the junior year. Make something up (and find out how true it is). Make us worry. Make us wonder. Make us want to read the rest.
-- Frederick Busch, Fairchild Professor of Literature, Colgate University

Check out the notes you've taken (you did go to lectures, didn't you?) and look for thought-provoking, paper-friendly themes. Find something you discussed in class that could be expanded into a paper. Or even ask your instructor or TA.

Another good idea is to make sure you know exactly what criteria the professor is using to grade your paper. While we don't condone carefully tailoring your paper to pander to the lecturer, it is important to figure out what style your prof is looking for. Would he or she rather see a ton of research or a compilation of original thoughts? Knowing such basic criteria will give you a good idea of where you're headed.

All of this seems really obvious, but it's crucial and too often overlooked. If you start out writing the wrong kind of paper, you're going to finish the wrong kind of paper and (most likely) hand it in.

Classifying Your Topic

In the course of narrowing down your topic, you're also going to place your paper into one of two general categories: analytical or argumentative. An analytical paper takes facts and examples and uses them to analyze a subject, while an argumentative paper uses facts to try to convince the audience of a particular viewpoint. Deciding which type of paper you're writing will help you determine your purpose: If you know you're writing an argumentative paper, it's merely a matter of picking what it is that you want to argue about.

Let's look at the two in more detail.

An*a*lyze (v.t.) 1. Separate into its elements; determine the constituents of. 2. Examine critically.

In an analytical paper, the writer breaks down a topic to its constituents through the process of researching in order to gain a fundamental understanding of the topic. These constituents can then be shuffled and rearranged to present bits and pieces of the topic from the perspective of the writer.

An analytical paper begins with a question. For example: How do Bentham and Mill's philosophies compare? The question is then examined by researching information and ideas that have already been published on the subject. By reading and understanding the ideas of experts, you can draw your own conclusions.

Let's say you decide to analyze the trend of athletes running for political office. The body of the paper will be comprised of evidence from primary sources (say, Jesse "The Body" Ventura's acceptance speech) and secondary sources (the analysis of his speech by fellow wrestlers/politicos). Finally, you'd discuss your interpretations and give final remarks.

Ar*gue (v.t.) 1. State reasons for and against; discuss. 2. Maintain; seek to prove

Most papers in college are argumentative because professors are more interested in what you think about a former pro wrestler running for governor than a list of athlete/politicians you found in an encyclopedia. The idea of an argumentative paper is not merely to report on a book, but to give evidence that supports or discredits a book's themes and ideas. Your position -- that the trend of pro wrestlers turning politicians is detrimental to this country's well-being -- will become this paper's thesis (see below). Your paper's main goal is to convince a reader to agree with your thesis.

An argumentative paper on the same topic might attempt to demonstrate that the United States would be greatly benefited by deporting all pro wrestlers to the Antarctic. This purpose would be outlined in the thesis sentence, most likely in the first paragraph of the paper. No longer is the paper just a discussion of the topic; it is now an interpretation of the topic. For the body of the paper, select the sources that support your interpretation, providing evidence for your thesis.

[Argumentative writing] entails the student learning how to advance a position based on a form of evidence that others can examine (texts, historical events, numerical data) and leading them to a preferred conclusion based on that evidence. Does this normally depend on getting the story "right" as they would when writing a book report? Yes, Is it guided by personal opinion as more obviously personal statements are? Yes. But it combines both elements in a new and more persuasive structure that is guided by an argument. It is this which teaches and which is most difficult for students to learn. They either want to put into an essay everything they know about the subject or their personal opinions as such. It is my job to teach them how to use the data to advance a personal outlook without it ever appearing to be such. [The essay] can, thus, be judged based on the argument and the evidence adduced, rather than whether one agrees with the opinion or likes the author.
-- Barry Shain, Associate Professor of Political Science, Colgate University

Turn Your Topic into a Purpose or It's Really Terrific to be More Specific

Let's say you've decided you want to write about the philosopher Jeremy Bentham. Now while Mr. Bentham may be a fine, upstanding individual, his name alone will not suffice for a topic. What aspect of the topic do you wish to discuss? What, exactly, is the purpose of writing your paper?

* To analyze Bentham's main philosophies?
* To convince the reader that Bentham philosophies are applicable to modern society?
* To compare Bentham with another philosopher like J. S. Mill?

Once you have a purpose, you need to figure out how that purpose will be accomplished in the course of your paper. What aspects of this topic can you discuss? Brainstorming is a fine technique to get the ideas flowing: Write down everything you can, anywhere. Jot down examples, thoughts, ideas (good or bad), scribble-anything to get the creative juices flowing. Ask your friends for help.

Scribble. Scribble all over the place, on napkins, on your assignment sheet, in your notebook, on your roommate. Just write down anything you could imagine might be relevant to the topic of the paper, no matter how seemingly trivial or off-topic it might seem. I have been saved on a few occasions by perusing my scribbles.
-- Andrew Sawtelle, Brown University

Brainstorming is important because it frees you to write down all the ideas you have and not worry about them being stupid. I think that a key problem with the way that I used to write was that I never would brainstorm. I would try to write a paper from intro through conclusion. This would make more work for myself In the end because I wouldn't realize what I really wanted to write about until I was almost done, It's important to put all the brainstorming ideas down on paper; once I visualize, I can organize better.
-- Ashley Brown, Dartmouth University

While a professor will enjoy a topic that differs from those in the other twenty papers he reads, a hypercreative topic doesn't guarantee a good grade. Theses that propose zany ideas that are of little relevance frustrate the professor. Your professor wants to read a paper that demonstrates an understanding of the material. It's great to be original; just don't go overboard.

If you have general guidelines about a subject area or topic, but are in search of a more specific area of concentration, a little background research is probably in order. After all, you can't know what aspect of a topic you're interested in if you don't know anything about the subject.

Copyright © 2000, the Yale Daily News.

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