Writing a Research Paper
The research paper
There will come a time in most students' careers when they are assigned a research paper. Such an assignment often creates a great deal of unneeded anxiety in the student, which may result in procrastination and a feeling of confusion and inadequacy. This anxiety frequently stems from the fact that many students are unfamiliar and inexperienced with this genre of writing. Never fear—inexperience and unfamiliarity are situations you can change through practice! Writing a research paper is an essential aspect of academics and should not be avoided on account of one's anxiety. In fact, the process of writing a research paper can be one of the more rewarding experiences one may encounter in academics. What is more, many students will continue to do research throughout their careers, which is one of the reasons this topic is so important.
Becoming an experienced researcher and writer in any field or discipline takes a great deal of practice. There are few individuals for whom this process comes naturally. Remember, even the most seasoned academic veterans have had to learn how to write a research paper at some point in their career. Therefore, with diligence, organization, practice, a willingness to learn (and to make mistakes!), and, perhaps most important of all, patience, a student will find that she can achieve great things through her research and writing.
This handout will include the following sections related to the process of writing a research paper:
- Genre- This section will provide an overview for understanding the difference between an analytical and argumentative research paper.
- Choosing a Topic- This section will guide the student through the process of choosing topics, whether the topic be one that is assigned or one that the student chooses himself.
- Identifying an Audience- This section will help the student understand the often times confusing topic of audience by offering some basic guidelines for the process.
- Where Do I Begin- This section concludes the handout by offering several links to resources at Purdue, and also provides an overview of the final stages of writing a research paper.
Genre and the Research Paper
Research: What it is.
A research paper is the culmination and final product of an involved process of research, critical thinking, source evaluation, organization, and composition. It is, perhaps, helpful to think of the research paper as a living thing, which grows and changes as the student explores, interprets, and evaluates sources related to a specific topic. Primary and secondary sources are the heart of a research paper, and provide its nourishment; without the support of and interaction with these sources, the research paper would morph into a different genre of writing (e.g., an encyclopedic article). The research paper serves not only to further the field in which it is written, but also to provide the student with an exceptional opportunity to increase her knowledge in that field. It is also possible to identify a research paper by what it is not.
Research: What it is not.
A research paper is not simply an informed summary of a topic by means of primary and secondary sources. It is neither a book report nor an opinion piece nor an expository essay consisting solely of one's interpretation of a text nor an overview of a particular topic. Instead, it is a genre that requires one to spend time investigating and evaluating sources with the intent to offer interpretations of the texts, and not unconscious regurgitations of those sources. The goal of a research paper is not to inform the reader what others have to say about a topic, but to draw on what others have to say about a topic and engage the sources in order to thoughtfully offer a unique perspective on the issue at hand. This is accomplished through two major types of research papers.
Two major types of research papers.
Argumentative research paper:
The argumentative research paper consists of an introduction in which the writer clearly introduces the topic and informs his audience exactly which stance he intends to take; this stance is often identified as the thesis statement. An important goal of the argumentative research paper is persuasion, which means the topic chosen should be debatable or controversial. For example, it would be difficult for a student to successfully argue in favor of the following stance.
Perhaps 25 years ago this topic would have been debatable; however, today, it is assumed that smoking cigarettes is, indeed, harmful to one's health. A better thesis would be the following.
In this sentence, the writer is not challenging the current accepted stance that both firsthand and secondhand cigarette smoke is dangerous; rather, she is positing that the social acceptance of the latter over the former is indicative of a cultural double-standard of sorts. The student would support this thesis throughout her paper by means of both primary and secondary sources, with the intent to persuade her audience that her particular interpretation of the situation is viable.
Analytical research paper:
The analytical research paper often begins with the student asking a question (a.k.a. a research question) on which he has taken no stance. Such a paper is often an exercise in exploration and evaluation. For example, perhaps one is interested in the Old English poem Beowulf. He has read the poem intently and desires to offer a fresh reading of the poem to the academic community. His question may be as follows.
His research may lead him to the following conclusion.
Though his topic may be debatable and controversial, it is not the student's intent to persuade the audience that his ideas are right while those of others are wrong. Instead, his goal is to offer a critical interpretation of primary and secondary sources throughout the paper--sources that should, ultimately, buttress his particular analysis of the topic. The following is an example of what his thesis statement may look like once he has completed his research.
This statement does not negate the traditional readings of Beowulf; instead, it offers a fresh and detailed reading of the poem that will be supported by the student's research.
It is typically not until the student has begun the writing process that his thesis statement begins to take solid form. In fact, the thesis statement in an analytical paper is often more fluid than the thesis in an argumentative paper. Such is one of the benefits of approaching the topic without a predetermined stance.
Choosing a Topic
The first step of any research paper is for the student to understand the assignment. If this is not done, the student will often travel down many dead-end roads, wasting a great deal of time along the way. Do not hesitate to approach the instructor with questions if there is any confusion. A clear understanding of the assignment will allow you to focus on other aspects of the process, such as choosing a topic and identifying your audience.
A student will often encounter one of two situations when it comes to choosing a topic for a research paper. The first situation occurs when the instructor provides a list of topics from which the student may choose. These topics have been deemed worthy by the instructor; therefore, the student should be confident in the topic he chooses from the list. Many first-time researchers appreciate such an arrangement by the instructor because it eliminates the stress of having to decide upon a topic on their own.
However, the student may also find the topics that have been provided to be limiting; moreover, it is not uncommon for the student to have a topic in mind that does not fit with any of those provided. If this is the case, it is always beneficial to approach the instructor with one's ideas. Be respectful, and ask the instructor if the topic you have in mind would be a possible research option for the assignment. Remember, as a first-time researcher, your knowledge of the process is quite limited; the instructor is experienced, and may have very precise reasons for choosing the topics she has offered to the class. Trust that she has the best interests of the class in mind. If she likes the topic, great! If not, do not take it personally and choose the topic from the list that seems most interesting to you.
The second situation occurs when the instructor simply hands out an assignment sheet that covers the logistics of the research paper, but leaves the choice of topic up to the student. Typically, assignments in which students are given the opportunity to choose the topic require the topic to be relevant to some aspect of the course; so, keep this in mind as you begin a course in which you know there will be a research paper near the end. That way, you can be on the lookout for a topic that may interest you. Do not be anxious on account of a perceived lack of authority or knowledge about the topic chosen. Instead, realize that it takes practice to become an experienced researcher in any field.
For a discussion of Evaluating Sources, see Evaluating Sources of Information.
Methods for choosing a topic
Thinking early leads to starting early. If the student begins thinking about possible topics when the assignment is given, she has already begun the arduous, yet rewarding, task of planning and organization. Once she has made the assignment a priority in her mind, she may begin to have ideas throughout the day. Brainstorming is often a successful way for students to get some of these ideas down on paper. Seeing one's ideas in writing is often an impetus for the writing process. Though brainstorming is particularly effective when a topic has been chosen, it can also benefit the student who is unable to narrow a topic. It consists of a timed writing session during which the student jots down—often in list or bulleted form—any ideas that come to his mind. At the end of the timed period, the student will peruse his list for patterns of consistency. If it appears that something seems to be standing out in his mind more than others, it may be wise to pursue this as a topic possibility.
It is important for the student to keep in mind that an initial topic that you come up with may not be the exact topic about which you end up writing. Research topics are often fluid, and dictated more by the student's ongoing research than by the original chosen topic. Such fluidity is common in research, and should be embraced as one of its many characteristics.
The Purdue OWL also offers a number of other resources on choosing and developing a topic:
- Understanding Writing Assignments
- Starting the Writing Process
- Invention Slide Presentation
Identifying an Audience
Identifying an Audience
The concept of audience can be very confusing for novice researchers. Should the student's audience be her instructor only, or should her paper attempt to reach a larger academic crowd? These are two extremes on the pendulum-course that is audience; the former is too narrow of an audience, while the latter is too broad. Therefore, it is important for the student to articulate an audience that falls somewhere in between.
It is perhaps helpful to approach the audience of a research paper in the same way one would when preparing for an oral presentation. Often, one changes her style, tone, diction, etc., when presenting to different audiences. So it is with writing a research paper (In fact, you may need to transform your written work into an oral work if you find yourself presenting at a conference someday).
The instructor should be considered only one member of the paper's audience; he is part of the academic audience that desires students to investigate, research, and evaluate a topic. Try to imagine an audience that would be interested in and benefit from your research.
For example: if the student is writing a twelve page research paper about ethanol and its importance as an energy source of the future, would she write with an audience of elementary students in mind? This would be unlikely. Instead, she would tailor her writing to be accessible to an audience of fellow engineers and perhaps to the scientific community in general. What is more, she would assume the audience to be at a certain educational level; therefore, she would not spend time in such a short research paper defining terms and concepts already familiar to those in the field. However, she should also avoid the type of esoteric discussion that condescends to her audience. Again, the student must articulate a middle-ground.
The following are questions that may help the student discern further her audience:
- Who is the general audience I want to reach?
- Who is most likely to be interested in the research I am doing?
- What is it about my topic that interests the general audience I have discerned?
- If the audience I am writing for is not particularly interested in my topic, what should I do to pique its interest?
- Will each member of the broadly conceived audience agree with what I have to say?
- If not (which will likely be the case!) what counter-arguments should I be prepared to answer?
Remember, one of the purposes of a research paper is to add something new to the academic community, and the first-time researcher should understand her role as an initiate into a particular community of scholars. As the student increases her involvement in the field, her understanding of her audience will grow as well. Once again, practice lies at the heart of the thing.
Where do I Begin?
Where do I begin?
There is neither template nor shortcut for writing a research paper; again, the process is, amongst other things, one of practice, experience, and organization, and begins with the student properly understanding the assignment at hand.
As many college students know, the writer may find himself composing three quite different research papers for three quite different courses all at the same time in a single semester. Each of these papers may have varying page lengths, guidelines, and expectations.
Therefore, in order for a student to become an experienced researcher and writer, she must not only pay particular attention to the genre, topic, and audience, but must also become skilled in researching, outlining, drafting, and revising.
For a discussion of where to begin one's research, see Research: Overview.
Outlining is an integral part of the process of writing. For a detailed discussion see Developing an Outline .
Drafting is one of the last stages in the process of writing a research paper. No drafting should take place without a research question or thesis statement; otherwise, the student will find himself writing without a purpose or direction. Think of the research question or thesis statement as a compass. The research the student has completed is a vast sea of information through which he must navigate; without a compass, the student will be tossed aimlessly about by the waves of sources. In the end, he might discover the Americas (though the journey will be much longer than needed), or—and what is more likely—he will sink.
For some helpful ideas concerning the initial stages of writing, see Starting the Writing Process .
Revising, Editing, Proofreading
Revising is the process consisting of:
- Major, sweeping, changes to the various drafts of a project
- An evaluation of word choice throughout the project
- The removal paragraphs and sometimes, quite painfully, complete pages of text
- Rethinking the whole project and reworking it as needed
Editing is a process interested in the general appearance of a text, and includes the following:
- Analysis of the consistency of tone and voice throughout the project
- Correction of minor errors in mechanics and typography
- Evaluation of the logical flow of thought between paragraphs and major ideas
This process is best completed toward the final stages of the project, since much of what is written early on is bound to change anyway.
Proofreading is the final stage in the writing process, and consists of a detailed final reread in order to find any mistakes that may have been overlooked in the previous revisions.
For a discussion of proofreading, see Proofreading Your Writing .