Where do I Begin?
This handout provides detailed information about how to write research papers including discussing research papers as a genre, choosing topics, and finding sources.
Contributors: Jack Raymond Baker, Allen Brizee, Ashley Velázquez
Last Edited: 2018-02-14 04:24:26
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 .
This is a formal outline for your final research paper. It will present your thesis, the major points in support of that thesis, and the sub-points supporting each major point. It may have additional levels of sub-sub-points if you feel that is necessary.
The basic idea of a formal outline is that different types of letters or numbers (I, A, 1, a, i) represent different levels of the hierarchy of your paper, and sub-levels are indented below main levels. For example:
- This is the first main point
- This is the first sub-point under I
- This is the second sub-point under I
- Sub-point B has its own sub-points
- But you�d only list them if there were more than one
- Here�s the second main point
- It has two sub-points
- But this one has no sub-sub points
(If you�re using Microsoft Word, you might find yourself getting frustrated by its �helpful� approach to formatting lists. My advice is, don�t sweat the formatting too much. I�d prefer that you follow this or a similar format, but the main thing is that the relations among ideas should be clear. The reader should be able to see at a glance which are the main points, which are the secondary points, which are at the third level of importance, and so on. It should also be obvious which secondaery points belong under which main points. Usually this is accomplished by using different numbering for different levels, and indenting the less important levels. But if you can�t make that work, do whatever you have to so that the relationships are clear.)
Some guidelines for formal outlines are presented in Developing an Outline at the Purdue University Online Writing Lab. Please follow those guidelines when writing your outline.
In addition to the elements of a formal outline, please also:
- Include a thesis statement at the start.
- Cite your sources: list all authors used in each section in parentheses at the end of that section
- Attach a list of sources that includes all the sources used for the outline and no others. This list may differ from the one you submitted for the Preliminary Bibliography, if you have added new sources or eliminated old ones.
Topic and Sentence Outlines
There are two major types of outline:
- Topic Outline
- Sentence Outline
A topic outline lists words or phrases. A sentence outline lists complete sentences.
A topic outline arranges your ideas hierarchically (showing which are main and which are sub-points), in the sequence you want, and shows what you will talk about. As the name implies, it identifies all the little mini-topics that your paper will comprise, and shows how they relate.
A sentence outline does all of this, plus it shows exactly what you will say about each mini-topic. Each sentence, instead of simply identifying a mini-topic, is like a mini-thesis statement about that mini-topic. It expresses the specific and complete idea that that section of the paper will cover as part of proving the overall thesis.
The method described below will produce a sentence outline.
Your sentence outline should, if done thoroughly and carefully, represent almost a first draft of your research paper. Once youve written it, the paper will practically write itself. Youll just be filling in the blanks, so to speakproviding specific examples and other support to flesh out and prove the ideas youve already sketched out. The purpose, in other words, of doing this work is not to make work for you, but to save you work in the long run by breaking the job down into smaller, manageable tasks.
Tip: Outlines can be very detailed or very general, but the more detail you have the farther youll get toward writing your paper. Heres an example. A paper of 12 pages (about 4,500 words) might have four major topics or points, represented by roman numerals (I - IV) in the outline. This would mean each point would represent about three pages of the final paper. These three pages will include background information, multiple sources, different pieces of evidence and explanation supporting that point, and often a brief description of alternative views and an explanation of why those views are not so convincing. Smaller points supporting each of the main points might then take up a single page, or 2 - 3 paragraphsagain with evidence, explanation, alternative views and so on. Finally, even smaller points under these might correspond to individual paragraphs in the final draft.
Writing the Sentence Outline
- Write out your thesis at the top of the page.
- Make a list of points you must prove to prove your thesis. What would someone have to agree with, in order to agree with the thesis?
- These will be the main sections of your paper. Like the thesis, these should be complete, declarative sentencessomething you can either prove or disprove.
Once you have the main points and supporting points written down, its time to start organizing. First make sure which are main and which are supporting points. For example, you may find that what you thought was a main point is really part of proving another main point. Or, what you first listed under a main point may need its own section. This may change as you continue to work on the outline and draft the paper.
Now you can decide what order you want to present your ideas in. Again, label them with letters or numbers to indicate the sequence.
Tip: Dont just settle for one organization. Try out at least two different sequences. Youll be surprised at the connections that emerge, the possibilities that open up, when you rearrange your ideas. You may find that your thesis suddenly snaps into focus, or that points that seemed unrelated in fact belong together, or that what you thought was a main idea is actually a supporting idea for another point. Good writing is all about re-vision, which literally means seeing againseeing your work from a fresh perspective. You can do this at every stage of the writing process, and especially at the organization stage.
Finally, write up the outline in the order youve chosen. Remember to include a thesis statement at the start of the outline, and cite and list your sources.