How to Choose a Topic
The first and arguably the most important step in writing a research paper is choosing a topic you will not regret later on – depending on the size and type of your paper, you may spend from days to months working on it.
Compared with essay writing, students are usually given a decent amount of freedom in this respect, due to the different tasks involved in each particular case: essays are meant to check your ability to write on a certain subject, while in a research paper you show whether you are capable of carrying out independent research. That is why, prior to settling on a particular topic, you should ask yourself these questions:
- Is the topic researchable? Even if you have a lot of your own thoughts on the subject, you cannot do without prior research by other authors.
- Is it relevant to my class? Ask your teacher or professor before you start writing.
- Can I say anything new about it? Research paper isn’t limited to compiling and retelling the work of other authors – you have to offer your own insight, no matter how little it is.
- Do I care about it? Even the most fascinating topics may get tiring after you’ve been working with them for a while; that’s why it is better to choose something you are genuinely and passionately interested in. It doesn’t guarantee you won’t get sick of it after a while, but at least gives you a fair chance.
- How obvious it is? If half your classmates choose the same topic, it is going to be awkward.
Are these recommendations too general for your taste? Try following this infographic:
One final bit of advice – whatever you choose, it shouldn’t be set in stone. If you select a research question, start gathering materials and making notes and suddenly realize you’ve made a mistake (the topic is boring, there aren’t any decent sources, the topic has already been covered in a recent paper, etc.) it is better to change the topic rather than go on working on it. You may feel obliged to continue as you’ve already invested in it, but trust us – you will be better off starting over.
After you’ve selected the topic, it is time to do research. If you have done everything correctly, you already have a fair number of sources in view; you can find additional ones as you go along, but you should have a minimum of 5-10 sources at your disposal at the get-go.
How many sources you need in total may differ depending on the scope of your paper, but usually it is no less than five – you should clarify this point with your professor if it is not already mentioned in the writing guidelines you have received.
What can serve as a legitimate source of information? Almost anything:
- Journal and newspaper articles.
- Encyclopedias and reference books.
- Web pages.
- Blog posts.
- Social media.
Yes, even social media:
However, not all sources are created equal, and while you can quote blog posts and tweets to illustrate a point, they can hardly be considered as irrefutable evidence in and of themselves. Whenever possible, look for peer reviewed research, i.e., articles and books written by specialists in their particular fields recognized as such by the scientific community.
There are three main hubs where you may expect to find the bulk of your sources:
By far the easiest and trickiest source of information. On the one hand, you can find anything on the Internet. On the other hand, the trustworthiness of information found here may often be quite questionable. The legitimacy of some claims may be checked, in other cases you will have to follow your common sense and some common principles:
In most cases, you can trust the information received from .gov (government), .edu (educational) and .org (non-profit organizations) domains, although bias is still quite possible. Everything read on .com (commercial) websites should be perceived with a grain of salt, which goes double for blogs and social media – all of them differ wildly in quality, reliability and objectivity.
Modern libraries have gone far ahead from just book repositories. Today they serve as powerful information hubs where you can find information in textual, graphic and video forms, access the Internet, take part in clubs and so on. You are, however, mostly interested in the choice of books and other publications that save you the expense and trouble of finding and acquiring them all. Don’t hesitate to consult librarians – they know much more about doing research than you do and can greatly assist you with finding sources and organizing them.
3. Academic Databases
In addition to the Internet, there are specialized databases (e.g., InfoTrac, LexisNexis, EBSCO) allowing you to search through and read hundreds of thousands of peer-reviewed publications; and in this case you may be completely sure that every piece of writing can be vouched for. Unfortunately, many of them require paid subscription. Most universities, however, have their own membership which they provide to their students for free, so make sure to use this opportunity.
Some additional tips:
- Avoid Wikipedia. Wikipedia is indispensable when you have to figure something out quickly. It may provide a sound starting point for further research. But it is not exactly reliable as a source per se, as virtually anybody can edit its contents.
- If a publication is exceptionally helpful, make sure to look through its bibliography – you may stumble upon a couple of other books that may be useful in your work.
- Carefully document each and every source you are going to use: jot down its author, year of publication or whatever information is relevant for this particular source type.
Preparing a Thesis Statement
Thesis statement is a short (1-2 sentences) statement at the beginning of the paper that declares its main point or argument. Think carefully what it is going to be, for you will spend most of the paper proving this point and protecting it against possible criticism.
If boiled down to absolute essentials, writing a thesis statement is done more or less like this:
You should remember, however, that thesis statement is a statement, not a proof. You shouldn’t enumerate all the points you are going to cover – it is exactly what your paper is. Thesis statement is just an introduction to give the reader a general idea of what you are going to talk about. In most general terms, thesis statement is a question, while the rest of the paper is an answer to it.
Writing the Body of the Paper
Most professional academic writers agree that it is easier to start writing with the body and add introduction later. Firstly, writing an introduction when you don’t have the rest of the paper to support yourself is just plain hard. Secondly, if you write the introduction first, you may find later that your research drifted in an unexpected direction and you have to rewrite it from scratch. So don’t cut blocks with a razor and start with the body, with the meat of your paper.
So how is this ‘meat’ prepared?
- Provide ample evidence. Every remark you make should be backed by facts from your research or reliable sources of information, the more the better. However:
- Maintain balance between evidence and commentary. You do research of your own, not just present a compilation of works done by other people. Even if you have to quote something, better paraphrase it (mentioning the source, of course) and present your own analysis.
- Make sure your paragraphs properly connect to each other. Although you should be concerned primarily with research, you should not forget about literary part of your writing as well – paragraphs should naturally and logically flow into each other, there should be no abrupt stops and starts.
- Avoid using contractions. Although it is more of a stylistic recommendation, most authorities agree that contractions are a clear sign of colloquial language and therefore have no place in serious academic writing.
- Use third person whenever possible. Your research paper should appear as objective and unbiased as possible, and use of phrases like “I think”, “I suppose” etc. greatly undermines this impression.
- Be concise. You may be tempted to use complicated sentence structures and superfluous words to make your paper look more impressive and scientific, as well as to reach the required wordcount quicker. Real scientists, however, avoid writing in such a manner for various reasons: firstly, space in high-quality publications is too valuable to waste. Secondly, they realize it looks silly.
Writing Conclusion and Introduction
Now that the main bulk of work is done, it is time to draw a conclusion. The main purpose of conclusion is to give the reader closure and bring together all the arguments you have made so far. The safest approach is to paraphrase your thesis statement and recount all the points you have covered throughout your paper, showing their importance for the overall argument. Finally, reveal the implications of your work in a larger context, trying to make it memorable for the reader.
Introduction is, for all intents and purposes, a mirror image of conclusion. It covers basically the same points; they are simply introduced in reverse order. In most cases you should simply start by discussing an overarching topic, then concentrate the reader’s attention on the topic you’ve chosen for your paper, and complete it with your thesis statement. Of course, it won’t do to simply rewrite one and the same text twice, so at least try to paraphrase your thoughts. And yes, most experts agree that you should write exactly in this order: body, then conclusion, then introduction. This makes for the least amount of corrections and rewriting.
Formatting, Citation, Bibliography
A very annoying and extremely important part of any research work is documenting the sources you’ve used. Every source you have used throughout your work should be carefully documented and placed in your Bibliography or Works Cited page; this is where all your notes about the books you used come into play.
Ideally, you should build up the Bibliography page as you go along, adding each new book and author when you first use it – it will save you a lot of frustration later on, because finding all the sources you’ve used in an already written paper can be very tiresome.
Frankly speaking, there is not much to advise here. Learn the accepted citation format from your professor, get ahold of the respective style guide and do everything the way it suggests.
Final Piece of Advice
Research paper writing is a continuous process; the division into parts we have mentioned above mostly deals with the formal division of your final paper, not with the way you are supposed to work on it. You can find excellent recommendations on the overall approach to writing in this lecture by Simon Peyton Jones from Microsoft Research:
One thing here, however, cannot be reiterated enough.
When you read most research writing guides, you may come to the conclusion that the process of writing is clearly divided into parts: you formulate the basic idea, then do the research and finally, armed with all the sources and information you’ve acquired, you do the actual writing.
You can do it in this way and follow the example of most students everywhere in the world. However, this approach encourages procrastination and decreases the quality of the final product.
The right approach is to formulate the idea and immediately start writing while doing the research. In other words, you do the research by writing. You try out new ideas and look how they can be put on paper, if at all. If you find out that your research doesn’t make for a very impressive paper, you may change tracks as you go along; and your own writing can give you inspiration you can use in further research.
Your paper is a holistic entity – thus you should approach it in its entirety, not do it part by part.