University North Central Writing Center Handout
Informal Guide to Beginning Research Papers
The topic may be determined by the instructor of the course in which the
paper is required or you may have a choice of any relevant topic within that
discipline. Make sure you understand your options!
In some English composition classes, you may be permitted to write on a
topic of your own choosing. If that
is the case, make sure that you select a subject area of real interest to you since you are the one who will have to live with it.
If approval of the instructor is required, be sure to get it.
try to save time and effort by re-working a paper you did in high school.
Youíll be bored to tears!
choose a subject which requires the use of technical or highly
specialized material beyond your own understanding.
attempt a biography. No
oneís life can be examined in depth in a few weeks or covered in a 10-20 page
choose a topic which can be exhausted by the use of a single source:
how to wax skis, how a camera works, etc.
Remember the meaning of research- the search for answers to
significant questions. No one
researches for answers that he or she already has or that can be acquired simply
by asking. Research means consulting a number of authorities in the
subject in order to answer a question important to the researcher.
It is complete only when the researcher is satisfied that he or she has
found the answer to the question.
choose a subject with unanswerable questions, for example, is there a
God? how do we end poverty?
who is the best poet?
choose a subject that is too broad.
Remember that you are to complete the paper this century!
Whatever your general subject area, you must restrict your subject, right
at the beginning, to something workable. For
example, do not research transportation, maybe high-speed trains; not education, maybe funding for special education;
not solving the battle of the sexes, maybe the need for non-sexist
Your Background Search
Once you have selected a restricted topic, do some background reading to
learn what the general area encompasses. An
encyclopedia or similar reference work is useful now.
What you want now is an over-view of your topic to make sure that you
know enough to proceed intelligently. Donít
skip this step! Now the time
for real thinking has come.
As quickly as possible, write down as many questions as you can about
your topic (Who, What, Where, Why, How, How Many, To What Extent) You
donít need to know the answers! In
fact, to make things more interesting for yourself, you really shouldnít know
the answers to all of your questions. When
completing a long research project, the last thing you need is an apathetic
attitude toward your subject matter. Reread
your questions, adding to the list as necessary.
Check the questions for which you might be interested in finding the
answers. Eliminate any questions
you can already answer with a ďyesĒ or
ďnoĒ or those which would depend upon a value judgment.
Reread the questions you have checked.
Is there one which particularly intrigues you?
If so, underline it, then try to assess what answering the question might
involve. Choose one main question
and hold all other possibilities in reserve in case your first choice cannot be
Go to the library to check out what is available on your topic,
restricting yourself to scanning material which could help you to answer your
question: Be realistic.
Research requires authoritative, specialized, and up-to-date material.
Because of PU/NCís limited library holdings, you could be forced to
reconsider your question in light of the material available.
Take the time to find out whether you can reasonably expect to find what
you need. If
in doubt, consult the library staff.
Check out the internet for sources.
Talk to your professor. He
or she may have recently read about that topic and might be able to recommend
the best source. Utilize the
resources most readily available to you.
If the chance of your locating the necessary material seems dubious, you
may wish to consider the possibility of a question you have held in reserve.
It could be that you need to go back to Square One and begin the question
process anew. Do not go any
further until you have settled upon a feasible question!
As you read material limited to your question, you may discover that the
subject is more complex than you realized.
It may be that your question is too broad to be covered fully in the time
and space allowed. If so, study
your question. Can you break it down, narrowing it with other questions?
If so, then write them down, go through the process again, and choose
another question of your liking. By
now, because of the greater knowledge you have gained through more specialized
reading, you should be able to pose a question which you can handle.
As you read material related to your question, you may discover that you
overlooked a more significant aspect of your topic because of prior ignorance.
You may need to adjust your question, reshaping it in light of your
greater understanding of the topic.
It may be that a new,
more significant question comes immediately to mind.
If so, write it down!
A vague question will result in a vague paper, and an unwritten question
is often a hazy idea.
When you are satisfied that you have a question that can lead you to a
satisfactory and complete answer, you are ready to begin taking notes.
If you think carefully about the question you are researching, you will
recognize that your question will determine what material you need.
If it helps to answer the question, you need it!
If it doesnít contribute to your answer, you donít.
By confining your research
material this way, you have a method of control, safeguarding you against
unproductive work. Take no notes from those books that donít answer your
You will know when your research is completed.
If you have answered your question fully so that there are no unanswered
questions, you have done your job and are ready to write your paper.
Now the structure of your paper should be obvious to you.
Basically, this is the general idea:
This is the conclusion I have drawn
about my topic. In other words,
this is the answer to my question. In
formal terms, here is my thesis. (Simple,
isnít it? A
thesis statement is a complete sentence answering the question.)
Knowing that you have no reason to
accept that statement on my word alone, I will present to you the evidence I
acquired from experts in the field which led me to the answer I reported to you. Here is that evidence arranged in a logical order so that you
can understand the reasoning behind my conclusion.
If you wish to check this for yourself, you can find the sources I used
by referring to the Works Cited included in this paper.
Now that I have presented the evidence,
I will restate my answer (thesis), which you should now be able to accept.
In other words:
I. Here is what I am
going to tell you.
II. Now I am telling you
III. This is what I told you!!!
If you need further assistance with style, notes, bibliography, typing
form, etc., the Writing Center (TECH 359), has material available to you, either
by appointment or on a drop-in basis.