If you have just been told that you have to write a research paper and feel a bit intimidated, we hope the following steps will ease your fears. First of all, you do research all the time. Think of when you last made a major purchase, selected a school, or saw a movie. You might have spoken to friends, read reviews about the product or film, visited a campus, or test drove a car. Doing academic research is not much different, although your approaches and sources will differ.
1) Choose an interesting question. Your teacher or professor will either allow you to choose your topic, let you select from a list, or assign you a topic. In any case, you should try to select a topic or a feature of your topic that is of interest to you. Approach your research with a critical spirit of inquiry. “Critical” does not mean “fault finding,” but rather a receptive and discerning frame of mind.
2) Be specific. Frame your question so that it will explore the “who, what, where, why, and how” of your topic. Avoid topics that are too broad. A broad topic will make your research hard to contain. Think of your question as both an anchor and an umbrella: your “who’s and how’s” are your anchor, and it’s up to you to keep everything under control, protected by your umbrella of research.
3) Focus your thesis statement. Example of a thesis statement that is too broad: How has global warming affected the planet? Example of a thesis statement that can be answered: How has global warming affected marine life in the Pacific Ocean?
4) Make your question challenging. Along with a specific question, your topic must be challenging enough to sustain reader interest. If it requires simply a yes or no answer, then few will be motivated to keep reading.
- Not challenging/interesting question: How has global warming affected marine life in the Pacific Ocean?
- Challenging question: How can private citizens and corporations work together to reduce global warming and thus preserve marine life?
5) Begin looking for sources to answer your question. An academic paper may require both primary and secondary sources. Primary research means working with original documents or gathering data in the field. Secondary research means finding out what others have learned about a topic.
6) Use a variety of sources to support your question. There are several ways to obtain secondary research materials. Use your library’s databases. Peruse newspapers and periodicals. Visit websites, but use caution; be sure that they are reputable. A good (but not foolproof) way to tell is if the address ends in “.org”, “.gov”, or “.edu”.
7) Refine your keyword searches. Search engines vary, but the following guidelines work for many search engines.
- Group words together by putting quotation marks or parentheses around the search phrase. Example: “New Orleans Jazz”
- Use the Boolean operators "AND" or "+" to group words. Example: Darwin AND Frazer.
- Use "NOT" in front of words you do not want in your search. Example: Armstrong NOT Louis.
8) Take notes while you are reading. A good way to organize your notes is to use note cards to record important quotations and paraphrases. To avoid citation problems later, be sure to also write down the title, author, and page number of the work used!
9) Create an outline for your paper and write your first draft. Working from an outline will help you keep everything “under the umbrella.” Consider what your introduction will include, what points you will be addressing, in what order those points will occur, and how you plan to conclude. Write your first draft. Ideally, you should set it aside for at least twenty-four hours and have someone else read it before beginning your revision.
10) Write your final revision. Based on reflection and feedback, revise your paper. Don’t forget to proofread carefully for spelling and punctuation. Also be sure to double-check your Works Cited (or References) page for accuracy.
There! That wasn’t so hard, was it?