The big idea
I am going to share with you the wisdom of the ages. I have written roughly one trillion research papers in my day. Some of them were good and some of them were bad. Sometimes I did my work in a timely fashion and sometimes I procrastinated. Sometimes I really learned something in the course of my research and sometimes I was just spewing nothingness onto the paper. In short, I have done everything wrong and right that is it possible to do with a research paper, and I want you to learn from my experiences. If you follow the steps I outline below--and follow them in this order--you should do a decent job. It's not the only way to do research, but it's one that works.
How to do it
- Choose a topic to research that is focused and narrow enough that you can write a good research paper about it. Don't choose a topic that you need a whole book to do a good job with. "The Story of Abraham Lincoln's Life" is too big; "The Story of How Lincoln Freed the Slaves" is much better and more focused.
- Start with the big picture. Read something very short, like an encyclopedia article or a brief web page, that will give you an overall view of the topic you want to research. You'll go into detail later.
- Write three or four questions that will get you going with your research. This doesn't have to be a complete list of everything you want to know; it's just a starter set. You'll probably get some good ideas for questions from the encyclopedia article.
- Find some sources online or at the library where you can get the answers to these questions. Be sure to brainstorm some alternate subject headings when you look things up. For example, if "UFO" doesn't work, try "unidentified flying object" and "flying saucer."
- Find the answers to your questions. Don't try to read an entire book to find them--that would be a colossal waste of time. Go straight to the index to find the specific pages where you can find the info you need. Again, be sure to check a variety of different subject headings where you might find what you need.
- Take notes on very small note cards, the smaller the better. The small size will force you to summarize and jot down facts, rather than copy entire sentences and paragraphs. That way, there is less chance that you might be tempted to use somebody else's words when you write your paper. DON'T print out pages of stuff from the Internet; save money on ink and take notes as you're sitting there at the computer. For some reason, people (students and parents alike) like to show me a stack of web pages that they have printed out (but not read) and tell me proudly how much research they've done. Remember: printing stuff out isn't research--it's just printing stuff out. Always be sure to make a note on the card of where those particular facts came from. GET THE PAGE NUMBER.
- Keep track of where you get your information. You'll need any of the following information that applies to the source you're using: title, author, year published, publishing company, and the city where the publishing company is located. Use your brain, though--you won't be able to get all that information for every source you use. If you're using a web page, for example, all you can get is the title and the address of the web page. (And be sure to get the entire address! Don't just write "www.nuttyinfo.com." Write down everything that appears in the address window:
For more help on this topic, visit my pages on endnotes and parenthetical references for a research paper.
- Write more questions that you thought of as you did your research. The more you learn about a topic, the more you'll realize you still have to learn. It is only after you've already done some study that you'll come up with some interesting questions that will make your paper complete and fascinating.
- Find the answers to your new questions. That seems obvious, I know, but some people would skip this step.
- Become an expert in your topic. Try to learn the information as you look it up and write it down. The only way you'll be able to write a good research paper that makes sense and avoids plagiarizing is to make all the stuff you research part of your own brain. Your goal is to be able to sit down and have an intelligent conversation about whatever you're researching without having to look at your notes. Of course, you won't have all the details in your memory, but you should be able to talk informally for a few minutes about your topic. If you can do that, you'll be ready to begin writing.
Return to the Online Writing Guide Index.
Copyright 1996-2004 by Michael Klingensmith