In my last blog post, I offered some suggestions on how to choose a research paper topic. In this post, we’ll look at some of challenges you might face when starting a draft, as well as ways to overcome those challenges.
Before you start: some Web-based tools
Hopefully, between choosing a topic and getting started on the draft, you’ve completed a few other essential steps: compiling a list of bibliographic sources (otherwise known as a “References” list in APA style, or a “Works Cited” page in MLA style), taking notes on your sources, and compiling an outline. Some of my favorite tools for completing tasks like these include EasyBib (which I mentioned in my previous post), Citelighter, and Evernote.
Easybib has a great free service for compiling a list of bibliographic references and their premium service also has excellent web-based tools for note taking and outlining. Your school’s library may even subscribe to the premium service, so ask! Citelighter also has note-taking and bibliographic features, as well as a useful browser plug-in. Of course, an outstanding go-to tool for saving things on the web is Evernote. You can use it to save links, images, text, and even back up documents.
Let’s get back to the draft. I’ll assume that you have your sources, you took notes, you crafted an outline, and now you’re ready to start writing your draft. This is the part where many of my students have told me they have the most difficulty. How do I start the paper? If your instructor has given you specific instructions on exactly what must be included in the introduction, those instructions must supersede any that I give you. However, if the instructions are less specific, feel free to integrate my three-part approach into your requirements for the paper’s introduction.
Step One: Use an “Attention-Grabber”There are several types of statements that can be used to grab the reader’s attention, including statistics, anecdotes, or questions to the reader. When reading over your source material, did you happen to notice a fact or statistic that caught your attention or made you stop and go, “wow!”? Maybe somewhere in your research you encountered an example, or a brief story relating to your topic—i.e. an anecdote. In some subject areas, such as the Humanities or Social Sciences, asking the reader a question can be appropriate to use as an attention-grabber. For example, if your paper is on the subject of the dangers of texting while driving, you could ask: “Have you ever had the experience of driving down the highway, and passed a driver who was texting on his or her cell phone?” If it’s a question many readers might be able to relate to, it might be a good way to start off your paper. Occasionally, a quote might also be a good way to engage the reader. Be sure to consider your audience when choosing an opening statement.
Step Two: State your research topic in question formIn my previous blog post on choosing a research topic, I stressed the importance of changing your thinking about the subject of your paper as not just a “topic”, but rather a question to be answered. For example, instead of thinking of your paper topic as “The Dangers of Texting While Driving”, you could put that into question form by saying, rather, “What are some of the effects of texting while driving?” This way you know exactly what you are investigating. Notice how I didn’t say, “What are the dangers of texting while driving?”: this is because I don’t want to start off my research with a bias. Try to craft your question to be as neutral as possible, and let the research speak for itself. You don’t want your question to sound like a conclusion. By stating your research question in the introduction, it helps to make it clear to the reader what information you had set to find out.
Step Three: Thesis sentence, or “Why is this even important?”Ah, the dreaded Thesis! It’s one of those intangibles that some people seem to naturally master, and for the rest of us is always just out of reach. One way I like to think of the thesis is as the “Who cares?” statement. In other words, who cares about [research question]? Why was this subject important to research? If we look back to the “dangers of texting while driving” topic, we could think of the “who cares” angle as, “The increasing number of texting-related accidents begs further investigation into the impact of texting on driving.” Sounds to me like that might be an important reason to look into it, right? This not only tells the reader what the focus of the paper is, it gives them a compelling reason to read on!
Bonus Pro Tip: Start in the MiddleIn some cases, you might simply encounter writer’s block when starting a draft. It happens to everyone, so don’t beat yourself up. One of the best examples of great research paper advice I ever got was, “if you have trouble starting at the beginning, don’t! Start in the middle!” This has worked for me, and it’s a suggestion I’ve made many times to my students. If you’re really struggling with that all-important introduction, don’t!
Don’t be this guy!
Start by taking your notes and get those facts on paper; get a few body paragraphs out of the way. Just start writing, and when you’re ready, go back to the introduction. The beauty of the writing process is that it’s a process. You can always go back and revise, edit and rearrange what you’ve already written. No one says you have to write your paper in the same order that it will be read. This method may not work for everyone, but the extra time you’ll need to go back and revise after starting in the middle might just make up for time lost staring at a blank computer screen. Just make sure you allow yourself time for revision!
So, your assignment is to write a research paper. You could probably have an easier time writing a paper about all the things you’d rather do than write a research paper, but it still wouldn’t make the assignment go away. The good news is, if you give yourself adequate time to complete the assignment and have a few time-tested strategies under your belt, research paper process can go a little more smoothly for you.
Choosing a topic
In some cases, the instructor may assign a specific topic or choice of topics: in other cases, the instructor may allow you to choose your own topic as long as it relates in some way to the class you are taking or the current unit of study. While giving you “free choice” of topics may suggest that you have more freedom, many students find this “freedom” may lead to more frustration and confusion.
Think of your Topic as a Question or Problem
Research can be defined as “studious inquiry or examination” (Merriam-Webster Online); if “inquiry” is a search for information, think of your topic as not just a general subject, but an answer to a question. We do research every day without even realizing it: where is that new movie playing? Where can I get the best cell phone plan? Which college has the best athletics program? These are all examples of questions that we seek to answer through research.
Once you start with a general theme or area of interest, find a way to turn that into question form. If you think of research as a quest to answer a question, you will not only be more likely to find more useful information, you will also be less likely to become overwhelmed by your search process. If you have an idea of what may interest you, but don’t know how to put it in question form, some questions to ask yourself might be: Why does this topic interest me? What do I want to learn about this topic? What are some questions I have about this topic that I’ve always wanted to find out?
How One Student Did It
Here’s a real life example I encountered while teaching a Humanities-based 12th grade research paper class. I had a student who wanted to research “overpopulation”. He was interested in it because he felt it was an ethical issue. We both headed to a computer and I said, “let me show you something.” I typed “overpopulation” into Google, and got this:
Over 4 million results. “You don’t want to read through all 4 million hits, do you?” I asked.
You can probably guess his answer. Not wanting to discourage him, I followed with, “What is it about this topic that concerns you?” He replied, “I think overpopulation may be endangering the earth’s resources.” So we then tried to turn that into a question: “How is the increase in human population affecting the earth’s resources?” (we changed “endangering” to “affecting” because it’s always better to remove any bias from your question before starting your research). When we went back to Google, we got this:
Sure, it’s still a lot of results, but we were able to narrow it down considerably. It’s also a good idea to try a few different search terms and combinations of words, in this case adding “human” to population, or searching “earth’s resources” in addition to “environment”. I used a Google to make a point, but I would stay away from Google when looking for articles for my research paper. Online databases are a better bet.
Use an Online Database to Do Your Research
Many high schools and most colleges/universities subscribe to online databases. These databases are highly organized collections of articles, websites, and other materials that will help you answer your research question. Remember, Google is a very useful search engine, but it is not a research database; you should search databases before you turn to Google to find reliable information. If your instructor hasn’t already suggested databases, you can ask them for recommendations. Your school’s research librarian is an excellent resource for database information; she or he can recommend which databases are best for your particular subject.
Sweet Search is also great free research tool for students. Type in a topic and see what you find! Another useful research helper is the Citation search tool on EasyBib website, where you can see what types of sources other students are using.
In my next post, I’ll talk about what to do once you have your sources and are preparing to start writing. Until then, good luck with your topics!
Here are 3 Study Tips that may help you manage your workload during the school year:
1) PRIORITIZE SUBJECTS: Start with your most difficult subject first. You want to tackle those challenging assignments first while your mind is fresher, and before real fatigue sets in. It may be tempting to avoid the hardest subject and put it off until later, but doing that may cause you to never get to it.
2) CHOOSE THE RIGHT ENVIRONMENT: Some students like to study at home or in their dorm room; but while those may be the most convenient locations, they are rife with distractions. Let's face it, we do other things than study when we're in our home environment (eat, play video games, talk to friends, watch TV), so it's only natural that those activities may tempt you away from your study goals. Sometimes the library, cafeteria, local coffee shop or even the campus quad may be better choices, because you're there for a purpose. Once you've achieved your goal, then you can go home and do those other things you want to do (which might include sleep)!
3) TAKE BREAKS: You hear this suggestion all the time: take breaks while you study. It may seem like forcing yourself to take a break may seem like a deliberate interruption, but if you a) schedule your breaks, and b) manage them carefully, they will actually help you study longer and more efficiently. Let's say you estimate that you'll need a good two hours of studying in one night to achieve your goals: plan to take a break after the first hour, but don't let the break last longer than ten minutes. While this may extend your study time to two hours and ten minutes, you're more likely to see it through as opposed to getting fatigued and giving up after 90 minutes.
I hope these tips work for you. Good luck this semester!