Friday, October 26, 2012

Writing a Research Paper: Getting Started

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!

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