Usually your semester will culminate to a heavily weighted final paper–often times, that paper will involve research. Some papers require very little research, such as 1-2 sources. Other papers, like my final paper for a graduate course, end up having 16 (or more!) sources. When you’re facing the latter, the idea of piles and piles of books can be very daunting. Read on for tips and advice about research papers.
Know your “topic”
Depending on how advanced your class is, you may or may not be given a prompt to write about. If you are given a prompt, make sure you read over it several times to make sure you understand what it means and what you’re looking for. If you are not given a prompt, be prepared to be flexible. The more you uncover, the more likely your topic will change and become more refined–which is why I put “topic” in quotes in the header. You need to be comfortable for that idea to change. If you’re given a prompt, more than likely your professor has an idea of the type of research available and has made a topic that molds around it.
Know your sources
More often than not, a student will have a topic and just google it. Not a great idea. While the web can be very helpful in formulating your idea, a lot of web sources cannot be trusted. If you have to use a websource, try to make sure it’s as reliable as possible. If you’re doing a paper on planets, NASA’s website will be much more helpful than “Billy’s Favorite Planets.” Even if Billy is an awesome guy, your professor is more likely to believe NASA.
Another popular option is hitting up the library and sitting down with about 25 books, leafing through them, and leaving with two. This is another method that can have hang-ups. You need to make sure your information is up-to-date in relation to your topic. For example, if you’re discussing the planets, a book from the 1950s may not be that helpful (Pluto was still a planet back then!). However, if you’re discussing medieval literature, a book from the 1950s may suffice. Science oriented topics tend to need the most up-to-date material, so academic journals are very beneficial.
Know your time frame
This is very, very important. The longest part of creating a research paper is the research part. You can’t just expect to (1) find all of your information, (2) read all of your information, and (3) put it in your paper, in one night. It’s just not happening. A research paper TAKES TIME. I try to give myself a month or MORE to do a research paper. If you rush, your information will be inadequate because you’re going to pick up the first thing you see. If your information sucks, your paper will suck–simple as that. I cannot stress this enough–GIVE YOURSELF SOME TIME! *Phew* I hate to be all angry-psycho-tutor on you, but yeah. I don’t want you to do badly because of time.
Start the “hunt”
When a lioness goes out hunting, she knows what she wants–food. Same idea here. You can’t just blindly go in and expect tons of appropriate research to fall in your lap. A good way to prepare is by outlining ideas you might want to run with to see if you can find research that fits into that. Make sure you’re mentally ready to spend time researching. Have highlighters ready, pens, pencils, etc., because as you research it’s always a good idea to take down notes. Which brings me to my next point…
Separating your information
No matter what you’re researching, information usually falls into varies different categories–pros/cons, historical context, literary analysis, scientific research etc. The categories that form will depend on what you’re researching. To help prevent becoming overwhelmed, I highly suggest you split your information up into different categories AS you research. I tend to use colored index cards, so that each category will be a different color. On the index cards, I put important information that I might use in my paper on individual cards, and I create a card with a citation already on it. I can then have an idea of what direction my paper is going, what information I need, don’t need, etc.
Compiling your information
At the end of the day, you’re going to need your research to be compiled into your one paper. Separating the information is very helpful for compiling the information (as odd as that sounds). For example, let’s say you are doing a paper on Gulliver’s Travels. If you went into your research with a rough outline of how you wanted your paper to be organized, this part should be pretty easy. Let’s say you outlined it like this:
- Jonathan Swift: Who is he? What were his beliefs? When did he live? Where did he live? Why did he write this book?
- Gulliver’s Travels: (Stories 1-4). What does this story say about the political climate at the time? What is Swift satirizing?
Obviously that’s not a detailed outline, but you get the drift. I would then take my index cards and say, “Oh, the political climate when Swift wrote this book? I have that in my Historical Context category!” “Swift’s beliefs? I have that in my Biography category!” Ok–so I don’t actually SAY that. However, that’s usually how it works when I put it together. Once I get it all fit into my outline, I can type a solid outline and then write my paper.
Your paper will take a lot of time and effort. I’m a firm believer in the adage “you reap what you sow,” meaning the more effort you put in, the more you’ll get out of it. Make sure you give yourself enough time to research, use appropriate sources, and organize your research so you’ll be on your way to a great paper (and grade).