Research Tips for Better Writing
You’ve probably had the experience of planning to make a recipe only to find that you were missing an ingredient or two. Maybe you decided to make chocolate chip cookies and realized you have no chocolate chips. Did you make the cookies without chocolate chips and hope for the best? Probably not, but if you did, you’d likely be disappointed by the results.
Writing a research paper is like following a recipe. You take certain “ingredients,” follow the right steps, and end up with a finished product. Skip important steps or ingredients, and your finished product will suffer, as will your grade. With a research paper, the most important ingredient of all and the most commonly left out is—you guessed it—good research. Over the years I’ve read quite a few papers that are missing this key ingredient, and a research paper without good research is just as obvious as a chocolate chip cookie with chocolate chips.
If you’re writing a paper and just aren’t sure where to start with your research, here are a few tips to help your work go smoother and your final paper be better.
- Start early. A good ten-to-twenty-page paper is best worked on over the course of weeks or even a month, so don’t wait until the last minute.
- Narrow your focus and then outline your main points. A good outline serves as your map as you set off on your research journey. If you have a clear idea of what you want to say in your paper, both for your thesis and your main points, you will know what you are looking for as you browse books, articles, blog posts, and other supporting materials.
- Google and Wikipedia might provide you with an overview of your topic, but your main research for an academic paper should use academic sources. You might start with online blogs and so on, but use them to find the more authoritative sources they’re usually based on.
- Spend the bulk of your research time using brick-and-mortar libraries and academic e-resources. Use the library catalogue, or ask a librarian to help you find some good resources on your topic, and then spend time browsing the other books nearby. Some of the best books I’ve used in research papers have been the books I’ve found on the shelf near what I found in the library catalog.
Next, check out your library’s e-resources such as databases and electronic journals. Most universities and library systems list their e-resources prominently on their websites; if you can’t find them, ask a librarian. Librarians are there to help people use the library, not just to keep it quiet and organize the materials.
- Plan to do at least two rounds of research. After you locate an adequate supply of books and articles on your topic, review them carefully. Consider whether they support what you are trying to say in your paper. If they don’t, search for other resources using different search terms or ask a librarian and start again. If your resources do look relevant, dig a little deeper after your first round of reading. Look at the sources listed in your sources’ bibliographies and you will probably find more information that will support your argument quite well.
- As you are reading your source material, take good notes and be systematic. One method is to piece your notes into your outline as you go; this way your notes are organized from the start. Another method is to take notes on index cards that can later be organized to support the various points you are making in your paper. In either case, make sure to write down the title, author, and date, and other identifying information for each resource (e.g., journal title, publisher). You’ll need this information to cite your sources
- Work on your bibliography as you work on your paper. Keep a reference handy on the style you are supposed to use (e.g., APA, MLA, Chicago Manual of Style) to make sure you are capturing all the information you will need for your final reference list.
Doing good research can be hard work, especially the first few times you have to do it. But if you want your paper to have substance, don’t try to skip or skimp on the crucial step of thorough research. As with everything, practice makes perfect (or improvement, at least), and if you keep at it you’ll soon get closer to your goal of writing papers that satisfy the mind like chocolate-chip-laden cookie satisfy the appetite.
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