Writing with Sources

Many students misinterpret the term "research paper." Writing a good college-level paper that makes use of research and source material is not stitching a patchwork of other people's words and ideas. Even though you research on a topic, the major ideas of the paper should be yours; you employ the words and ideas of others to help you support, develop, explain, and illustrate your insights.

"But," you may be thinking, "how can I have anything original to say about such the complicated subject I've been assigned?"

A research paper offers you the opportunity to become a scholar on your chosen subject. Rather than simply researching enough material to patch together to meet the required page length, you should read widely in both introductory and scholarly sources until you become informed enough to have ideas about the subject, to formulate questions and draw conclusions. It takes a lot of time.

The following steps outline the general procedure for writing a college-level research paper. Of course, different writers' processes will vary, so you should feel free to adapt these steps and come up with your own tried-and-true invention, drafting, and revision strategies. Writing Center tutors are available to help you with each of the following steps:

Researching and Writing Strategies

  1. Clarify your purpose. Be sure that you understand why the professor has assigned the paper. What is the function of the paper? What sorts of knowledge and/or skills does the professor expect you to develop in the process of researching and writing the paper? If you have questions about the assignment, make an appointment to discuss the project with your professor. Also, always ask the professor what documentation style (MLA? APA? CBE? AAA? other?) you should follow.

    1. Remember, you and your professor share an important goal: your learning. So consider the professor an interested and concerned party in your research project.

  2. Select a topic. First, review the assignment to determine how much latitude you have in choosing your topic. Then, since you will devote a significant amount of time and attention to this topic, choose one that you find interesting. After all, your interest in the topic will make the paper engaging for your reader.

  3. State your topic in question form. Once you've chosen a general subject on which to write, work to focus it to a specific topic, one that you can cover in sufficient depth in the required length. For instance, "Is the death penalty right or wrong" is too broad and general a topic for a college-level research paper. "Does the death penalty deter violent crime?" or "Is the use of the electric chair 'cruel and unusual' punishment?" would be more manageable and result in more effective essays. The subject "Middle Eastern Religions" might be focused as the question, "Is the Islamic Allah different from the Jewish Yahweh?" This question becomes your "working research question," and later your tentative answer to this question becomes your "working thesis."

  4. Define your audience. As an aid to narrowing your topic and focusing your research, select a particular reader or group of readers to whom your paper will be addressed. Take the time to think about your reader's interests and concerns. The purpose of most college-level papers is for you to demonstrate your learning and your ability to work with the ideas. So keep in mind that your paper is a performance of sorts; you are performing the full depth of your knowledge on the subject. Later, as you begin to write, your audience will significantly influence the style and tone of your paper.

  5. Figure out what you already know and think about your topic. Do some freewriting early on in your writing process to figure out what you already know about your topic and where your interest lies. Start out with a five-minute freewriting on your chosen topic, simply jotting down all the ideas that come to mind about the subject. Then, read over that freewriting and pick the three most interesting points or ideas. Do a three-minute freewriting on each of those. You may be surprised to find out how many ideas you have already.

  6. Research background material. Engage in preliminary research and reading to give you the necessary background knowledge of your subject and to make sure you have narrowed and focused your topic. Read until you know enough about your subject to have informed opinions. How much reading you need to do will depend upon the complexity of the topic and your prior knowledge of the subject matter. You might want to begin with general sources: encyclopedias, dictionaries, text books, and subject reference works. But remember, a college-level research paper should depend upon scholarly rather than popular sources. What's the difference between the two? Scholarly sources are written by scholars in the field, while popular sources, like most encyclopedias and magazines (Newsweek and Time, for example), are written by journalists or non-experts who have done the same research you're getting ready to do.

    1. Begin this stage early so that you can take your time with this background reading. Enjoy this stage; it's what makes a scholar.

  7. Develop a preliminary plan or map of your paper. On the basis of your background reading, develop a tentative thesis and anticipate the major points or sections of your paper. This sort of working outline does not need to be formal, with all of its roman numerals and letters in place. Start by answering your working research question to come up with your working thesis. Then, simply divide what you already know or can hypothesize about your topic into sections that seem to have logical connections, and arrange these sections into a pattern that makes sense to you. Now, do a five-minute freewriting for each section of your plan to generate more ideas.

    1. This preliminary plan will serve as a guide to your further research. You can expect it to grow and change as your research progresses. But in the early stages of your work, it will provide you with the basic categories for which you need information.

  8. Develop a working bibliography. Using your preliminary outline to guide you, develop a search strategy to locate potential sources.

    1. Start with the on-line card catalogue in the library to locate books, monographs, and reference works on your topic. If you can't find material at first, look up your topic in the Library of Congress Subject Headings which will direct you to the headings under which your topic is classified.

    2. Next, use the library's computerized databases to find journal and abstract articles related to your topic.

    3. Work with a reference librarian to find the most useful sources for your research paper.

  9. Locate the most useful sources on your working bibliography. To figure out which sources will provide you with the most useful information, you need to skim books, journals, and newspaper articles. Don't read an entire book to see if it holds the information you need. Check the table of contents and the index. Instead of reading an entire journal article, read the introduction and the first sentence of each paragraph. If the source looks promising, then you can read it more thoroughly.

  10. Take notes on your reading. Once you've selected the most useful sources, you need to begin taking notes. Develop a systematic and meticulous note-taking system that you feel comfortable with. Some people use note cards; some prefer to take notes on full sheets of paper or to type notes into the computer; others choose to photocopy and highlight relevant material. No matter which method you choose, keep the following guidelines in mind:

    1. Keep track of where the material comes from. Make sure you record an accurate bibliographic citation and an accurate page number for all material you write down or photocopy, including quotations, ideas, tables, charts, etc. Nothing is more frustrating than having to stop writing to go in search of the source of a quotation you wish to include.

    2. Write down direct quotations rather than paraphrasing ideas. Proper paraphrasing requires time and attention. After you decide which passages you actually want to include in your paper, then you can work on paraphrasing others' ideas.

  11. Refine your working plan. Once you've gathered the information you think you will need for writing the paper, revise your rough outline or paper plan and your working thesis as your research dictates. Figure out where you will make use of the notes you've taken from sources in order to support and develop your points. Problems in organization, particularly with the logical arrangements of sections, may serve as clues to problems with your research or with your assumptions. Also, as you revise your working plan, you may discover gaps in your research, areas of your topic you still need to cover.

  12. Write a rough draft. Your first draft represents your initial attempt to combine your ideas with your researched material. Concentrate on getting your words and ideas down on paper. To generate your own thoughts, ask yourself, "Why is this quote or detail significant? Why does it matter to me? What other material does it relate to and how? What's so interesting about it? Is there another way to look at it?" When you wish to use a quotation or paraphrase for support or explanation, make sure that you introduce the source material in the text of your paper and then follow the quotation or paraphrase with an explanation to your reader of how this material supports, explains, or clarifies your thesis. That'll get your thinking onto the page. Makes sure you keep track of the sources and page numbers of quotations and paraphrases so that full documentation will be easy later on.

  13. Share your draft with a trusted reader. Having someone else read and comment on your paper-in-progress is invaluable in constructing a clear, informative, and successful research paper. Tutors at the Writing Center have expert training in reading and responding to drafts of papers. A reader can let you know which sections of your paper are easy to follow and which are confusing and can point out ideas that seem to need more support or explanation. While outside readers are essential at the rough draft state, they can also offer worthwhile suggestions earlier in the process.

  14. Revise, revise, and revise again. Keep rereading and rewriting your paper, making sure that you've included all the necessary material, that every idea in the paper is clearly related to your thesis, that you have expressed yourself clearly and articulately, and that all the ideas are in the right place.

  15. Edit the paper. Once you feel the paper expresses your ideas as you want it to, you're ready to edit it. Read through it again, looking for problems in grammar and mechanics. If you know that you're prone to a certain problem (comma splices, pronoun agreement errors, etc.), then read the paper carefully checking for that kind of error. Finally, make sure that you're using correctly the documentation style indicated by the professor.