How to Write a Research Paper in College by Mastering the Five Rs
By Stefanie Weisman
There are few tasks in college that demand such a wide variety of skills as writing a research paper. It requires time management, research skills, creativity, logic, persuasive writing, and much, much more. Intimidated? Don’t be.
By following the "Five Rs" below, you’ll be well on your way to writing a grade-A paper:
1. Read the instructions.
Most professors will give you a written assignment as the basis for your paper. I can’t tell you how many students throw points away by not following these instructions to the letter. Remember: read, don’t skim – and then read it again. Look out for things like how many pages and what types of sources are required. Don’t disqualify yourself from an A before you’ve even started!
2. Restrict your focus.
If your professor hasn’t told you what to write about, choose something you’re interested in, but keep your focus as narrow as possible. I recommend choosing a topic that's accessible but still fairly obscure – this way, you won’t be overwhelmed by all the material out there, and you’ll avoid writing on a subject that’s been done to death. That's how I chose a topic for my senior thesis. I wrote about the English Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 (ever heard of it?) because there were only a handful of primary sources to contend with and the secondary sources weren't too extensive.
3. Research actively.
Many college papers require you to do independent research and come up with a thesis. (A thesis, by the way, is the statement you'll be proving in your paper.) Start by searching your school’s online library catalog to find the general location of your topic. Then, go to that bookcase or shelf and tear it apart! Look at all the titles and skim through the ones that pique your interest; you’ll find stuff you never would have known existed with an online search alone. If your school provides you with access to it, use the database JSTOR to get a sense of the latest scholarship on your topic.
As you read through your sources, write down any quotations, facts, and ideas that strike you, with page numbers. This is critical for two reasons: (1) reviewing these notes will help you come up with a thesis; and (2) when you’re writing the paper, you’ll be able to cite your sources without going on a wild goose chase for half-remembered quotes.
If you’re lucky, a light bulb will go off and you’ll find the perfect thesis. For the 99% of the times when this isn’t the case, here are some tips on how to force inspiration:
- Challenge statements that are overly conventional, contradictory, or controversial.
- If your teacher posed a question in class and didn’t answer it, he or she is practically giving a thesis away. You just have to come up with an answer.
- Look in the footnotes of academic texts for the authors’ half-finished ideas and unproven theories. Footnotes are the great untapped resource for students in search of a thesis.
- Keep reviewing your research notes until a theme or pattern starts to emerge. Sometimes it takes a while to see the connection between things, but then – wham! – you’ll wonder how you ever missed it.
- Go to the prof’s office hours if you’re stuck, but come prepared with an account of what you’ve done so far. Your teacher won’t be pleased if you walk in demanding a thesis for free.
4. Reinforce your argument.
Before you start writing your paper, you should make an outline. For a short paper (under 5 pages), write down how each paragraph is going to support your thesis. For a longer paper, just sketch out the flow of your argument. This is when having taken detailed research notes really pays off; use them to find quotes, facts and figures to back up your thesis. Now that you’ve laid the foundation for a successful paper, it's time to start writing!
In general, your first paragraph should end with a clear statement of your thesis. Every succeeding paragraph should begin with a sentence that links the previous paragraph to the point you’re making in the current one. Don’t make your professor guess where you’re going. Words like however, moreover, while, nevertheless, in addition, and although can really help get your point across. Your final paragraph should summarize your argument and address its broader implications.
5. Revise, revise, revise.
Make sure you leave plenty of time to edit your paper! No matter how good your thesis is, your professor probably won’t take it seriously if your writing isn't polished.
Stefanie Weisman was valedictorian of Stuyvesant High School and graduated first in her class from Columbia University. She has a B.A. in History, a B.S. in Computer Science, and an M.A. in Art History. Her senior thesis won Columbia's Lily Prize for the best thesis in history on a non-U.S. topic. Stefanie is currently writing a book on how to achieve academic success called The Valedictorian's Guide to High School and College. For more information or to send her an email, go to her website at http://valedictoriansguide.com/
Photo: elaine faith Lower Columbia College