Here is some great advice for writing a research paper from Writing Center consultant Haili Vinson.
It’s that time of year again, Midterms, which means you have probably been assigned an essay of some sort, or are getting ready to start a final research paper for your class. Here are some pieces of advice to help you through the writing process.
1. Keep an annotated bibliography of sorts (even if you don’t have to!).
Ever spent hours frantically searching JSTOR for a source that you think contained something useful? Did you finally find it? How much time did this take away from actually writing your paper? Really, we know annotated bibs are not the most entertaining things in the world, but they can be incredibly helpful in keeping track of the sources that you have read. Most students dislike annotated bibliographies in part because they feel pressured to use perfect citations. Optional annotated bibs don’t require perfect format, so it will be easier for you to simply jot down the author’s name, the source’s title, and where you found it (although if you do end up using this source, you’ll have to cite it eventually!). Write down important information that you would like to remember from this source so you can locate it again. You will be surprised at how much an annotated bibliography can simplify the research process.
2. Know your thesis before you start researching, and find sources that support it.
It’s usually best to mold your research to fit your thesis statement, rather than molding your thesis statement to fit your research. With that being said, if you have absolutely no idea where to start with a thesis-driven paper, it might be helpful to skim some articles on your topic, just to get an idea of the conversation. This can assist you in coming up with your own argument, but once you have it, try to narrow your research down to find relevant sources, rather than choosing the first five articles that pop up and forcing them—like puzzle pieces that do not fit—into your topic. Research takes time, but the effort you put forth will result in better support for your thesis, and, ultimately, a higher grade than might be achieved by using the first sources that you find to fulfill the research requirement. It’s important to note, however, that your thesis could very well change by the end of the writing process. Take a look back after you have finished the paper and adjust your thesis so that it still matches what the essay has turned into.
3. Keep a schedule.
If you have a planner, great. If you don’t, consider getting a small one (or using a desk or wall calendar) to keep track of your writing process. Start on the day that the paper is assigned. First, mark the due date on your calendar. Then, establish weekly (or bi-weekly, or twice weekly) goals for yourself. For instance, after a week, perhaps you’ll have a solid thesis chosen and an outline. At the end of week two, maybe you will have found all of your sources. During week three, you could work on your first full draft. Setting goals of this kind and keeping them will prevent procrastination and allow you to make appointments to the Writing Center. For instance, if you know that, by following your schedule, you’ll have your first draft finished at the end of week three, go ahead and schedule an appointment early so that you can get a time that works for you. (Remember that we are very busy this time of the semester.) Keeping a schedule will also reduce the stress that students can experience when pressured to meet a deadline. Give yourself an equal amount of work each week so that you aren’t rushing to finish (or to get started) a few days before the paper is due.