You have just been assigned a paper, and you don’t know what you want to write about or where to start. We’ve all been there.
Whether your research paper is for a literature, history, or a social science course, the basic principles of writing across the disciplines are the same. You will need to select a topic, conduct research on that topic, craft an argument, and organize your findings, while paying particular attention to audience and purpose. So, how do you get started? Here are 8 steps you can keep in mind as you begin:
- Research possible topics! It is not uncommon for a student to change the topic of a research paper several times throughout the brainstorming and writing process. You may want to begin broadly, with a topic like women’s rights or recent Supreme Court cases, and then narrow your topic as you go.
- Choose a topic: A strong topic is always motivated by a specific critical question, such as, “How did women’s roles in society change in the early 19th Century?” or, “What technological and educational changes prompted the creation of a working-class literary market in Victorian England?”
- Draft possible thesis statements: Come up with a few working hypotheses or thesis statements, knowing that you will need to fine-tune your ideas as you engage further with your sources. You will want to make sure that your thesis provides a map for your reader, but that it also identifies a surprising pattern, tension, or conflict in order to advance an original interpretive position.
- Literature review: Figure out what others have said about your topic! You will want to determine how the working thesis statement challenges, extends, or nuances what scholars and critics have recently said about the topic of the paper. For this reason, this step may be completed alongside the next step.
- Collect primary and secondary sources: In any research paper, you will want to be careful to strike a balance between primary and secondary sources. Primary sources include newspaper articles, photographs, letters, government publications, and novels. Secondary sources include journal articles, encyclopedia entries, textbooks, and book reviews about the topic by reputable critics. Evaluate your sources as you go for relevance and credibility.
- Create an outline: Include topic sentences, transitions, and evidence from your sources in your outline. Be sure that each of your paragraphs balances both primary and secondary source material.
- Write a first draft: Don’t be nervous! The point of the first draft is simply to get pen on paper.
- Revise your first draft: Revise for grammar, but also for higher-level concerns, such as level of analysis, counterarguments, clarity of argument and purpose, and structure and organization. Revision takes time and may even mean refining your thesis or changing the evidence you incorporate. But with more revision come more and more rewards, including a persuasive research paper!
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Looking for some other helpful writing tips? Check out some of our previous blog posts below!: