Research papers are a staple of many high school and college history classes, and indeed are miniature versions of the work real historians do. If you’re a history nerd like me, nothing excites quite like historical research.
However, for many students, a research paper is a daunting assignment that can make the study of history seem more much more boring than it really is. So I want to offer a new way of thinking about a research paper that may make the process more engaging and enjoyable.
1. Choose your mystery
The world’s greatest detective has taken on a new case, a mystery complex and fascinating. Though the answer is obscure, he or she begins to gather evidence, compulsively, methodically. That’s how many mystery novels, detective TV shows, and historical research papers begin. You heard me.
The first step in writing a great research paper is to find a “mystery” that suits you. It doesn’t have to be a murder or a conspiracy (though if that’s your thing, history is certainly not short on murders or conspiracies); it can be a life, a relationship, a discovery, a battle, an event. If you’re lost for ideas, look around you; you can explore the historical precedents of the people, places, and activities in your own life. However, it’s crucial to choose a topic that interests you—the sort of thing you’d look up on Wikipedia just because you were curious—because otherwise your entire paper-writing process will be a drag. If the assignment does not allow you a choice of topic, talk to your teacher. Most instructors are happy to make special allowances for enthusiastic students.
2. Gather evidence
Once you’ve picked your “mystery,” dive right into the investigation. Learn as much as you can about the “case” by gathering evidence from all sorts of different sources. An encyclopedia is a good place to start, as is a library. I can’t tell you how many of my own papers have been inspired or aided by simply browsing shelves and pulling off anything that looks relevant. Begin to take notes and make sure to keep things organized. Starting a new page or document for each source and writing the citation info at the top is a good system that has the added benefit of saving you time on your bibliography later.
You’ll quickly find that you can’t take notes on everything, and that’s a good thing. Filtering your note-taking to what you instinctively find important or interesting will naturally narrow your scope and shape the story that you will tell (more on this in Step 3). With an increasingly firm idea of your topic, you can continue to grow your source list with more and specific pieces of evidence. Primary sources, if you can access them, will make your paper much more advanced and professional, and are also fascinating—don’t forget that a letter, diary entry, or firsthand account contains the voice of a real person! How to find appropriate primary sources is a separate topic that’s outside the scope of this blog post, but you can talk to your tutor or contact me through my tutor profile.
3. Solve the mystery
Once you have a well-organized, well-cited wealth of notes, your investigation is finished. The process should have shed light on the “mystery,” and also made you an expert on the topic. So let your expertise show with a confident thesis.
A thesis is the resolution to the mystery, a sentence or cluster of sentences that clearly express what you’ve discovered. Like an attorney’s closing statement, it must make an argument. A statement of fact is not a thesis. A debatable statement of cause and effect, of relative importance or significance, of what (in your informed opinion) probably happened, is a thesis. Picking an adequate thesis can be tricky, especially if you don’t have existing experience with writing history, so again, if you have trouble, talk to your tutor or contact me.
Typically, theses go at the end of your essay’s first paragraph, which is known as the introduction. I’ve found that it’s helpful to write and polish the entire introduction before moving on to Step 4. This process can help you organize the whole paper in your head and build the lexicon that you’ll use for the rest of the essay.
4. Prove your case
You’ve stated your case—now you have to prove it. Write an outline to order your ideas and reorganize your evidence. This does not have to look pretty, nor do your ideas have to be fully formed or well articulated. What’s most important is tying the ideas to the evidence.If you’re working on a computer, try summarizing your essay in bullet points and then copying selections from your source notes and pasting them under the correct bullets.
Now, you write—but you’re not writing from scratch.
Think of it as imposing order on your outline. Turn your half-baked phrases into real sentences, your jumbled notes into focused quotations, your bullet points into paragraphs. It can be very exciting to see everything come together before your eyes.
When the dust clears, you should have an introductory paragraph culminating in a cogent thesis followed by a series of paragraphs laying out the details of your claim, supported by evidence from your sources. End with a conclusion, a final paragraph in which you tie everything together and perhaps introduce a new thought. There is no formula for the conclusion, but it’s best to wait to write it until everything else is done, giving a conclusion-worthy idea a chance to pop up during the body-writing process.
Congratulations, detective. You picked a case, investigated it, resolved it, and backed up your resolution with evidence. Now that you’re a professional mystery-solver, I hope that you will look forward to your next research paper.
Are you interested in reading additional blog posts on expository writing?