How to right a research paper

Writing a Research Paper


Understand the types of resources

We don’t think it’s a coincidence that the words “source” and “resource” look so much alike. Your sources, or the materials which supply you information, are your resources. The first definition of resource in the Random House Webster’s College Dictionary is “a source of supply, support, or aid.” Therefore, it’s useful to enter the research process with the positive attitude that your sources are in your corner to help you flesh out your paper and open your eyes to a “collective wealth” of knowledge (the second definition of resource!), not just in there as paper requirements.

For argumentative papers, sources act as evidence to back up your thesis. For analytical papers, sources act more as possible answers to your research question. For the sake of simplicity, we will refer to this dual function of sources with one word: support.

What are the two main types?

There are two types of support: primary and secondary. The names refer to the degree of “distance” to the topic.

A primary source is an original document or account that is not about another document or account but stands on its own. For example, any novel, poem, play, diary, letter, or other creative work is a primary source. The data from a research study also constitutes a primary source because it comes straight from the participants’ replies. Interviews, not of experts but of people actually experiencing something “on the scene,” are also primary sources. If you were doing a paper on the emotional effects of job loss, talking to someone who just lost their job would be about as close to your topic as you could get. That’s what we mean by distance.

Secondary sources are ones that interpret primary sources or are otherwise a step removed. A journal article or book about a poem, novel, or play or a commentary about what an interview signifies is a secondary source. Your paper will likewise become a secondary source.

Try this Exercise on Primary and Secondary Sources from SUNY Empire State College Writer’s Complex.

Note: Not all assignments ask you to consult secondary sources. For literary essays in particular, often all the examples or evidence you need will, and should, come straight from the text. Make sure you understand the assignment before you look for essays on Hamlet that you may not even need.

So how do you research primary sources?

Texts: Once you have an argument in mind, reread them. Highlight, underline, scribble in the margins, or use sticky notes to pick out what you need. Attune yourself to the text with the different angle you’ve chosen to write about. Remember, this time you won’t be reading for comprehension (i.e., what is the plot of the story), but for specific examples that support your gut feeling about how or why something is going on in the story. Be sure to note down glaring contradictory evidence too. You’ll need to acknowledge that in your paper or else revise your thesis depending on how strong the counter-evidence turns out to be.

Interviews: When you’re not trying to sell someone something, people are very willing to talk and share. Ask around and locate someone through your network of friends and family (maybe the your cousin’s boss’ sister just settled a court case on an issue you’re exploring). If that doesn’t pan out, look in the phonebook or the Internet for professional associations where you can often get in touch with people in a particular field. Once you find a credible source, follow these great Tips for Interviewers from Roane State Community College OWL.

And if I need secondary sources?

You can search the Web for government documents or your city hall for community records but in most cases your secondary-source research begins at the library.

Start with a book search if appropriate. Go to your campus library (public libraries cater more to popular interests than academic ones) and head for the online catalog like Purdue’s THOR. There aren’t many libraries left that only have a card catalog.

Follow the instructions on the screen though in most cases it’s pretty self-explanatory. There will probably be buttons for ‘Title,’ ‘Author,’ ‘Subject,’ and ‘Keyword.’ For initial searching, you probably won’t know the author or title of books; therefore, ‘subject’ will likely be your tool. Type in keywords from your thesis or research question, usually in combination because one word at a time will not give you the specific information you’re looking for. If there are primary texts involved, type those into the ‘Title’ screen; often, academic libraries carry anthologies of criticism near the actual primary text.

Want to try some Sample Searches, again from Empire State?

If you find some possible books, write down the call number so that you can find the sources. Once you’re at the right shelf, locate the book while scanning the books near it. Often, there are some real gems in the vicinity. Look at the Bibliography of the book for pointers to other texts and follow up on those leads as well as keeping the one you have with you for the time being. But what if you find books in the catalog and they’re all out?

Now if you don’t find books, one of two things may be going on: you aren’t conducting effective searches in which case you might want to consult the Library of Congress Subject Heading Index for ways of better representing your words, or there may just be other sources more relevant to your subject. For example, if your paper depends on incredibly up-to-date information, books might not be the way to go. A combination of journals, the Web, and interviews might be a better route.

Journal articles can be as valuable as books for most disciplines. Leafing through an academic journal, written by and for professionals in a given field, is like entering a conversation between experts. Journals go into much greater depth and target a more specific, educated audience than do the popular magazines at your local convenience store. However, both types of publications are called periodicals because they come out periodically, usually every month or season. For the kind of paper you’ll be writing, unless you’re specifically analyzing the content of magazines as part of your topic, concentrate more on academic journals. If the difference between Time and Cultural Studies isn’t apparent, read Distinguishing Scholarly Journals from Other Periodicals from Cornell University Library.

Most libraries have an ‘Index’ menu on their catalog screen. Indices and other specialized periodical databases are categorized by subject. One that you can find online, the ERIC database, deals mainly with education and other social science issues. Other journals cover business, psychology, literature etc. Depending on the country you live in and the library you go to, you will have different access to different databases and different instructions on how to best use them. Follow the online instructions or consult your reference librarian for help if your searches lead nowhere.

If you do find a journal, record all the pertinent information and find a place usually called ‘the stacks.’ Unless your find is the most current issue of the journal (which will probably be in a ‘magazine’ or periodical reading room), your source is probably bound with other issues from that year into a book format, tracked down on the shelf like any other book. The only catch is you can’t take journals out of the library. But that’s okay; that’s where note-taking will come in later. It’s cheaper and a better use of your time than waiting in line for the photocopiers!

If your library doesn’t have a journal you need, talk to your reference librarian about an interlibrary loan. Articles can usually be faxed in less than a week from other libraries.

The Web is another great tool, but use it carefully. Anyone can post information on the Internet and anyone can change what is up there, bringing up questions of authority and validity. We will give you links on evaluating online information in a couple of sections. For now, the best kinds of information you’ll find here are avenues for finding people to interview (newsgroups, mailing lists, professional association home pages), access to government documents, material from large organizations and academic institutions, and articles on digital or web-based issues.

In addition to Purdue’s Searching the Web workshop, here are some additional links to help you out:

A Student’s Guide to WWW Research from the English Department at Saint Louis University

Computer-Assisted Research: A guide to tapping online information which is a book by Nora Paul of the Poynter Institute for Media Studies

The Research Paper and The World Wide Web by Dawn Rodrigues has chapters and exercises on the subject

How to Conduct Research on the Internet by author and InfoQuest! President, Terry Brainerd Chadwick

Once you learn how to search on the Web, you might try these general reference links:

Purdue Library’s Virtual Reference Desk

The Virtual Reference Desk

Internet Resources by Subject from Ashland University. There’s also a fantastic Reference Desk with links to specific reference tools and other reference desks on the Web.

Infomine has lots of academically reviewed resources for starting research in just about any subject.

Besides primary texts, interviews, books, journals, and the Web, there are a myriad other sources you can use, but rather than overwhelm you with everything you can access at a library, we suggest you master these five first. Then, if and when you want to start tackling microfilm, microfiche, specialized CD-ROMs, and census reports, talk to your reference librarian for guidance.

Writing a Thesis Statement

A thesis statement is a sentence (or sentences) that expresses the main ideas of your paper and answers the question or questions posed by your paper. It offers your readers a quick and easy to follow summary of what the paper will be discussing and what you as a writer are setting out to tell them. The kind of thesis that your paper will have will depend on the purpose of your writing. This handout will cover general thesis statement tips, explain some of the different types of thesis statements, and provide some links to other resources about writing thesis statements.

General Thesis Statement Tips

  • A thesis statement generally consists of two parts: your topic, and then the analysis, explanation(s), or assertion(s) that you’re making about the topic. The kind of thesis statement you write will depend on what kind of paper you’re writing.
  • In some kinds of writing, such as narratives or descriptions, a thesis statement is less important, but you may still want to provide some kind of statement in your first paragraph that helps to guide your reader through your paper.
  • A thesis statement is a very specific statement — it should cover only what you want to discuss in your paper, and be supported with specific evidence. The scope of your paper will be determined by the length of your paper and any other requirements that might be in place.
  • Generally, a thesis statement appears at the end of the first paragraph of an essay, so that readers will have a clear idea of what to expect as they read.
  • You can think of your thesis as a map or a guide both for yourself and your audience, so it might be helpful to draw a chart or picture of your ideas and how they’re connected to help you get started.
  • As you write and revise your paper, it’s okay to change your thesis statement — sometimes you don’t discover what you really want to say about a topic until you’ve started (or finished) writing! Just make sure that your “final” thesis statement accurately shows what will happen in your paper.

Analytical Thesis Statements

In an analytical paper, you are breaking down an issue or an idea into its component parts, evaluating the issue or idea, and presenting this breakdown and evaluation to your audience. An analytical thesis statement will explain:

  • what you are analyzing
  • the parts of your analysis
  • the order in which you will be presenting your analysis

Example: An analysis of barn owl flight behavior reveals two kinds of flight patterns: patterns related to hunting prey and patterns related to courtship.

A reader who encountered that thesis in a paper would expect an explanation of the analysis of barn owl flight behavior, and then an explanation of the two kinds of flight patterns.

Questions to ask yourself when writing an analytical thesis statement:

  • What did I analyze?
  • What did I discover in my analysis?
  • How can I categorize my discoveries?
  • In what order should I present my discoveries?

Expository (Explanatory) Thesis Statements

In an expository paper, you are explaining something to your audience. An expository thesis statement will tell your audience:

  • what you are going to explain to them
  • the categories you are using to organize your explanation
  • the order in which you will be presenting your categories

Example: The lifestyles of barn owls include hunting for insects and animals, building nests, and raising their young.

A reader who encountered that thesis would expect the paper to explain how barn owls hunt for insects, build nests, and raise young.

Questions to ask yourself when writing an expository thesis statement:

  • What am I trying to explain?
  • How can I categorize my explanation into different parts?
  • In what order should I present the different parts of my explanation?

Argumentative Thesis Statements

In an argumentative paper, you are making a claim about a topic and justifying this claim with reasons and evidence. This claim could be an opinion, a policy proposal, an evaluation, a cause-and-effect statement, or an interpretation. However, this claim must be a statement that people could possibly disagree with, because the goal of your paper is to convince your audience that your claim is true based on your presentation of your reasons and evidence. An argumentative thesis statement will tell your audience:

  • your claim or assertion
  • the reasons/evidence that support this claim
  • the order in which you will be presenting your reasons and evidence

Example: Barn owls’ nests should not be eliminated from barns because barn owls help farmers by eliminating insect and rodent pests.

A reader who encountered this thesis would expect to be presented with an argument and evidence that farmers should not get rid of barn owls when they find them nesting in their barns.

Questions to ask yourself when writing an argumentative thesis statement:

  • What is my claim or assertion?
  • What are the reasons I have to support my claim or assertion?
  • In what order should I present my reasons?

Further Resources

For more about writing an argumentative paper, you might want to visit our research paper workshop, which covers writing research papers from start to finish.

Many writing centers and writing websites offer help with writing thesis statements. Here are some links to get you started.


Posted on March 5, 2012, in Categorized. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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