Writing a research paper is a standard requirement in most high schools. Whether the topic is the Revolutionary War, the invention of the computer or the life and works of Emily Dickinson, any research paper can be tackled more easily by breaking the process down into manageable steps.
Find a Topic
Some research paper topics are assigned, but sometimes the assignment is very broad or completely open and up to the writer to choose. The topic should be broad enough to fulfill the paper’s length requirements, but not so broad that researching and organizing becomes a problem. For example, for a five- to seven-page paper, the topic of “The Peanut Butter Sandwich” would be too narrow, but the topic of “All the Sandwiches of the World” might be too broad. You would want something in between, like “Five Unusual Sandwiches and their Origins.”
Preliminary Research and Outline
Preliminary research is done to find out how much information is available on the topic. If there is only one book written on the topic, a change of topic is in order. This is the point in the process when you check out books from the library, bookmark pertinent websites on the computer, and photocopy any other material not otherwise available.
A preliminary outline is a rough plan of what subtopics will be discussed in the paper. It may take the form of questions that will be answered with research. At this time, you develop a tentative thesis: what you want to say about the topic. For example: “Sandwiches are not as boring as you might think.”
Now you begin doing research with a purpose and a direction. You read or skim books, excerpts of books, articles and Internet material. You look in indices and tables of contents to quickly find material that applies to the topic. The best way to take notes is to use index cards. Later on it will be easier to organize the notes. Write only one fact or idea per note card and document the page number and the author and/or title of the research material. You should take notes on everything you think will help you write the paper. If you don't use the material, you can always discard the notes. You should paraphrase as much as possible and reserve using direct quotes for material that is particularly well said or difficult to put in your own words.
Often a research assignment requires you to submit a final outline prior to submitting the final paper. This is written in is formal outline style. For example: I. History of Sandwiches A. Origins 1. Earl of Sandwich 2. Duke of Rye B. Development 1. Pre-1620 in Europe 2. post-1620 in New World 3. Modern day a. delicatessens b. types of sandwiches
Writing the Paper
If you have completed all the steps diligently, the actual writing of the paper should not be difficult or especially time consuming. At this point you should go through the note cards and put them in order according to the final outline. Then you can begin writing the first draft of the paper. Research sources must be cited even if the material is paraphrased. Use the citation style the assignment calls for: MLA for literary papers, APA for scientific research and Chicago Style for historical research. Examples of these styles may be found on the Internet. The appropriate style must also be used for the works cited page at the end of the research paper.
Good research is crucial, but it is also important for you to include your own observations and sometimes even opinions of the researched material. Otherwise the paper is just a bunch of facts strung together without any cohesion.
The paper will go through a number of drafts and revisions before it is ready for submission.
Diane Kampf has more than 20 years of teaching experience ranging from middle school to college freshmen. She holds a Master of Arts degree in creative writing and English literature and a New York State Secondary Teacher Certificate. She has written educational materials for Learning Express, LLC, Kaplan and Pearson.