Notes on writing research papers

You can also find dictionaries and thesauri in the ancient form known as books. Check the library. If you have trouble finding what you need, ask the librarians; they can help. They won't write the research paper for you, but they will help you locate sources.

If you need some guidance about what makes a good paper, see the page of Good Student Papers (password protected). These were "A" papers. Look at the number of citations they have in their bibliographies. Read the papers to see how they are organized. Check out the opening and closing paragraphs.

An "A" paper should teach your instructors something they did not previously know. For example, writing the same old tired lines about a topic like the Roswell UFO crash that has been thoroughly debunked in books and in lectures for this course will not earn an "A". Instead, find a topic that few have explored (check for a listing), or come up with a new angle on an old topic.

Regarding citations, remember that a paper with only one reference is not a research paper; if the reference is a book, the paper is a book review and if the reference is a web site the paper is a web site review.

Do NOT depend on the spell-checker to catch your errors. We have seen some hilarious mistakes in the form of incorrect words that were correctly spelled. If English is not your first language, get someone to read the paper with you and help you find mistakes. If English is your native language, get TWO people to proofread it for you!

Your paper should have a definite structure. Begin with an abstract of what the paper is trying to accomplish. Follow that with the body of the paper. Wrap up with a summary and conclusion. Here's one way to remember this.

The following suggestions are adapted from a page of recommendations given to us by Beth Newman of the SMU English Department. Also note that the last two links above, namely EasyWriter and the Pocket Style Manual, are also recommended by Ms. Newman.

1. The paper must articulate a clear thesis; that is, an arguable main point. By arguable, we mean that it is worth arguing; it is neither obvious ("Men are different from women") nor wishy-washy ("Men and women are different in some ways but similar in others"). We mean that, as an idea, it merits development, elaboration, substantiation, and qualification. Recommended: put your thesis at the end of your introductory paragraph.

2. Each paragraph of your paper should add up to unit that makes a point. This point should support, qualify, refine, consider other objections to, or otherwise develop the thesis of your paper. After you draft the paper, reread it, asking yourself after each paragraph, "What is the main point here?" If you can't say, you need to work harder to make that point emerge. Recommended: articulate this point in a topic sentence at the beginning of the paragraph or a concluding sentence at the end.

3. Your paper must provide an analysis of the issues involved, and the analysis should be rooted in something specific. Therefore, do NOT write your paper solely out of your own head or even out of your notes - based on an impression of the "general idea" we are asking about. Use your books and references. Study them. Be sure you understand the concepts, data and hypotheses.

4. When you quote something or someone, introduce the quotation and say something about its significance. Be sure to include the citation indicating the source of the quote.

5. Do not assume that meanings of key terms are self-evident (obvious). Your writing should define them as necessary so there will be no confusion on the reader's part about what they mean. Be sure to use terms consistently. Also be sure that you understand what each term means.

6. Your prose should be as clear, direct, and error-free as you can make it. Read your paper aloud. Do the sentences make sense? Do you stumble over them when you read them aloud? Would they be comprehensible to an intelligent person who does not know you and your way of expressing yourself? Avoid slang. Look for basic grammatical errors such as sentence fragments (not complete), runons, comma splices, failure to indicate possessives, subject/verb disagreement, etc., etc., etc. As mentioned above, be VERY careful about using the spell-checker. It WILL NOT save you from the incorrect word that is correctly spelled. For example, if you write "there" when you meant "their", the spell-checker is NOT going to catch it.

Suggested Research Paper Topics

Good past student research papers