By Eric Garneau
1. Study Your Primary Text.
Before you can do any research, you've got to have a basis for the things you'll be looking up! All research papers begin with at least one principle text that forms the subject of your paper. This could be a book, an academic article, a poem, a film or anything really. Discussing this thing will be your focus, so make sure you're familiar with it. Study it well, engross yourself in its ideas… maybe even take notes! Even though you're researching other people's ideas, you need to have your own in place first.
2. Begin to Craft Your Argument.
Here's where your own thoughts come in handy. Hopefully your principal text(s) sparked some notions within you. Start thinking about its larger themes. What do you find particularly interesting about it? What do you think its main ideas have to say to the world at large? If you're dealing with fiction, you could come at that through a discussion of characters, plot details, setting, dialog, etc. If it's non-fiction you're after, you're more or less tackling the author's claims head-on, though you could include a discussion of that author's research methods, presentation style, anything you think he or she omitted and more. Whatever you come up with here that you think is most interesting and important will form the center of your paper.
3. Find Secondary Sources Related to Your Argument.
This is the key of a research paper. Once you know the angle you're going to take on what you're writing, you need to look for other pieces of criticism that concern themselves with the same thing. Though you want to narrow your search field to texts relevant to your own idea, keep an open mind toward the pieces themselves - don't disregard what someone has written just because it disagrees with you. In fact, it's valuable to keep those contrary pieces in mind just as much as to find stuff that bolsters your own assertions. If you can anticipate and deal with counterobjections to your points, your argument will be that much stronger. It's also possible you haven't considered the text as carefully as you might have, and these naysayers will help you craft a more nuanced, well thought-out argument. You'll want at least two secondary sources here, but three or more is preferable.
3a. Make Sure Your Sources Are Reputable.
Your research may take you to your local library, but more than likely you'll be using the Internet. Though there's a lot of fine information to be found there, you'll need to be sure that your sources are reputable and worth citing. For scholarly articles, for instance, you'll want to make sure they're drawn from peer-reviewed journals or websites of accredited .edu institutions. The more what you're writing about veers into popular culture, the more leeway you have (for example, Rolling Stone might not have anything worthwhile to say about Shakespeare, but its film reviews are probably okay to cite), but in general just make sure whatever you find has the proper authority. You don't want to cite anything of questionable origin; that could destroy your whole argument.
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4. Finalize Your Argument.
Once you've done your research, figure out where your original assertion still stands. Did you find a bunch of evidence to back up your claim? Great! Did you have to revise what you originally thought in light of the information you uncovered? That's fine too! Given the added knowledge of your research, reshape your initial thoughts into a single cogent main idea and finalize your argument. It's important that your main idea build off your research but go a step further - you can't just repeat the work somebody else has done; you want to push it into new realms.
5. Outline Your Paper.
Once you've figured out your main point, the hardest creative part of your work is done. Now it's on to the nuts and bolts of actually writing the paper. To do so, it's probably easiest to start with an outline. Research papers come in all different shapes and sizes, so it's hard to suggest a standard form here, but as a good rule of thumb every argument needs three main points to back it up. Your main points probably have sub-points that need explaining, so it seems at bare minimum you'd end up with three paragraphs of main points, each with three minor details to explain away. Besides that you've got an introductory paragraph (where you introduce your argument) and a concluding paragraph (where you bring everything together and remind readers why your argument was important).
6. Fill in That Outline.
Here's where your research really comes in handy. Once you've sketched out the main and sub-points you want to cover, you use the information you looked up to explain and back-up your assertions. Basically, they act as commentary on your own ideas, strengthening your argument by citing an authority beyond yourself. Speaking of citing, make sure you always give proper credit to all your sources - put direct quotes in quotation marks and attribute any ideas that aren't your own to their original author whether or not you're directly quoting. To not do so will probably get you a really bad grade and, on top of it, totally discredit your own hard work.
7. Proofread Your Final Paper.
Before you hand in your work, make sure you give it a once- or twice-over to catch any grammar or content mistakes you may have missed before. Such mistakes likely lower your grade and dampen the intended message of your paper, so you'll want it to be as technically sharp and precise as possible. Once you're satisfied (or satisfied enough) that you've crafted a unique, interesting and cogent argument that combines your own ideas and those you looked up, it's time to let that paper go out into the world… or your teacher's inbox.
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