One of the cornerstones of the university experience is learning how to write a research paper — a written document that organizes and analyzes information you have collected to answer a question of yours or your professor's choosing. A university research paper is a bit different from your typical high school essay, so we asked John Hill, Coordinator of VIU's Writing Centre, who has helped thousands of students learn how to write research papers, to break it down into steps.
Step 1: Determine the purpose of the paper
A research paper has a PURPOSE, and identifying that purpose is key to the focus of your work.
Step 2: Refine your research question
That focus is given by your RESEARCH QUESTION. Within your topic, what is the thing you want to know that you don't know? This question is very important because it is what will drive your research. It is why you are doing research. Sometimes your prof will give you this question. Sometimes you will be expected to generate one of your own. But your job is to answer it.
Step 3: Organize your approach
You will decide what kinds of informationyou will need in order to answer that question. Think about how it fits together. This determines the ORGANIZATION of your paper. You may need to do a bit of background reading to get this far. And as you read, this structure may change as you learn more.
You can use a mind map to generate these simple categories. They will form the basis of a series of organized single-subtopic paragraphs (you can have more than one paragraph on each sub-topic though, and you may gather multiple related paragraphs under sub-headings). The focus of each paragraph will be identified with a clear topic sentence.
Step 4: Collect information
You will search for this information using the LIBRARY'S ONLINE SEARCH TOOL. You can use a general Internet browser too, but the library gives access to important documents, especially academic journals, that may lurk behind paywalls if you search in Google. This enormous resource is part of what your fees buy for you, so use it! If your prof requires peer-reviewed journal articles this is the best way to do it (the library search has a filter you can use to select only such items).
READING this kind of material is a skill. The writers have gone through the kind of process you are going through, so try to figure out their purpose: what is their research question? What are the main components of their paper, what is their argument? Look at their intro; look at their conclusion. It has structure: it is not just a list of stuff...
Step 5: Attribute the information
You will CITE this material from your research as you go. That is, you will inform your reader where this information came from. This answers the important question that your readers will have: "How do you know this?" Having a good answer to this question is what gives your paper credibility, so it's good for you.
It also helps your reader to find that material if they are interested in it, so it's good for them. AND it prevents you from being accused of plagiarism (passing off others' work as your own) which is good for us all. There are conventional ways of doing this and they vary from department to department. The three most common are APA, MLA and Chicago. You can look this up. A good source is The OWL at Purdue.
They are basically all quite straightforward: there's a minimal element in the text with the cited material (author, date) in APA – plus page if useful, (author, page) in MLA, and just a superscript number in Chicago. This leads you to a full reference entry (Who, when, what, where) at the end of your paper (or in the case of Chicago, a numbered footnote at the bottom of the page — or an endnote at the end of the document).
Step 6: Write your conclusion
After you have gone through this process, you should be able to DRAW SOME CONCLUSIONS from the information you have presented and explain how it answers your research question. That is the job of your, surprise, surprise, CONCLUSION.
Step 7: Refine your thesis statement
It is a convention of the academic paper that you then take a tight, clear statement of that argument, the position your paper is taking, that is, how it is answering the research question, and drop it in at the end of your introduction. We call that your THESIS STATEMENT (the word "thesis" means argument"). And it really helps your reader understand your paper. And since your reader is the prof who is grading the paper, it really helps you too!
Bonus Step: Get help!
Oh, and step eight is of course to come to the Writing Centre (which is operating its sessions online currently) and talk to me or one of the other faculty tutors. Early in your process is best but come at any point. You can make an appointment using our online booking system. We can go through all of these steps in more detail and then get into the specifics of your particular assignment. We are here to help!
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