Things to Keep in Mind:
- The first thing to note about writing a research paper is that everyone has his or her own unique process. Not every process is as successful as others, but the end result to every process is the same thing: a completed draft. It is important to understand that there is no such thing as the perfect paper. The paper is never perfect; it is merely finished.
- Be warned, research has a nasty habit of evolving. Don’t worry if the topic changes somewhat; that is simply the nature of research. As sources are compiled and scrutinized, the original writing topic might shift into something more honed and precise.
- With all that in mind, the information provided below contains the starting phases on how to write a research-based assignment. Each step through this process will include examples crafted from The RFK Tapes to help illustrate the various writing components. The references will be listed in the Chicago citation style.
The Planning Phase
- Step 1. Create a Schedule
The first step to any research activity is knowing and understanding the time constraints in which one is operating. Plot out the length allotted for the completion of the assignment; it could be as little as one week to as long as a whole semester. Once the assignment has been plotted, start adding estimated deadlines for different points in the trajectory of the paper/project. Make sure to give enough time to properly research (finding sources) as well as write (drafting the assignment).
- Step 2: Understanding the Assignment
To prevent wasting time and journeying down dead-end research excursions, students should make sure that they understand the parameters of the assignment first. Do not hesitate to ask the professor about anything confusing, such as the language within the prompt, the constraints of the assignment, the timetable for the project, etc.
A trick to decoding a prompt is to determine the objective of the writing assignment. Look at the action verbs utilized in the directions, such as arguing, instructing, explaining, reporting, etc. Then identify the task or expectation portion of the paper, for example: include, support, incorporate, apply, relate, extrapolate, etc. These words will guide the direction of your paper.
- Step 3: Choosing a Topic
This is the most challenging part of the process: figuring out what to write about. Everything starts somewhere, and this is the starting point for a research paper. The first course of action is to figure out what is interesting about a given subject. Find something that stands out or is weird. What caused a pause during reading or viewing of the text initially? Did something appear inconsistent? Did something cause a sudden onset of emotion, good or bad?
Once a vague notion of an idea has been chosen, sit with that interest for a little while and investigate it. Is the interesting thing worth researching? Is it something that can be crafting into an argument? Is it just interesting or is there more to it? Is there substance?
If the item of interest is researchable, approach the professor to get approval. The professor’s permission is the final check before moving forward in a research project. The professor is the one grading the assignment, so he or she will be the perfect person to judge the viability of a topic before hours or days are spent wasted in a fervor of scholarly pursuits.
- Step 4: Audience Awareness
While a student might be writing a paper for class, the instructor is not the only audience for the assignment. Research papers typically are meant to be a continuation and a contribution to the larger conversation happening around a certain text or topic.
The Questioning Phase (i.e. Brainstorming)
In simplistic terms, brainstorming is jotting down the ideas and questions that spring up while investigating a proposed writing topic.
Sit for 15-30 minutes and write down everything you can about your topic. While it might seem tedious, getting your ideas and questions down on paper will help prevent straying from the topic once researching starts as well as recording initial assumptions and developing a concrete understanding of the assignment’s trajectory.
Don't worry about having complete sentences or making everything grammatically correct. Just get the ideas down on paper.
Brainstorming for the RFK Assassination:
- "Was Sirhan Sirhan as we were told really a fanatically Arab nationalist?
- Or was he as some think, a Robot Assassin?
- Did Sirhan Sirhan even murder Robert Kennedy or did someone else?
- Did the Los Angeles Police conduct an honest investigation or was there a massive cover up?"1
- Sirhan's (lack of) memory in pantry
- Sirhan's position in pantry
- Too many bullets
- Girl with the polkadot dress
- Hypno-programming: find out more about this
- Other suspects
Formulating Research Questions:
The problem with research is the amount of information based around any given topic. Depending on what is being researched, some topics have multiple books published about the same thing while others have nothing published about them at all.
The best remedy for either scenario is formulating research questions to help narrow the searchable field of information. Start by looking at the brainstorming activity. Are there any questions starting with “how” or “why”? Those types of questions will lead to more fruitful searches.
The Questing Phase
The questing phase is when a student will start collecting sources for the research assignment. Click over to Searching for Sources for more information.
The Blueprinting Phase
While some people will leave outlining to the end of the process as a way of double-checking the internal logic of a paper, creating an outline before beginning the drafting phase can help structure the argument and organize the research in a coherent fashion.
Resources for Creating an Outline:
- How to Create an Outline: each step has a description of what type of information should go in which order.
- Outline Steps (doc): This is a downloadable Microsoft Word document already setup for an outline.
- University of Washington's How to Make an Outline (pdf)
The Drafting Phase
Once the research portion of the paper/project/assignment is complete, the drafting phase commences. For more information of how to craft an argument and begin drafting, click over to Creating an Argument and Drafting the Assignment.
1. Zac Stuart-Pontier and Bill Klaber, "June 5, 1968," June 5, 2018, in The RFK Tapes, produced by Cadence 13, podcast, MP3 audio, 00:13:48-00:14:16, http://rfktapes.com/1-june-5-1968/.