Some of us have the good fortune of taking a research paper class in high school--preparing us for the inevitable assignment in college. But if you are not so fortunate, here are a few suggestions and guidelines to use for writing your first research paper:
UNDERSTAND THE ASSIGNMENT
Read it through a couple of times. Highlight key words--any main prompting words and any action words.
CHOOSE a WORKABLE PROMPT/TOPIC
Most instructors offer more than one option for a research paper. If you have a choice, decide which prompt you will do according to which you want to do, that which you have interest in. You must do what interests you--otherwise you will be miserable through the researching and writing phases and your reader(s) will be miserable reading it.
As often happens in college courses (especially the larger lecture courses), you get no prompt or only a vague one (to write forty pages on any relevant topic, say).
Ask yourself questions--pursue the answers. Follow your curiosity--one concern you have will lead to many areas, and subsequently to many focused ideas. Ask friends/other teachers their opinions. Look into the Library of Congress Subject Headings, a huge book with a zillion subjects and their related subcategories, or go online to a subject index such as www.interconnected.com, a site that gives you 100's of possibly related topics when you type in one word. DECIDE ON A MODE--Many instructors will tell you to "compare and contrast" or to "prepare a statistical analysis," for example, but for those assignments that are more general, you must decide yourself how to set up the paper, how to format it.
Depending on the class and your angle of approach, you may use an argumentative, problem/ solution, compare/contrast, analysis, narrative summary and interpretation, or combination of two or more of the above, for instance.
If you are not given a mode, you need to decide upon/establish a format. Break your paper into organized segments, setting up a format for your paper with, for example, the assets and liabilities..., or the spiritual/emotional/physical/intellectual changes..., or x number of decades..., etc..
NARROW YOUR FOCUS/TOPIC--Make sure your topic is manageable. Writing about Nazism in ten pages will not be sufficient space to cover everything needing coverage; the five most heinous medical atrocities practiced on men at Auschwitz will.
DEVELOP A WORKING THESIS--While you search for topics/themes that interest you, and later, as you narrow the topic, you will have to come up with a point, a main point, so the paper doesn't just hang there with a bunch of facts/ideas stacked on it.
Ask yourself those curious questions--then answer them. The answer(s)--written down in complete sentence(s)--will be your thesis statement(s).
Consider what if scenarios. Your guesses--a.k.a. your hypothesis/es--will become your dissertation statement(s).
Consider what your colleagues/peers/friends/family members experts think about the topic at hand. Do you agree? Go with their opinion as your thesis statement. Do you disagree? Go with your position, then, turning it into a thesis statement.
Consider the assignment. Does it ask you, specifically, to answer a question? Your answer, once you add up all of your research/ideas/ observations, should equal a complete statement.
I promise it helps to have a set of sub-topics you can write down and post next to your desk or pc, referring to the outline as you go so you stay focused...anchored.
Use a combination of books, periodicals, professional/academic journals, surveys or polls, the Net, interviews; the World Wide Web (being careful to use reliable sources), media materials--audio/video/ newspapers/microfiche/microfilm. (Ask for help using and citing all of these.)
DO A BIBLIOGRAPHY-immediately! Before you read any thing or person thoroughly, write down the source's information. This is vital, as if you forget and write the paper and do the bibliography last--after your human sources have gone or you have returned written materials or left Internet links long ago--you will be missing dates, names, titles, and page numbers you need for accuracy.
READING and TAKING NOTES for a RESEARCH PAPER
When reading a piece for a paper, you are reading "to take" away something you need. Do not read whole books. No time for that.
1. Read the table of contents (in front)-find key words, ideas, people, related to your paper, and read just that /those chapter/s.
2. Use the index (in back), seeking out only key themes/phrases/words that apply to your research.
3. Look at each book's bibliography/works cited page/s [at very end of book/article] for suggested sources.
Cite your source every time you use direct (word-for-word) quotes. Cite your source every time you do not use direct wording but do use any fact/theory/date you did not come up with yourself (indirect quotes).
DRAFT THE PAPER
Use the same components in a research paper that you would in an English assignment (using headers in the scientific/psych. experiment papers):
Use clear appropriate diction, and a scholarly/mature tone Use an engaging opener/ introduction. Use a complete, thoughtful, fresh and original thesis.
PROOFREAD/REVISE THE PAPER-
Follow a revising/editing checklist, or craft one of your own to follow: make sure you have an introduction, ample support, and a satisfying conclusion.
Make sure your paragraphs are well-ordered, your syntax (sentences) are orderly, varied, and well-punctuated.