Writing: Research & Term Papers

If anyone tells you they enjoy writing research papers, don't trust them with your life, because they obviously have a problem with the truth.Research papers frequently bring sorrow and sleeplessness to students, and rarely offer any rewards.

This is primarily because no one's taught to conduct research properly, and even fewer understand how to transfer raw data into an interesting format. An interesting research paper, you may wonder. Does such an animal even exist? Yes, but it's almost as difficult to find as a fox wearing a houndstooth suit and a monocle.

Good research begins with a good idea. You can't start with a hazy focus and produce something fascinating, and you can't expect vague research to illuminate your great idea. To have fun writing a research paper, and to help others enjoy reading it, you need to know where you're going. (To learn more about good reading, check out this section of our website.)

Once you have a specific idea, you can investigate it. If you're committed to writing an interesting paper, you can'tpick a boring topic. "Plumbing the Empire State Building" could conceivably be an interesting topic; "The Chemical Composition of PVC Pipe" wouldn't even interest science geeks.

But how many books, articles, podcasts, or websites talk about plumbing the Empire State Building? And of those resources, how many are available to the average student working from home or at the library? Availability of material is an essential consideration that determines the success of your paper.

Another frequent mistake is to snow readers with content. Sometimes you need a footnote for every sentence, but not in a high school research paper. School papers allow students to demonstrate their critical thinking skills as much as their ability to retrieve data, and simply throwing citations into a paper is a sure sign not much critical thinking happened.

This is why it's essential to be familiar with serious nonfiction. "Serious" just means writing that posits an idea based on fact analysis. A bad biography lays out all the facts about a person's life; a good biography lays out the same facts and draws a conclusion from them, like "Abraham Lincoln wasn't an American hero" or "Leo Tolstoy's books are big because he was big."

As those examples indicate, there are good and bad premises. Finding the right angle requires writers to think seriously about their topic and engage their research critically. Since all writing is born from the author's worldview, two biographies of Abraham Lincoln are going to present two different versions of him, and both will use facts to defend those opinions.

Sifting these subjective opinions and subjective uses of data can be daunting, but it's necessary. The student who can't do this will never learn to write well, or to study well. The art and science of study, after all, is about fostering the ability to interact with ideas and to form ideas of one's own.

Research papers are excellent opportunities to hone these skills. Students must analyze the work of others and draw conclusions from that analysis. Research papers increase students' knowledge of a given topic, and sharpen their critical thinking skills.

Throughout this process, it's essential to remain flexible. As students acquire information, they may decide their original thesis won't work, or they may need to radically revise their outline, or they may decide to switch topics altogether. These things should never be discouraged (unless the student is trying to avoid writing the paper).

Learning is about growth, and as far as this flexibility encourages growth it should be allowed. Almost no successful writer leaves their initial work unaltered, and to think a school student of any age can do so is to attribute to them abilities they don't have.

Once actual writing of the paper has commenced, students should focus on making it enjoyable to read. Too many assume that because it's "just a research paper" it doesn't need to be interesting, or even that it shouldn't be interesting. This assumption probably has something to do with the common dichotomization between facts and stories, but there's no reason to separate the two. Since facts are dry, in fact, there's every reason they should co-exist.

A good research paper is also a good narrative. That doesn't mean every research paper should be written in story form, but every research paper should have a certain readability and flow that will keep its audience interested enough to continue turning pages. Without this element, even the best premise and the best research will fall flat.

This is undeniably a lot to manage. A good research paper is hard to pull off, but it's very rewarding. Not only is completion a relief and triumph, but research papers draw together all the skills acquired as a writer and student.

Review by C. Hollis Crossman
C. Hollis Crossman used to be a child. Now he is a husband and father, teaches adult Sunday school in his Presbyterian congregation, and likes weird stuff. He might be a mythical creature, but he's definitely not a centaur.Read more of his reviews here.

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Manual for Writers of Research Papers, Theses, and Dissertations
by Kate L. Turabian
9th edition from University of Chicago
Writing Reference for 9th-Adult
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