Step Three to Writing a Research Paper — Starting Your Research

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Writing a research paper is a bit like preparing a meal or a special dessert, especially during the gathering stage of the process. Just as a chef has to gather all of the ingredients and all of the cooking utensils beforehand, you, too, must gather certain information. Here’s a four-step overview of what you need to gather to write a strong research paper.

1. First, gather as many materials on your topic as possible: books, magazines, newspapers, pamphlets, database information, and website information from reputable sources. Generally, website information from educational sites (.edu) and governmental sites (.gov) is more objective and reliable than information from organizational sites (.org) and commercial sites (.com) because the latter sites are trying to get you to support their cause or to purchase their products or services.

2. Then, preview the materials, and read selectively. Once you’ve gathered as much information as you can find, you should, obviously, begin reading it, but don’t overwhelm yourself by immediately trying to read every word of every document. For example, if you’re writing about the Battle of Saratoga and one of your books on the Revolutionary War contains only one chapter on that particular battle, read only that chapter. If you have time later to read the entire book, you may do so but only after devouring everything that pertains specifically to your topic.

3. Next, keep thorough records of your sources. In fact, you may want to start putting together your works cited page or your reference page as you write your paper. Most students save that step until the entire paper is written, but if you can add each source as you refer to it, the final documentation process will be easier and much less stressful.

Generally, for your works cited page, you should collect three kinds of information. First, make sure you record the full name of the author or authors. Next, record the full title of the work. Then, record the work’s publication information which is different for each type of source:

• Book — the publisher and the year.

• Magazine or newspaper — the name of the publication, the date, and the page number.

• Document retrieved from a database — the name of the database and the web address.

• Information from an internet website — the name of the school, government agency, organization, or company that set up the website, and the web address (without http://), which is sometimes referred to as the URL or Uniform Resource Locator.

4. Finally, look beyond the normal sources for information or consider non-print sources. This is especially true if your topic lends itself to non-traditional sources. For instance, if you’re writing about depression, try to interview a person who has suffered from depression or someone who works with people who are depressed. Or, if your topic doesn’t lend itself to an interview, consider attending a public meeting or an event that might be related to your topic. Or, visit a museum or an historical site that is connected in some way. Typically, teachers really appreciate students who think in new ways about their subjects and explore out-of-the-ordinary sources. Again, you have to keep thorough records about these sources, so you can properly document that information.

When chefs finish preparing a meal or a special dessert, they not only get to taste that work of art, but they also get to watch others enjoy that particular specialty. Similarly, when you write a strong term paper, you’ll not only enjoy the satisfaction of a task done well, but you’ll also experience the joy of your teacher’s positive reaction to the paper and the A or the A+ that goes along with it.

Jim LaBate works as a writing specialist in The Writing Center at Hudson Valley Community College (HVCC) in Troy, New York.