These are the three rules of writing I always share with students and clients:
The best practice before writing a research paper? Doing your reading. Finding high quality sources is foundational to any academic paper. Browse scholarly journals (maybe on, say, JSTOR?) and books from university and scholarly presses. Obviously your school library is a major resource here, and research librarians from within your discipline are great people to talk to at the beginning of a project.
Look at your sources, then look at your sources’ sources. Great academic writing is often a product of what came before it. A good source will have clues in its bibliography for finding similarly helpful works. Authority can be tricky to determine, especially now. A study from 2009 found that students today have a harder time parsing the trustworthiness of sources, especially sources they find online. So pay close attention to the information surrounding a source, including its date, author, publisher, and general consistency. Who wrote your sources? When and why?
That hamburger chart you learned in high school? Still a pretty good model. An outline helps organize your thoughts, and see your writing holistically. This can be formal or informal, but it usually helps to have some kind of outline. A study in four disciplines (history, biology, psychology, and business) found that outlines helped organize students’ thoughts and clarify their papers’ structure.
Primary sources, as your history professor will tell you, are key. Archives are incredible troves of firsthand research materials, special collections, and often house important primary documents after their owners and authors pass away. See if your school has any special collections related to your topic. A research librarian will know. You may also want to familiarize yourself with some of the ethical issues in archival research in this piece from College Composition and Communication.
A research paper isn’t a book report. It’s not a summary of the existing research, though it does do some summarizing. It takes a stance. It’s supposed to be argumentative in one way or another. It answers that famous question “So what?” In this piece from College English, composition scholar Margaret Kantz digs into teaching persuasive writing.
With some exceptions, academic writing rewards clarity, concision, and confidence. This doesn’t mean you have to water your ideas down. Try to say something complicated—but put it plainly. Scholar Stanley Fish outlines some issues regarding clarity, interpretation, and originality in this philosophical essay from Critical Inquiry. In it, Fish reminds that “[a] sentence that seems to need no interpretation is already the product of one.”
Created by Alexis Kopkowski, Librarian, PCC East.