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Get a topic
Write your ideas about the topic
Gather research materials
Read and annotate research materials with what you’ve written in mind
Revise first draft, adding research materials to support and develop claims or as ideas you want to refute.
Share draft with peer(s) for feedback--identify specific concerns for your peer(s) to focus on.
Explanation of Process
Step 1: Get a topic
This seems pretty much common sense at first. Of course you need a topic. However, many students begin the
writing/research process without a topic or with a very vague one.
When writing a research paper, you want your topic to be critical and argumentative in some way. Even when writing about
literature, you’re making an argumentative claim. For example, you might argue that Romeo in Shakespeare’s play is really the
cause of everyone’s problems and Juliet is innocent. That’s a specific, and argumentative claim.
When writing a research report, you aren’t trying to be argumentative. Instead, you’re basically explaining the research that’s
out there and what it says. But you still want to be as specific as possible. For example, which of the following works best? A
research report topic on how public writing is used in accounting in general, or one that focuses on how it’s used in business
accounting vs. personal accounting? It’s the second. Or, if you’re doing a research report on the work that’s been done on a
certain author, such as Shakespeare, for a literature class, which of the two would be most useful? A research report on
everything that’s ever been written about Shakespeare or one on how his works intersect with concepts such as post-colonial
studies or feminist theory? Again it’s the second set of topics that will be most useful. Why? Because they’re SPECIFIC!
The more specific you can make your topic, the more focused your own ideas will be. Also, having a specific topic will help you
in gathering research materials. After all, gathering everything ever written about Shakespeare is pretty near impossible for a
15 week class. But gathering everything written in the past 5-10 years about how his texts intersect with feminist theory is
much more do-able.
Write Your Ideas
All too often, students begin their research before they begin writing their own ideas about a particular topic.
Doing so causes several problems:
1. It’s practically impossible to figure out what parts of an article will work to support an argument if you don’t
know what the argument is yet.
2. It’s also practically impossible to differentiate between the ideas your sources present and your own ideas if
you don’t write your ideas down first.
Having a draft of your ideas will not only make the research you do make more sense, doing so will enable
you to know where the ideas raised by your research best fit within your own. And, MOST IMPORTANTLY,
having a draft of your ideas written down BEFORE YOU BEGIN RESEARCH will help prevent unintentional
plagiarism caused by the mingling of your ideas and those of your sources.
Also, and most importantly, let your first draft suck. Seriously. The first draft is all about getting your ideas on
the page. You can play with organization, grammar, development, etc. later. But for now, just get the ideas
out of your head. It’s practically impossible to revise a draft that only exists in your mind. And, after all, why
make your life harder than it needs to be?
Gather, Read, and Annotate Research Materials
This one seems pretty obvious. Of course you want to gather research materials for a research paper. But the big
steps a lot of students skip over are closely reading and annotating those materials. Don’t just use a highlighter or pen
to mark important points. Actually write in the margins (of a copy, not the library’s original!) or take notes on a
separate piece of paper as you go. The best process to use is this:
1. In a separate MS Word (or other word processing) file, write the Works Cited entry for the source.
2. Write down the page number of the relevant passage, and then quote it using quote marks.
3. Immediately after the relevant passage, write something like “MY THOUGHTS” and actually write what your
thoughts about the passage are. Why it’s important. How it supports or explains your idea. How it’s relevant. If it’s
something you’re going to argue against, then write the argument against it RIGHT THERE!
The bonus of doing this is that not only will you have a clear reminder of why the passage is important, you will also
have your analysis of it drafted and ready to be cut-and-paste into a draft of your paper. Simply highlighting or
underlining passages is useless because in a day or two, you won’t remember why they were such great passages.
Lastly, be sure to read the WHOLE source. Don’t just read the first part. Many authors begin with what they are going
to argue against in the first half of the paper and then refute it in the second. You don’t want to get caught taking
ideas out of context or mis-interpreting your source. Imagine if your teacher (or your boss) knows that source well.
How do you think you will look if you do something like that? Besides, you’re here to LEARN--so read the materials
closely and learn something!
Revise the First Draft
Now that you have a clear set of notes about your research sources AND a first draft of your
ideas, it’s time to marry the two together. This is pretty easy since drafts aren’t meant to be
1. Bring the relevant quotes and commentary from your research into the first draft, making sure
to provide clear attributive tags for your sources as well as accurate citations.
2. Be sure to make developed connections between your ideas and those of your sources--
without expecting the sources to make your points for you.
3. Work on the order of your ideas. Now that everything is on paper, is it in a logical order?
Should a section of the paper near the end come first?
4. Make sure that the ideas in your paper aren’t scattered through the paper. One tip for this is to
print out your paper and assign each idea a different colored highlighter. If you see that one
paragraph has yellow, pink, and blue ideas in it, that’s a pretty clear sign that you need to re-
organize the paper.
Share Draft with Peers
In many classes, some time is set aside for Peer Review of your essays. But even if your class doesn’t
have this time set aside, you should really share your ideas with a peer who you trust and respect.
Good writing doesn’t happen in isolation. All good writers share their ideas with their peers and garner
feedback. (Why do you think so many books have “Acknowledgement” pages--who do you think the
author is acknowledging?)
But it’s not enough to just say, “Hey, can you read this for me?” Instead, have some very specific
concerns ready from the beginning (this works for when you bring papers to the Writing Center as
well). For example, you might tell your peer that your last paper had a lot of problems with organization,
and you want to ensure that your paper is focused and well-organized. Or you might point out that your
teacher flagged your writing as choppy and ask your peer to mark any passages that read as choppy
as he/she reads.
Another thing to remember is to share the assignment with your reader as well. If your peer isn’t in the
class, he/she won’t know if your paper fulfills the goal of the assignment without having that sheet
ahead of time.
Revise and Proofread
In all honesty, revision never ends. All papers could be revised and re-revised. Of course, you do
have to stop at some point in order to turn the assignment in. So be sure to give yourself enough time
to do multiple revisions of a paper before submitting it to your professor. In other words, DON’T
START WRITING THE DAY BEFORE THE PAPER IS DUE!!! In many cases, you want to have at
least 2 rough drafts and a final draft by the time you submit your assignment. (Keep in mind that each
draft should show SIGNIFICANT revision--this entails more than just changing a few grammar errors.
It entails re-organization, development of ideas, deleting paragraphs, etc.)
Proofreading, on the other hand, is the LAST thing you do before submitting your assignment. This is
where you look for minor grammar and spelling errors, double-check your spacing and format, etc.
One effective proofreading technique is to read the paper out loud, from last sentence to the first. By
taking each sentence out of order, you will eliminate any context for that sentence. This will enable
you to see where there are flaws, missing words, incomplete sentences, and so on. Our brains want
us to be right, so when we read a paper from the beginning to end, they fill in any gaps for us.
Reading the paper in reverse order will by-pass this issue and help you focus on surface-level errors