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Develop a manageable focus by creating a useful research question. Read your assignment carefully to make sure your topic is appropriate for the assignment. Is your topic too small and specific, or is it too broad and unwieldy? Consider the differences among the following topics: the global consequences of climate change (too big), the effect of climate change on the anopheles mosquito (too small), and the effect of climate change on the spread of malaria (just right).
A good way to develop a manageable topic is by creating an interesting question related to your assignment that you can answer within the page requirement. Choosing a focused question within a broad research assignment, a question you actually want to answer, makes researching not only more manageable but more compelling.
Good research involves collecting a few sources more than the minimum requirement, so that later you can choose the best sources to answer your research question. Remember to capture all potentially useful information for your bibliography: authors, titles, volume and issue numbers for periodicals, dates of publication, and page numbers or their equivalent (section headings on a website, for example). Know which documentation style your instructor requires: MLA, APA, Turabian, or AMA.
When choosing sources, be aware of the differences between primary and secondary sources. Primary sources are "original works of art or literature or are evidence provided directly by an observer of an event" (Palmquist 148). Secondary sources, on the other hand, "comment on or interpret an event, often using primary sources as evidence" (150). These distinctions are important to consider because primary sources allow you to reach your own conclusions; whereas, secondary sources offer you the conclusions of other researchers, including their unacknowledged biases or hidden purposes (150). If appropriate to your assignment, include as many primary sources as possible to make your argument more persuasive.
Wikipedia can be a good place to start, but using library resources will transform you from a pseudo-researcher into a legitimate researcher. Visit Hunter Library’s Research Help and Reference page for assistance. If you prefer to talk with someone in person, visit the Reference Desk, to the left of Java City Café. Reference librarians are friendly, knowledgeable, and able to help you navigate a variety of useful resources. Most importantly, consulting a reference librarian saves you from wasting time and energy on unproductive searches. A reference librarian also can help you adjust your research question if finding sources becomes problematic.
Summarizing and paraphrasing works well for most research papers because explaining information and ideas in your own words demonstrates that you understand the material. Exceptions to this guideline include literature papers and history papers that require numerous quotations from primary texts.
Effective paraphrasing requires careful reading of the original material, looking up words you don’t understand, and writing your paraphrase while you are not looking at the original. For more detailed guidelines on to how take effective notes, read the Writing and Learning Commons' resource on Avoiding Plagiarism.
Using your research question, consider the categories of information your reader will need to understand and appreciate your educated response. Common categories include background information; reasons to support or not support a position, evidence for or against a position, examples, and the “who, what, where, when, and why” of a situation or event. Spending time categorizing your notes will help you write your paper faster and better.
Try out one of the strategies below:
Using note cards, write down one summarized, paraphrased, or quoted point per note card. Clearly identify each information note card at the top with a short version of its category, source, and page number. You may also consider using a color code system to organize your note cards by topic/category. Move your cards around on a table to illustrate the structure of your paper.
If you prefer using colored highlighters and a photocopy of an article or chapter, assign one color to each of your categories, and then read your photocopy, categorizing information by color as you go.
If you prefer to store your notes electronically, create a Word folder for your paper and then create one Word document for each category, titling the document by its category. As you read your sources, type each summarized, paraphrased, or quoted point and its citation information into its appropriate Word document. Store all documents in the folder.
A working thesis statement tentatively answers your guiding research question. A working thesis statement might read, “Buddhism can offer several surprising strategies to the 21st Century American college student.”
As you revise your paper through different stages, you may adjust your working thesis. Our final Buddhism thesis might read, “Although Buddhism developed in a particular time and place, it still offers surprisingly useful strategies to the American Millennial college student.”
An outline is simply a way to organize your thoughts before you begin to write your first draft—a roadmap as formal and detailed or as informal and rough as you like. Here, your note categories come in handy. Put yourself in your reader’s position and use your common sense. What does the reader need to know first before moving on to the next topic?
Writing your paper is a work in progress. The first sentences on the computer screen should not be perfect as soon as you write them. If you have allowed yourself enough time, your paper can be revised and fine-tuned multiple times. Give the draft to your instructor or visit the Writing and Learning Commons. Call 227-2274 or make your appointment online in plenty of time to see a tutor; crunch times come at mid-semester and end of semester. Do not be surprised if you are invited to make major adjustments to your paper or if entire sections of your paper need to be rewritten. Revising is a normal process for successful researchers/writers. Finally, review your paper for punctuation, grammar, and spelling errors before you print your final draft.
Palmquist, Mike. The Bedford Researcher: An Integrated Text, CD-Rom, and Web site. Boston: Bedford/St. Marin's, 2003. Print.
Singh, Simon. Big Bang: The Origin of the Universe. New York: Harper Collins, 2004. Print.