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Step 1 - Getting Started

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Goal: Preparing for the assignment and getting ready to choose a topic.

Step 1 - Getting Started

Step 2 - Discovering and Choosing a Topic

Step 3 - Looking for and Forming a Focus

Step 4 - Gathering Information

Step 5 - Preparing to Write

Step 6 - Writing the Paper

Feelings: Don't be surprised if you feel like many people do as they get started—worried about the amount of work ahead of you and a bit unsure of yourself. You might even feel a little excitement, anticipating the project! Or maybe not.

Hey wait a minute! Why should I care about how I'm feeling during this whole process? There's an old saying, "Misery loves company." If you know how other students feel as they go through the research and writing process and you feel about the same way, you'll know your project is right on track!

Thoughts and Actions: Follow the steps below to get an idea of things you should be thinking about and doing, and some of the strategies which will help. Note the type of information search you should be doing at this stage.

Info Search

Flying birdYour information search at this stage involves getting a "bird's eye" view of possible topics, browsing for ideas and finding out what kind of sources (print, electronic and internet) might be available to you on various topics.

1.1 Understand the assignment

Read over the instructions for the assignment to make sure you fully understand what the instructor has in mind and on what basis you will be graded. The Roane State Community College OWL (Online Writing Lab) (Henley, 1996) describes some common types of research papers as:

Sometimes, a teacher will assign topics or give students a range of topics to choose from and ask that the students write a research paper on the topic. This type of research paper is really a form of individual study. The measure of success is how well the student can conduct research, analyze and organize the information and communicate it clearly in written form. Frequently, reports require an oral presentation to the class as well.
Issue Analysis
A research paper may highlight a particular issue or problem in a field of study. The paper may focus on analysis of the issue and its solutions, possibly from both historical and current perspectives. The posture of the writer is frequently that of a neutral observer more than an advocate for a particular position. The success of the paper is often based on how completely and clearly the writer has identified the key aspects of the issue and their significance to the field to which they relate.
Advocacy or Persuasion
A research paper may involve taking a stand on an issue and defending it against opposing points of view. The student will research the issues and read others' arguments for and against. The paper will anticipate and deflect arguments against the position, while presenting supporting evidence in favor of the position. Success will depend on how persuasively the paper makes its case and defends against possible opposition.

See also our links to Common Types of Papers and Papers on Special Subjects for articles on the unique aspects of various types of essays and research papers.

Be sure you understand what kind of a paper you've been asked to write, since the approach you'd take could be vastly different, depending on the purpose of the paper and the expectations of your instructor!

1.2 Consider the process you'll use

The paper is your final product, but a research paper involves an extensive process before you can generate the product. If you focus too quickly on the end product, you may miss some of the important research steps and find yourself writing a paper without enough understanding of the topic to do an A+ job. Browse over the rest of the steps suggested in thismanual to get an idea of the process and think about how you'll approach each step. Start a journal or notebook and begin jotting notes about not only "what" you plan to do but also "how" you plan to do it.

1.3 Set your deadlines for each step of the assignment

Ideally, you will have at least four weeks from the date it's assigned to complete a research paper of 7 or 8 pages (2,000 to 2,500 words). Shorter papers requiring fairly simple research (4 or 5 pages - 1,500 words) may not require four weeks' "lead time," while a 15 page or longer paper might be a semester-long project. The page "Scheduling Your Project" will help you set time deadlines for yourself.

1.4 Think about possible topics

The word "topic" is used variably by many teachers of writing and research to mean anything from the very general "subject matter" to the very specific "thesis statement." In this manual, the term topic is broadly defined, while focus means a narrower perspective on the topic, and thesis statement is the main point of your paper, which cannot be determined until after research and analysis is complete. Look over Step 2, Discovering a Topic, and Step 3, Looking for and Forming a Focus for more information about these distinctions.

1.5 Info Search - browse, read, relax

Start by thumbing through the textbooks or course pack for the class in which your paper was assigned. Browse the table of contents, chapter headings and subheadings, to get an overview of the subject matter. Visit your library and browse in the catalog and reference room to find out what sources are held by the library which may relate to your class. Browse some of the subject-indexed sources on the internet with the same purpose. The Info Search section of this manual will help you learn how and where to browse.

Your objective in this step is to get a "bird's eye view" of the general subject matter, to give your brain some ideas to work on while you're getting ready for the step of choosing a topic.

1.6 Relate your prior experience and learning

The process of successful research and writing involves building on what you know. You don't need to know a lot about a subject in order to use it as your topic, but choosing one you're totally unfamiliar with could be a mistake. It may take so much time and effort to become informed about the subject that you don't really have time to get into the depth required by your assignment.

1.7 Jot down your questions and ideas about possible topics

Use your notebook to starting recording questions which interest you or ideas for possible topics. If you're researching a paper for a 20th century American history class, write down questions you wonder about:

Why did the stock market crash in 1929?
Who was the worst 20th century American President?
Did the Cigarette Smoking Man from X-Files really kill JFK?

You'll end up with a list of ideas and musings, some of which are obviously ridiculous and not reasonable topics for your paper, but don't worry about that at this point. Think about things which interest you and which build upon some experience or knowledge you have or build upon things you're presently learning in class.

Also see the links to Reading Techniques and Journal Writing for tips on how to use a journal to help you in researching and writing a paper.

1.8 Brainstorm, alone and with others

Toss ideas around in your mind. Bounce ideas off of your classmates, your teacher or (heaven forbid) your siblings and parents, to get their reactions and ideas. Many times another person will have a fresh perspective you might not have thought of, or something they say will trigger an idea for you.

Ready to go on? This way to Step 2

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A+ Research & Writing for high school and college students was created by Kathryn L. Schwartz