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Tips for Better Writing: How to Get Started on that Research Paper
Need to get started on that end of semester research paper? Make sure you understand the assignment, try an outline and carefully select your sources, among other tips for doing your best work, according to consultants with the Writing Center.
Writing Center Administrator Ben Erwin and consultants Lindsey Banister, a Ph.D. candidate in the Composition and Cultural Rhetoric program, and Santee Frazier, a professional writing instructor in the Writing Program, share their insights in this Q&A as part of the Tips for Better Writing series.
Q: What are the specific things you should make sure to know about the assignment before starting to write?
Lindsey Banister: I always tell students (both those I teach and the ones I work with in the WC) that they always need to ask questions if they don’t understand something or if an aspect about their paper is unclear. Most likely a teacher will provide students with the nitty gritty details about their assignments, such as the type of paper and the required format; however, if she/he doesn’t, then the student needs to seek clarification via email, going to office hours, staying after class or asking during class.
The best thing a student can do when coming into the Writing Center is coming in with the assignment sheet the professor assigned in hand. This enables the consultant to read over the requirements, review the language and start a dialogue with the student about the project.
Benjamin Erwin: The first thing any student should do when writing a paper is review the assignment sheet and rubric. This seemingly basic step is integral in understanding an assignment and its expectations or requirements; moreover, this initial work can help guide and shape the form and content of a subsequent essay.
In order to write a successful essay, students should fully understand the form, genre and expectations of an assignment; students should also look at the required length, whether or not outside research is required, and if there’s any stipulations concerning format, tone or style. Finally, students should discern whether or not the assignment is informative, argumentative, persuasive, or something else entirely.
Santee Frazier: Knowing the function of language in the essay is key, or better yet the student being aware of their role as a writer allows them to write appropriately for any given situation. For instance, in analysis the writer must keep their language objective and concise. If they are writing an argument essay, using personal experience and anecdotes to shape the reader’s perspective on the topic at hand.
Q: How should you select your topic?
LB: Apathy kills the pen. Students should always pick something that interests them, and, really, something that interests them is something that they will inevitably learn more about. The benefit of picking an engaging topic is that their writing will be more engaging and the writing process will be a more enjoyable experience.
BE: A good topic should be something that the writer is interested in and wants to learn more about. If a writer is not invested in a topic, an essay will be considerably more difficult to write. Moreover, if the writer isn’t interested and invested in a topic, why would the reader be invested? A good essay often begins with research questions and curiosity. Students should also look for topics that add to ongoing conversations rather than simply reiterating what’s already been said on a topic. Finally, a good topic is feasible and reasonable given the expectations—or limitations—of an assignment.
If a student is given a specific topic or question, the research and writing process can change dramatically. In such cases, students may have to forego their own interests and curiosity in favor of approaching a topic that has been given to them. When a topic or research question is assigned, students simply have to focus on examining that topic from multiple angles or perspectives and approaching research and writing more carefully and critically.
Q: How does an outline help?
LB: I have found that many students often think of outlines as these detailed structures that lock them into what they have to write for a paper. While I do think each student should outline their paper, they need to find a method of outlining that works for their writing process. For example, some students work well with a more general outline where they only organize the main ideas they want to hit.
Other students are much more detailed where they structure each paragraph and have all of their topic sentences planned out. And more often than not, writers revise and update their outline as they write the actual paper.
BE: Outlining can help generate ideas, organize a writer’s research or amplify connections between source material. A good, detailed outline can help create the structure and shape of an essay early in the writing process; moreover, an outline can help clarify structural issues or point toward redundancy or the need for additional research. But an outline is merely part of the writing process, and students should not be afraid to revise outlines, just as they would revise their essays.
SF: It allows you to place quotes and claims, to have a plan, as opposed to composing/planning at the same time. It also deters the writer from staring at the screen trying to figure out what to compose.
Q: How do you go about choosing sources?
LB: While source selection always depends on the requirements of the assignment, there are a few factors that a writer must always consider as they pick their sources.
- The date: If a source was written 20 years ago, then you need to account for why you are using such an old source, such as explaining that it’s a seminal theoretical text. Or, you need to find a more relevant source.
- The publication: The information in the source you found might be perfect for your paper, but you need to consider where this information is published. There is a big difference between a blog article, an Op Ed piece, an article in an academic journal and a piece written in The New York Times. You need to think through these differences and the validity and credentials of the publication so that you know you have a reliable and valid source to support your writing.
- The author: Similar to the publication, you need to find out who the author is and what authority and/or expertise s/he has to speak on the topic they are writing about. Sometimes this expertise is their credentials, such as having a Ph.D., and other times their expertise comes from a lived experience.
BE: Begin by reexamining what is noted in an assignment sheet; if sources must be published, peer-reviewed academic research material, a student’s options are somewhat narrowed. If periodicals are allowed within the confines of research, they could certainly be useful.
The most important elements of a high-quality source, in my opinion, is looking for credible, reliable material written by experts. Students need to consider the author’s credentials and qualifications, the publication in which a source appears, and the relevance and timeliness of a source.
SF: By the role each source will play in the essay, in terms of a conversation. Sources should be a range of texts from a given debate, which the debate should be multifaceted with a diverse range of perspectives.
Q: Is it helpful to run your idea/outline by your professor?
LB: Always. Writing is a personal process and as writers we can get frustrated, lose focus, go on a detour or put on blinders that cut us off from a more thorough paper. Your professor is an invaluable resource because he or she can look at your work objectively and guide you through the process. They also act as sounding boards to help you think through an idea and arrive at a place that is more critically developed. Finally, they usually have source recommendations or can direct you where to look when you’re doing your research.
SF: It’s always a good idea to seek out your professor for advice, that is the fundamental to developing good rapport. A good professor always has more to teach, and good students will force them to provide depth and guidance.
Q: How do you dive into a first draft?
LB: It’s important to remember that every writer is different and that some need to start with the introduction and others need to start in the middle. First and foremost, brainstorm and locate what interests you about the topic you’re writing on. From there I suggest you write about that interest to get some momentum and an idea for what you have to say/want to say about the topic.
BE: I recommend having an outline, or at least a loose plan, before beginning a draft. This should include having a sense of your sources, how those sources complement or contrast one another, and how your materials inform your perspective on a topic. It’s also often useful to know where you might pull direct quotes from individual sources as well where summary or paraphrase might better serve your text.
Even if a writer has a detailed outline, it’s also important to remain flexible and willing to shift your writing as source materials might lead to new ideas, questions or evolved perspectives.
SF: After you have researched, evaluated, annotated and harvested quotes from your sources, you should then draft an outline, and proceed fulfilling the scholarly elements of the assignment. Intro should be one of the last things you compose. After all, how can you introduce a topic or argument if you have written about it yet?
Q: Once you have a rough draft, what should you look for as you revise/edit?
BE: Clarity of ideas, and connections between ideas, are key to effective revision. When revising, students must be mindful of overall clarity of ideas, coherence of a message, and the fluidity with which sources are deployed for maximum effect.
Revision is generally focused on the bigger picture and the overall content of a text; editing, conversely, focuses largely on sentence-level concerns such as grammar, punctuation, syntax and diction. Editing typically becomes the focal point of the writing process after the text has a clear, logical, coherent structure.
Reading your text aloud, getting the perspective of outside readers or visiting the Writing Center can be particularly helpful throughout the revision and editing process.
SF: Take it to the Writing Center with specific questions concerning the assignment, and the expectations therein. Continue to revise up until the moment it is due, or you have to print it out. Students do not revise nearly enough. Anyone can learn to write well if they revise and take an essay through multiple drafts.