How to Write a Good Research Paper
In The Art of Literary Research Richard Daniel Altick states that “All literary students are dedicated to the same task, the discovery of truth.”. (3) This essay aims to present useful information for tackling such an ambitious undertaking. It is not possible to deal comprehensively with all involved topics within the scope of this essay; therefore it only presents a quick overview and small selection of useful hints. Among the topics discussed are finding a research topic, style and plagiarism. Below follows a short introduction to several concepts important for writing research papers.
The first step in the production of a research paper is to find a suitable topic. The decision making process should be guided primarily by the personal interests of the researcher. Other factors, such as the availability of information on the topic and its complexity cannot be ignored. During writing, as the scope of the topic gets clearer, it can be refined. When deciding on a topic one’s own interests as well as external factors have to be considered.
Once a topic, a question, has been found the search for an answer must begin. By the means of a hypothesis, a carefully formulated working assumption, one starts his journey from the question to the answer. It is important to keep in mind though, that the hypothesis is nothing but a tool. The literary researcher must not get emotionally attached to it for he has to seek only the truth, and therefore evidence both supporting and contradicting the hypothesis. The hypothesis is as useful tool but must not become self-purpose.
Reading frequently poses problems especially for beginning students. Often these problems are caused by the idea of reading as the passive act of absorbing information. Viewing it instead as entering a dialogue with the material the problems tend to disappear. With this idea in mind one is much more likely to actively engage in reading, to ask questions and to develop own ideas. Reading should be viewed and practiced as an active act of communication rather than passive information consumption.
When looking for evidence it is important to analyze the quality of the sources. It should be obvious and yet it often is ignored that there are reliable and less reliable sources. The trustworthiness of different sources is especially important when contradictions occur. For beginning students it can be hard to determine wheter a source is reliable or not therefore they should be especially conscious of the quality of their sources and ask their professors when in doubt. That sources differ in quality is a fact often overlooked by beginning students therefore they should be particularly critical.
Quality is not the only distinctive attribute of sources. They divide into primary, secondary and tertiary sources. Primary texts are the main objects of study. For a literary student this could be “The Taming of the Shrew” by Shakespeare or any other piece of literature. Secondary texts deal with primary texts, analyzing them and presenting conclusions. Most academic writings belong to this category. Tertiary sources are mostly based on secondary sources. They omit controversies and tend to present well established authoritative opinions. Course-books or handbooks are typical examples of tertiary texts. The distinction is not as clear cut as described here and might depend on what a researcher is interested in studying. There are primary sources, secondary sources which deal with primary texts, and tertiary sources which are mostly based on secondary texts.
The distinction between primary, secondary and tertiary sources is essential because it determines how the information needs to be treated. Interpretations from secondary or tertiary sources should always be viewed more critical than primary evidence. Also it should be made visible when talking about an author’s interpretation using constructions like “Kant claims that …”. Information has to be treated and presented differently depending on the type of source it comes from.
Plagiarism is a problem for which recent events involving a certain German minister of defense have raised awareness. The emergence of new technologies has made plagiarizing even easier and thus more tempting and more easily to be done unintentionally. To avoid such unfortunate accidents everything that is directly copied should always be put in quotations. Also paraphrases should be checked not to be too similar to the original and not to contain any identical sentences. In order not to forget to mention any sources it is recommendable to write the bibliography at the beginning of one’s work. Plagiarism is a serious offence and effort should be me made to avoid it.
The most enlightened ideas when presented in an unfit manner will neither be recognized as such nor reward a student with high marks. Thus a pleasant and understandable style is crucial for the positive reception of academic writings. Although style is a subjective matter and allows for different tastes there is a set of widely accepted rules to which one should generally adhere. Most rules may sometimes be broken profitably but only advanced writers should take that option into account. Since style is an important element in academic writing a small selection of guidelines is presented below.
A paragraph should directly correspond to one idea. It should start with a sentence stating the topic and end with a recap or important consequences. In most cases the active voice is more concise and easier to understand than its passive counterpart; therefore it should be preferred. Similarly positive statements are usually better comprehensible than negative ones. Honoring the rule “Prefer the specific to the general, the definite to the vague, the concrete to the abstract.“ .(White 22) will improve the quality of one's writing.Every sentence should be as such that it is not possible to remove a word without losing meaning. A similarity of ideas should be reflected in form to make it easy to recognize for the reader. The stronger the relationship between words the closer they should appear together. To emphasize a word it should be put at the end of a sentence.
The process of producing a research paper is not trivial and involves a variety of different activities and topics. This essay can barely scratch on the surface of those topics. Introducing several important concepts and giving a few useful hints was what it aimed and hopefully succeeded to accomplish. Those who want to know more can find excellent resources mentioned in the bibliography.
Altick, Richard Daniel. The Art of Literary Research. New York: Norton, 1957.
Cook, Claire Kehrwald. Line by Line: How to Edit Your Own Writing. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1985.
Taylor, Gordon. A Student’s Writing Guide: How to Plan and Write Successful Essays. Cambridge: University Press, 2009.
White, E.B. and Strunk Jr., William. The Elements of Style.4th ed. New Jersey: Pearson Education Company,2000.
Young, Tory. Studying English Literature: A Practical Guide. Cambridge: University Press, 2008.