Skip to main content

Print version

Writing a College Research Paper? Step 1: Don’t Panic

We here at the Writing Center understand that you, as students, like things easy, fast, and cheap.  Well, while we can’t change the difficulty of your assignment, we can provide a crash course in tackling your essays, Wrecking-Crew style. Just follow the steps.

How to read and understand a prompt

The prompt is the most important part of the assignment. Yes, that’s a pretty bold statement. You can submit a glowing memoir that changes your professor’s life through laughter and tears, but if he or she asked for an analysis of thermonuclear subsystem maintenance, you’re going to fail. In other words, prompts are elaborate questions. Make sure you answer the right one.

1. Read the prompt. Read the prompt the whole way through– do not stop half way! This reading gives you an overall view of what to write about. Analyze and separate the prompt into parts and discuss, examine, and interpret each part.

2. Underline or circle portions that you absolutely must know. This information may include the due date, research and citation requirements, page length, and format.

I know you just read this and said, “Yeah. those things seem important.” That’s not enough. Underline them. Do it!

3. Think about how you will address the prompt. The prompt contains clues on how to write the assignment.  Your instructor will often describe the ideas he/she wants discussed either in questions, in bullet points, or in the text of the prompt.

4. Rank ideas in descending order. Classify things into categories of similar types—this will help you organize your thoughts.

5. Be sure to ask your professor questions (if you have any).

Prompts are just elaborate questions. Make sure you answer the right one.

Additional tips when working on arguments

Sometimes, professors write in code, using tricky phrases with vague or multiple meanings. We’ve hired elite cryptanalysts to translate their jargon into something more understandable.

Analyze: To take apart something whole and examine its components. Sometimes you are asked to make reasoned judgments about the parts or the whole.  Please note that your judgments may be positive, negative or both.

Define: To give the meaning of a term or concept.  A definition may be simple or complex.  The available techniques for definition include examples, synonyms, antonyms (opposites), etymology (word history), or dictionary definitions.

Evaluate: To give a reasoned opinion about something, usually in terms of the merit of a particular work, idea, or person.

Explain: To describe how something functions.

Illustrate: To give examples or to describe something.

Summarize: To give the main points or highlights of a longer work; to give a condensed account of an article, story, or event.

 

How to choose and narrow a topic

Once you understand the prompt, you must choose a topic, providing your class isn’t a totalitarian state and your topic hasn’t been chosen for you. In that case, read 1984 and skip to the Prewriting section.

1. Remember, your topic must be researchable. How do you know if a topic is not researchable? You try, and fail. Don’t be afraid to adjust your topic if the academic community has no resources concerning “the nuanced subcultures of Facebook.” We’ll have more on research and its accompanying disasters in the next section.

2. Briefly define or describe your topic. Try to answer questions reporters usually ask:  Who? What? When? Where? Why?

3. What claim are you going to make about this topic? What is your thesis?

4. Who is your audience?

5. What aspects of the topic may not be interesting or relevant to your audience?

Before moving to the next section, review your work. Does it still follow the assignment prompt?

Prewriting

After answering the above questions, you will prepared to pre-write. “What is prewriting?” you ask? Well, it’s a lot like pre-anything-else – it’s the crucial step before you write. If you’ve never done it before, then you are trying to invent, and think, and write, all at the same time. That’s hard. If something is worth writing about, it’s also worth thinking about.

Try following this textbook writing process just once, and see if you like what you can crank out. Just follow the steps.

1. State your thesis.
2. Write an outline.
3. Write a first draft.
4. Revise and polish.

You also might just start writing to see where your ideas take you. Some writers discover their ideas before they write; others discover ideas as they write.

Prewriting is like a plan of attack.

You know what happens to attacks that don’t have plans, right?

 

If all has gone well, you understand your assignment. You have also picked your topic, done some preliminary research, sketched out a thesis statement and outline, found the meaning of life, published a paper concerning your revelation, and received an honorary doctorate. I see you see what I did there – go ahead and move on to the next section, Step 2: Research and other disasters.