Perhaps no other assignment sends
chills down the spines of undergraduate students
than the research paper. Doing good research
and writing requires serious effort, but it
doesnt have to be the dreaded assignment
that many students make it out to be. The following
guidelines are designed to demystify the process
of creating a good research paper. Included
are time-tested strategies to help you deal
with some necessary steps in the process, special
insights from professors in the Department of
Public and International Affairs, and links
to web sites that provide further guidance.
Choosing Your Topic
While some professors require
you to write on a topic they choose for you,
many allow students to choose their own topic.
If your professor has already assigned you a
topic, go to the Getting Started section.
Choosing an appropriate research
topic is crucial to producing a quality research
paper. Unfortunately, students often give little
thought to their topic. To help you develop
your topic, ask yourself the following questions:
Does my proposed topic relate
to the course in which it is assigned? For example,
does the topic stem from material covered in
the texts or lectures?
Is my topic something that can
be adequately covered in the required number
Is my topic something I (and possibly
my professor) would find interesting, versus
something that is "easy" or "safe"
Overcoming Writers Block
Are you still having trouble finding
an interesting and suitable topic? Writers
block can strike at any stage of the process.
Frequently, students become frustrated because
they cant translate their broad interests
into a workable research topic. There are several
techniques to overcome this problem including
freewriting, brainstorming and clustering.
Freewriting is a technique
where you write your way into a topic by avoiding
that part of your mind that refuses to write
or cant think of anything to put on paper.
Try to write without stopping for a certain
time (e.g., ten minutes) or for a given length
(e.g., one page). Put down any thoughts or words
on paper and let them suggest other words or
thoughts. Keep writing even if it means writing
the same word several times. Dont go back
and read or revise what you have already written.
Once you have finished, go back and review what
you wrote with an eye to insight about your
interests, perspective, and position on issues.
Brainstorming is a form
of list-making that requires you to list everything
that seems even remotely related to your topic.
The idea is to focus intently on your topic
for a fixed amount of time and to push yourself
to list every idea and detail that comes to
mind. Like freewriting, the trick is to short-circuit
your internal editor long enough to advance
your thinking and organization on a given topic.
Click here for more
information and help on brainstorming.
Clustering is a form of
free association that combines writing and nonlinear
drawing. Your cluster radiates out from your
topic. When you get an idea related to your
basic topic, try to "branch out" from
it by pursuing its implications. As new ideas
are generated from the branches, continue with
other branches. The result is a cluster of ideas,
some of which are useful, some of which are
Narrowing Your Topic
Most students initially choose
a topic that is too broad to cover in the semester
schedule, or too complex to be thoroughly covered
in the allotted page limitations. If your professor
or someone else suggests your topic is too broad,
dont fret about it. This is a problem
that frequently plagues your professors too!
Virtually all research topics must be refined
during the research and even writing process.
The sooner you get comfortable with this fact,
the easier and more enjoyable the whole research
and writing process will be.
How does a student determine if
her topic is too broad? A real example can help
clarify this problem. A student in one of the
department's international studies courses was
interested in researching the North American
Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). But with help
from her professor she soon realized that her
topic was too broad. For example, NAFTA had
different effects on trade between the U.S.
and Mexico and between the U.S. and Canada.
She probably couldnt cover both in the
same paper. The student then decided to only
focus on trade between the U.S. and Mexico.
This approach worked for a while until she realized
that NAFTA affected specific industries differently,
and that all the differences could not be thoroughly
covered. Finally, she decided to focus specifically
on how NAFTA has altered trade relations in
the car manufacturing and automotive parts industry.
This allowed her to review the relevant primary
and secondary resources on the topic, and speculate
about NAFTAs effects on other industries.
Your Research Question
The research question should be
a complete question consisting of one or two
sentences. Generally, the shorter and simpler
the research question, the better. Your research
question should be something you can answer
systematically using sources (primary and secondary),
reasoning and persuasion. It is generally useful
to begin devising your research question at
the same time you develop (and narrow) your
research topic. For example, a student in the
American Presidency course first proposed the
following question: What has been the historical
role of presidential press secretaries? Although
the students professor thought the question
was interesting, he considered it too broad
because it spanned too much history and raised
multiple issues that could not be covered in
fifteen to twenty pages. After considerable
thought the student narrowed his question down
to this: How did the press secretarys
role differ in the George Bush and Bill Clinton
Administrations? Although this version was an
improvement, it was still too broad. Clinton
had several press secretaries. Moreover, the
role of press secretary seemed to differ in
both administrations depending on whether you
examined his or her role in foreign versus domestic
issues. Finally, the student settled on the
following question: How did the role of press
secretaries Marlin Fitzwater and Mike McCurry
differ in their handling of Bush and Clintons
foreign policy crises? Even this question proved
to be too broad. The students final paper
compared Fitzwaters press relations with
the press during the Persian Gulf War with Mike
McCurrys press relations during the Bosnian
Your Research Thesis
Your thesis is the most important
and central idea or assertion you wish to convey
in your paper. A good thesis should (1) narrow
your topic to a single idea you want your readers
to gain from your essay, and (2) clarify your
purpose, position and attitude in the paper.
Because your thesis tells readers why they are
reading your paper, it should be stated somewhere
in your papers introduction.
Keep in mind that your initial
thesis is not written in stone. Most students
(and professors) typically revise their thesis
as they complete the research and writing stages.
At this point you may be asking yourself: If
the thesis can be revised as you go, why do
you need it? It is important to have a working
thesis because it helps you stay on track during
the research and writing process. Why are you
wading through the testimony of congressional
hearings on national security? Reviewing your
thesis will remind you that those hearings will
help you show that U.S. policymakers were unaware
of the broad threats posed by terrorism.
For more help on formulating a
great working thesis, check out these links
on thesis writing.
Your Research Methods and Resources
What methods will you use to research
your topic, address your question and argue
you thesis? Obviously, your methods will include
examining books, articles and other written
sources on the topic. But at this point it is
important to understand the difference between
primary and secondary sources. Primary sources
are things like historical documents (e.g.,
treaties), official reports or memoranda, hearing
transcripts, interviews and your direct observations.
Secondary sources include things like books
and articles that often analyze primary sources.
Ideally, your research will include
a mixture of primary and secondary sources.
Your essays main argument
is strengthened when you go beyond just a review
of what others have said about a particular
subject. Moreover, your professors will likely
be more impressed if you go the extra mile to
compile primary sources.
For more information on research
methods and compiling primary and secondary
resources, go to the GMU
Librarys research help in political
One reason that many writers procrastinate
and experience false starts is because they
lack a plan for writing drafts and continuing
their research. The key to staying on track
is develop and stick to a working outline. There
are many different outlines ranging from loose
and general to tight and specific. No matter
what form you use, any outline can help you
clarify your thinking, explore further patterns
of thought, and devise strategies to fulfill
the intentions of your research question and
thesis. For further help and examples of outlines,
Your First Draft
Be forewarned! Students and professors
alike often find that writing the first draft
is the most uncomfortable (even painful!) step
in the writing process. Why is that? One problem
is that we expect our thoughts to flow in a
logical and clear manner. Consequently, anything
we first put on paper inevitably falls short
of our expectations. To overcome this problem
remind yourself that you will need to develop
several drafts before you complete your paper,
and that no one else will see your first draft.
Rest assured that your initial discomfort will
diminish once you have your initial thoughts
Another problem may be that your
outline is an insufficient guide to what you
want to say. If so, go back and add specifics
to your outline. Try to use your outline to
begin thinking about transitions and subheadings.
At some point a very detailed outline actually
resembles a first draft. Its now just
a matter of filling in the blank spots to complete
the first draft.
Here are some other tricks for
starting and completing your first draft. They
are derived from The Little, Brown Handbook
written by H. Ramsey Fowler and Jane E. Aaron
(New York, Harper Collins Publishers, 1992:
Freewrite (see section on freewriting).
Pretend you are writing to a friend
about your topic.
Skip the opening and start in
the middleOr write the conclusion.
Be as fluid as possible. Keep
going and skip over sticky spots
Resist self-criticism and dont
worry about style, grammar, spelling, etc.
Dont feel constrained by
your thesis and outline. If your writing leads
in interesting directions, follow them.
Editing Your Drafts
The key to producing a quality
research paper is to produce several drafts,
with each succeeding draft being a refined version
of the prior draft. The necessary process of
revision involves improving both the underlying
meaning and structure of your essay as well
as the mechanics of sentences and paragraphs.
There are various things to think about when
editing your drafts. The following checklist
is derived from The Little, Brown Handbook
written by H. Ramsey Fowler and Jane E. Aaron
(New York, Harper Collins Publishers, 1992:
pp. 53, 59). For further information and guidance
on revising and editing, click here.
For revising your essays
underlining meaning and structure, consider
Does the body of the essay carry
out the purpose and central idea expressed in
your thesis sentence?
Are there adequate details, examples,
or reasons to support each of your main points?
Does each paragraph relate clearly
to the thesis sentence? For help with paragraphs,
Does your introduction engage
and focus your readers attention? Does
your conclusion provide a sense of completion?
For further help with introductions and conclusions,
For editing your essays mechanics, consider
Are your sentences grammatical?
For help on this, click here.
Are your sentences clear and concise?
Is your use of commas, semicolons,
colons, periods and other forms of punctuation
correct? For further help on this, click here.
Is your use of capitals, italics,
abbreviations, numbers and hyphens correct?
Do the words you use exactly convey
your meaning and feeling?
Are the words spelled correctly?
Beware, spell check isnt a foolproof way
to determine this. For further help with spelling,