Writing Research Papers

Twenty-two Suggestions for Successfully Completing Research Papers

I have geared the information here to undergraduates and graduates who are faced with writing a research paper that requires primary sources and a unique thesis.  Nevertheless, some of the information here may be useful to students writing any sort of assignment.

1) Within ten days after the class begins, have a somewhat narrowed paper topic.  During this period of time, read some secondary works and skim through sources and bibliographies to identify one-half of the primary sources.  Select a topic that is interesting, but let the availability of primary sources dictate how to narrow the paper’s focus and develop a thesis.

Two weeks into the semester, have some primary source orders placed with interlibrary loan.
2) Two weeks into the semester, have some primary source orders placed with interlibrary loan.  Delivery for books usually takes approximately two weeks, but it may take longer.  Articles may arrive quickly because libraries often send them electronically.  Keep in mind that interlibrary loan not only provides books from libraries in a state university system but throughout the United States, so time constraints and investigative ingenuity are the only limitations on has on obtaining published and sources.  Archival materials almost always require that the researcher travel to view the collection.

3) Never stop working while waiting for sources to arrive.  Continue to look for more secondary and, most important, primary sources that directly and tangentially relate to the topic.  Place additional interlibrary loan requests immediately upon discovering sources.  Consult a wide range of secondary sources, and explore the topic on the Internet from every angle possible.

4) When making travel plans, consider stopping at other libraries.  Those close to Northwest Florida include Tulane in New Orleans, FSU in Tallahassee, UF in Gainesville, Emory in Atlanta, or Auburn on the way to Atlanta.  Check on line to see what their collections hold and if they have archival sources.

5) With regard to a thesis, think narrowly, but when it comes to primary sources, think broadly.  English-language newspapers and wire services contain eyewitness accounts, but articles that are analytical or editorial are not primary sources.  Diplomatic correspondence reveals not only information about foreign policy but also economics, internal politics, military matters, social issues, and a host of other topics.  Every English-speaking country had ministers, envoys, or ambassadors throughout the world, so do not neglect material from Canada and Australia along with Britain and the United States.  Memoirs of participants are an obvious primary source, but do not neglect the memoirs of first-hand observers.  Other primary sources include letters, laws, treaties, government or other official publications, travel observations, and statistics.
With regard to a thesis, think narrowly, but when it comes to primary sources, think broadly.

6) Talk about the paper topic with others in the class and tell them about sources that may be of interest to them.  Most likely, that might prompt them to return the favor.

7) When reading secondary and primary sources, take notes, using quotation marks when appropriate and citing page numbers.  In a separate place, jot down ideas to pursue, sentences, phrases, and, a thesis statement. Keep a pad and pen available at all times because ideas arrive when one least expects them and before they evaporate.  Begin working on the draft any time there is enough material to tackle a segment of the paper.

8) Formulate a thesis statement that is narrow and insightful.  Build it around new analysis, recently-uncovered evidence, existing evidence historians neglected, new historical interpretation, or new evidence that supports one side in a debate.  Adjust the thesis while writing the paper to make it accurate.  Put the thesis in the first or second paragraph of the paper (in books it may appear only after several pages).  Remember that for a research paper, it is nearly impossible to have a thesis that is too narrow.  For those who have difficulties developing a thesis, think along the lines of providing an answer to a meaningful question about a topic.  In an article titled "Let's End Thesis Tyranny" in the Chronicle of Higher Education on 18 July 2013, Bruce Ballenger argues that professors should assign papers that focus on answering questions, not just those that prove theses.  This may be of little consolation for the student who must develop a thesis as part of a requirement for a research paper.  Nevertheless, his discussion, which is available here, contains some suggestions for developing good questions that can lead to a thesis.

9) Introductions accomplish three things.  First, they present the topic and the thesis.  Second, they explain why the thesis is unique, taking to task other historians for missing evidence or some analytical perspective in their publications.  Third, they provide historic perspective.  Write the third portion of the introduction, that is, the part that includes the background information, only after completing the body of the paper.  Make sure it contains only the information that is absolutely necessary and that it occupies as little space as possible.  While writing the body of the paper, make a list of the information that needs to be in the introduction and reshape the list into a coherent paragraph.

10) By the middle of the semester, have at least something written.  From that point, start attempting to write at least one page each day.  Have a rough draft complete approximately one week before the penultimate draft in order to have time for revisions.

11) While writing the body of the paper, eliminate anything that is tangential or unrelated to the thesis.  Make the organization of the body mirror that of the thesis.  Provide primary source evidence for every analytical point.  Give credit to other authors in footnotes or endnotes for any analysis or information borrowed from them when constructing an argument.  In that way, the reader will know what thoughts belong to the paper’s author and what belongs to others.

While writing the body of the paper, eliminate anything that is tangential or unrelated to the thesis.
12) Craft sentences and paragraphs that are not so long that the reader drowns in information or so short that the reader likens the text to driving a car over railroad ties.  Imagine the work in print to consider the length of each paragraph.  Use quotations sparingly to present the most salient evidence or the most impressive analysis of other historians.  Vary sentence structure to maintain the reader’s interest.  Typically use past tense when writing history, and never use passive voice.

13) The conclusion should explain to the reader how the information in the body of the paper proved the thesis.  When failing to arrive at a reasonably good conclusion, list in their proper order the topic sentences from each paragraph of the body of the paper.  Form a conclusion by revising the sentences with the intent of leading the reader through the thought process in the paper.

14) Keep in mind several goals while transforming a rough draft into a penultimate draft.  Frequently, new ideas emerge in the revision process so integrate them into the draft.  Improve wording so that readers better understand the meaning of sentences.  Remove all grammar errors, wordiness, and passive voice.  Check the technical aspects of the paper, including formatting and reference styles.

15) Always have someone who is a good writer read the draft, even though that person may not be a historian.  Readers who do not provide friendly criticism are useless, and writers who can not accept good criticism never will become good writers.  Carefully evaluate any reader’s comments and incorporate corrections and additions into yet another draft.

16) Computers are among humanity’s most treasured creations along the lines of clay tablets and paper.  Take command of word processing programs in order to number pages, create citations, and format the paper.   Use the computer’s full potential by creating a folder for the project that contains not only the actual paper but also several subfolders.  One subfolder should include electronic notes from sources in separate files.  Another should have files with analytical notes, lists, as well as sentences and phrases one intends to incorporate into sentences.  A third subfolder should contain old drafts along with a file of discarded phrases, sentences, and paragraphs with notes as to their former location.  Always save a new draft with significant revisions as a new file and transfer the old draft into the its proper file.  Computer space is seemingly unlimited, so there is no reason to discard something that might come in handy later.

17) Continue to read and order more interlibrary loan material while writing.  Leave no stone unturned.

18) If the project demands something difficult or complicated to make it better, do it.  Too often, one thinks about a way to improve a paper but dismisses the idea because it would require rethinking the thesis, additional research, reorganization, and more writing.  Innovative ideas about making a paper better often indicate that one is beginning to master a subject.  Step up to the challenge.  Take on what is necessary to make the paper outstanding.

19) Do not return interlibrary loan materials until they are due, and make copies if anything is in the least useful.  Frequently, the instructor or opponent makes suggestions for changes in the paper that require additional information from primary or secondary sources.
If the project demands something difficult or complicated to make it better, do it.

20) Submit a paper with the exact number of pages required or a small amount more.  Deduct the space at the bottom
of each page reserved for footnotes, and do not count the title page, endnotes, and bibliography as part of the required length.  When a draft falls short of the required page length, review the thesis to see if it has sufficient complexity and if the body of the paper addresses all aspects of the thesis in a balanced manner.  Ask whether more evidence, improved explanation of facts, or further analysis would strengthen the paper.  Consider the components of the paper that support the thesis to see if additional elements might be useful.

21) Observe all deadlines.  Devise a schedule and follow it to ensure finishing on time.  Rushing through one or more stages of the project will reduce its quality.  As the saying goes: the drop carves the rock not by force but by falling often.

22) Strive to make each paper better than the last by improving research, analytical, and writing skills.  Often graduate papers level develop into dissertations, conference papers, journal articles, or book chapters.  At the least, they can become writing samples for potential employers or admission committees for advanced professional or academic programs.

Guides to Writing History Papers

There are many free guides to writing history papers on the Internet, and a simple search will reveal many useful hints.  One of the better sites is the "Writing Guide" by Clifford Backman, Barbara Diefendorf, James McCann, Sheila McIntyre, and Diana Wylie with the Department of History at Boston University that is available at http://www.bu.edu/history/undergraduate-program/resources/writing-guide/.


Rev. 4.VIII.2013