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An Essay by Christopher Brown on Writing Research Papers

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by Christopher Brown


So you want to learn to research well, and not waste any time. Let's do it. Here are a few NECESSARY preliminary points.

1. First, adopt an aggressive /I-am-taking-over-this-place/ mindset.

2. Develop a system for executing the research process. By creating your own rules to follow systematically, you really speed things up. Don't have one? No worries. You can use mine. I happen to have "research animal" stamped on my forehead.

3. Follow the rules. You can tweek them to suit your own style after a couple of runs with this method. But these make for great training wheels.

4. Before going into battle, always ready your weapons.

notepad and penThe Weapons

Do not go near a library or desk to start research unless and until everything you will need sits neatly arranged all about you for quick access. This one is your call. I use 2 or 3 pens and a pad of paper to scratch out notes and thoughts, and a pack of index cards for especially important notes. Then come the highlighters. In college, I used to work the highlighters until they overheated. Some people like sticky notes (post-its). You can stick 'em all around you as you work.

You will want a rolodex and a phone nearby in case you have to call someone you know to ask questions. For instance, if you have a specially-gifted techie friend in your inner circle, or know a professor, you may want to put him on speed dial. Think a bit about anything else you might need. Some folks study and research well to music, so get your headphones if you need them. Okay, here we have the system lined up for you.

The Systemopen book

PART #1 Begin Reconnaissance.: You're going in.

A. Get an overview and "contextualize" your topic. Learn its timeline of events and the major historical factors associated with it. When did it happen? What did it do? Why do people care about it at all? Find a short article that outlines the history of, or at least offers a timeline for, your topic. Everything has a history, and gaining a quick overview of your topic's chronology will give you the context into which all your other sources will fit.

B. Next, ride the wave. This is the surfing and browsing stage. Start with what you know. Pick out words associated with your topic or subject and Google them. When you land a starting topic (you can change this as you go, no worries. Just start somewhere.), use online encyclopedias and other resources to get a "quick snapshot" of the general views on the subject that exist out there already.

Try to see your subject from as many angles as possible, as it were, "walking all the way round it," inspecting as you go. Ask questions in your head, or even out loud like I do (caution: this may scare people), and put them down on paper in a special spot. Slap a sticky note on it that reads "QUESTIONS I HAVE."

To aid and abet developing a "snapshot overview," start looking up books on the topic. Find 10 of them. Note the titles on maybe 50 books -- if you can find that many -- about your subject or topic. Note the overlap in words used in the titles about your topic. This will give you a quick idea about who or what this topic means to others who have already studied it. Next, read the bibliographies of books. One good book can give you 5-10 great leads you might never have found otherwise. Note the titles that show up repeatedly in different bibliographies. In research geekspeak this is "bibbo," bibliographic overlap. Bibbo identifies your IRT's -- Initial Research Targets.

Photocopy or print out from your IRT's: the table of contents; the first chapter; a middle chapter that looks interesting or helpful; and the final chapter. Then read these and highlight the Dickens out of them. This gives you a snapshot, and a working knowledge, of the entire book extremely fast. It works too. Use your scribbled out question set as a filter for "what to look for" -- and highlight or take notes on -- when reading your IRT's. Write down any further questions that develop. These can be as simple as "Who is that guy?" Let your curiosity guide you, and let the sticky notes FLY!!

Next, read journal and magazine articles. How do you find these? Try checking your Bibbo. Or just follow any that you think might land you somewhere interesting. Play the detective. Follow your nose if you smell a good lead.

PART #2: Compile and organize your sources.

Use the old-fashioned vanilla file folders and mark them up, so you know which is what. Then get a file box to keep them handy.

PART#3: Determine which are the most relevant features of your topic from its effects or implications in 3 different areas of study.

For instance, if your topic reads, "Interesting stuff about World War II," then you will need to ask and study questions like, "Who did it cost, and how much did it cost them, to have this war?" Follow the money (economics). Then, you might ask "How did this war change the mindset or values of American society" (sociology or philosophy). Finally, ask maybe, "What inventions did Europeans develop to fight this war?" (technology). By looking at your topic from at least three disciplinary viewpoints, you will gain a broad understanding of it, and find yourself -- somewhat suddenly -- asking GREAT questions about it.

PART#4: Find and choose a controversial feature of topic, and choose a side of the issue.

Write down your viewpoint in one sentence. This we call your "thesis." Arguing this point well now constitutes your "objective." Ask the question of your thesis, "How do you know this is the case?" Ask this three times. Each time you ask it, give a brief answer in writing from one of your three areas you chose. Each answer must reflect views formed from a different area.

PART#5: Next, Re-read or skim your sources to develop an outline (in order to support your three points offered in defense of your thesis).

Now pull out the photocopied (or printed out) chapters from your IRT's and highlight and scribble all over them -- but keep it legible. Argue your case vigorously with your imaginary critic who knows what you know. Take his side and argue against your thesis the best you can. Shoot it down, developing three criticisms. Some of these will already have circulated in print in your sources. Line them up. Then answer the critic. Refute his three points. Your outline is nearly finished.

PART #6: Organize your notes into subgroups listed under the branches of your outline.

Draw a picture of the flow of your argument and objections as though it were a tree, and label the parts. Modify the outline as needed. Add relevant subheadings (you will come across new info in your scribbling) under the branches of the outline. Fill out relevant details from your notes to form the arguments for each section and subsection. Your rough draft is now complete.

PART#7: Rewrite your rough draft 5 times using our rules of good writing.

PART:#8 Study the cleaned-up draft for logical errors in arguments.

*See our "Blogic For Writers" website for this; modify and strenghten your case. Use T Edward Damer's "Attacking Faulty Reasoning" for this too.

PART#9 -- Write your conclusion.

This final paragraph spells out "what important point or points you have learned from doing all this hard work (e-search). Here, you make the case for why your research has value. Also, here either write or rewrite your introductory paragraph to "hint at" (anticipate) the concluding paragraph. Most of the time it actually makes the best sense to write your introduction LAST, since this way you write with a view of the WHOLE work, which you did not have at the beginning. In the introduction, hint at your conclusion, but don't give away the whole story. This makes for a smooth and logical flow from start to finish, giving your work a stylish symmetry, where the first part foresees the end, and the end reflects on the beginning. All good stories have this symmetry.

PART #10. Do the footnoting (or endnoting) and contstruct an extensive bibliography.* Add title page and Table of Contents.

See Kate Turabian's or an MLA manual online for this, and for grammar and style. You can also use the resources we list in our sidebar.

*You are DONE.*

Your paper or article "so totally rocks," and you get an "A." Your readers love you, and you then become wealthy and famous. Your actual mileage may vary, batteries not included, offer void where prohibited.

About the Author

Christopher Brown has taught English and philosophy for two colleges, attended the California State University, and went to seminary in Orlando, FL.

In 2004, he and two friends incorporated a business (Ophir Gold Corporation) that offers free services that help people. You may find them at: (Writing With Power) and (OGC's Free Web Traffic).