A lot of English majors master the mysteries of the research paper long before they ever get into the working world. This type of writing don’t come up very often in the working world, unless you’re working in the legal or research business, but the skill is still a handy one to have. Today I’ll share my approach to the process, which hasn’t changed much from my analog (i.e., pre-internet) days.
Thesis and Outline
“What is your thesis statement?” your literature teachers always ask. This is simply, “What do you want to say about your topic?” In the case of my Kepler Space Institute paper, I’m starting from the premise that arts and recreation would be beneficial to incorporate into the first city on Mars. From there, I needed to elaborate my main point:
- What is this city on Mars like?
- What is my evidence?
- What types of arts and recreation would I recommend?
- How do I see those forms of art and recreation benefitting the city?
With those questions as my organizing ideas, I then set about collecting research sources for each of those buckets.
- Actually, I cheated on the first bullet because I’d already cowrote a paper about the city on Mars that I could crib from shamelessly (if you can’t steal from yourself, who can you steal from?).
- In the case of the second, bullet, I’ve been seeking sources that talk about how arts and recreation have benefitted people in similar circumstances: migrant and displaced populations; confined and imprisoned people; nuclear submarine crews; early explorers and space analogue participants; and previous space crews.
- This section will be a mix of sports on Mars invented in science fiction and my own fertile imagination.
- The content under bullet #4 will restate the advantages identified in section 2 and apply them to the people living in my theoretical city on Mars.
I don’t know about you, but until I start reading my likely sources, I’m not certain which ones will fit my needs. In a library context, this usually means pulling a bunch of books off the shelf based on my card catalog search and dragging the pile to a desk so I can scan them for points that match my own. In an internet context, that means doing keyword searches and pulling the most likely links, then doing a similar scan.
There’s no getting around it: research means reading…a lot of it. Articles are easier because they’re shorter. Book reading can be made easier by sifting through likely chapter titles and searching the index for specific topics. From there I’ll start the laborious process of writing down or copying/pasting useful sentences into the appropriate section.
Again, I’m trying to support my initial thesis statement. Depending on my topic, I’ll either arrange my selections by common theme or by source. My words are the arguments or points I’m making, the quotations from the sources are my backup (“See? I’m not just making stuff up; XYZ journal or Eminent Historian A says the same thing”). This part of the writing is often clunky, as I’m often just pushing words around to put my ideas in the right order. Once I’ve added the sources I want, I’ll go back and smooth out the wording and flow.
I do my best to make certain my sources back up what I’m saying. I will sometimes dispense with unrelated content by not including the quotation or by breaking up a quotation via ellipses. However, I don’t use ellipses as a way to delete words I don’t like or as a way to make a quotation say the opposite of what the author intended. It’s my way of keeping myself honest. Sometimes I don’t find sources that say what I want; in that case, I’m forced to dispense with that particular sub-argument or admit that the literature review does not support X assertion. In the end, my research paper’s conclusions have to reflect both the arguments I’ve made and the sources I’ve quoted to produce a unified whole.
If you’re doing research in your current schooling or line of work, what does it look like for you?