Research Paper Tips #1

Contrary to popular belief, your research paper should not be just pages and pages of facts.  Otherwise, we could just get that information from the internet on our own.  What we actually need is for you to interpret those facts for us.

Research Papers-More Than Just Data: Imagine you’re an actual research scientist doing cutting-edge research and the sources you’re using are actually bits of information you just discovered that no one has ever seen before.  You’re not going to focus on the boring stuff we all know; you’re going to look at all the new and exciting stuff that you’ve discovered and connect it all together to tell us what it means.  Tell us what’s important about the issue.  Focus on what is special.  Don’t just explain how something works.  Tell us why it matters, or how it is different, or how it can change the world. If it helps, think of your paper as an article in a science magazine; you want your paper to be interesting to your readers or they won’t want to read it.

Make It Easy On Yourself: If you choose a topic that you are actually interested in, the paper will be more enjoyable to research and write.  Look at the research first, and then make a thesis out of what you find most interesting about your topic.  Chances are, if it interests you, it will interest your reader too.  Don’t try to come up with your main points first and then look for research to support your ideas second; this is much harder to do than going the other way around.

Keep It Focused And Specific: A word about the scope of your paper:  don’t try to tackle an issue that is too big.  If you only have a few pages to work with, you don’t want to try to explain the entire history of the world or talk about every dinosaur that ever existed. Maybe focus on one dinosaur and what made it special.  The wider your scope, the greater the number of pages you will need to cover it!

On Choosing Topics:

Quite often, students come into the Writing Lab to get help on scholarship papers–or college essays if it’s fall or winter.  Some of the essays are good, or have a lot of potential.  But others feel very uninspired.  When asked why they chose their topics, many students can’t really say.  A lot mention that they didn’t really care about the topic, or that they just wanted to get the assignment done.  This happens a lot with research papers, too.

We’re always left wondering, Why would you chose a topic that you’re not even interested in? Having to write an essay when you don’t want to is bad enough, but why decide to make it twice as bad by choosing a topic that doesn’t excite you at all?  You’re punishing yourself that way.

Many times, students will tell us that they really wanted to write on something else, but that they didn’t think the people reading the essay would like the choice of topic.  We suppose this is a reasonable assumption.  After all, a large number of the organizations sponsoring these events usually choose prompts that are so flat, cliche, or hollow that it’s natural to assume they want responses that are just as bad.

We’re putting our reputation on the line here, but many of us at the Writing Lab would rather read a paper that is actually interesting and different, about a topic that is unique or surprising–and we’re betting other people would rather read that kind of paper too.  One student said he’d rather write about rappers, like Tupac or Biggie Smalls, and how they can be leaders through their music.  Is that topic probably going to be controversial? Yes, but that will catch people’s attention, and isn’t that what you want to do with a scholarship essay?  With any essay?  Separate yourself from the crowd?

As long as you can back up your claims and convince your reader to believe what you believe, your essay will be doing what it’s supposed to do.  Will someone reject your essay because they just don’t like your topic, rather than actually read it and keep an open mind?  Maybe.  It happens.  But something that’s original still has a better chance of getting noticed than something that’s cliche.  And wouldn’t you rather spend your time working on something that’s fun for you?

So maybe you agree, but you’re not sure how to choose a topic that both interests you and fits the prompt.  Try taking the essence of the prompt (the general theme that the essay is really about, like ‘perseverance’ or ‘community’ or even a topic for a science paper) and looking for that thing in all the stuff you love.  Many actors, rock stars, athletes, and others have had to overcome as much adversity as some historical figures, and a research paper about how energy drinks affect video gaming performance can be just as interesting as one about global warming (if not more so).

So use your energy to find a topic that you actually care about that fits a prompt, rather than using that energy to try and keep your eyes open while you work on a boring one.