English Composition 2
Avoiding the Five Most Common Problems with Research Papers
There are many things to think about as you are writing, revising, and proofreading your research paper, as suggested by the Revision Checklist. This page is designed to help you focus on and avoid the five most common problems associated with research papers. While the Revision Checklist specifies many different aspects of your writing to examine, this page goes into more detail with just five common problems.
One of the most common problems with research papers is not listed below, and this problem involves papers that do not reflect weeks of work but instead appear to be hastily put together in just a few days. There is a reason why we devote several weeks to the research paper: it takes that long to write a good research paper. Your paper should demonstrate careful and thorough research, significant revision, and effective proofreading.
At the bottom of this page you will find several links to web pages that explain some of the items referred to below in more depth. The five most common problem with research papers are listed below in no particular order.
Problem 1: Weak Organization
The longer a paper, the more challenging it is to ensure that the paper is well organized and unified. Sometimes, the writer will start to drift from idea to idea in the paper, losing focus on the thesis. The following questions may help you ensure that your research paper is well organized.
- Is your thesis clearly stated in the introduction in just one sentence?
- Does each body paragraph begin with a topic sentence clearly conveying a claim that is a major aspect of your thesis?
- Within each body paragraph, do you stay well focused on proving the claim or claims presented in the first sentence of the paragraph?
- Within each body paragraph, do you remind readers of the main point you are trying to prove in the paragraph by referring back to the main idea or ideas conveyed in the topic sentence?
- Is there a logical progression of ideas throughout your paper? In other words, is there a logical reason for the order of your ideas throughout your paper, and will this logical order be clear to readers?
Try this: You should be able to summarize accurately the entire content of your paper by listing just a few sentences from the paper: the thesis statement, the topic sentence for each body paragraph, and the restatement of the thesis. Collectively, these sentences should accurately convey everything you discuss in the paper. If any of the sentences or ideas in your paper are not clearly related to one of these sentences, then organization may be a problem.
The lengths of paragraphs can also give you an indication of possible problems with organization. If your paper has excessively long paragraphs (over a page and a half each) or excessively short paragraphs (paragraphs of only 5 or 6 sentences each), organization may be a problem.
To better unify and organize your paper, you should delete any sentences that are not clearly vital to the thesis for the paper. You might present some good ideas in those sentences, but if the ideas are not vital to the paper's thesis, they should not be in the paper.
Strong organization is especially important for a long paper. You have to ensure that readers will not get lost anywhere in your paper, that readers will always know how what they are reading logically relates to the thesis of the paper.
Problem 2: Poor Support and Development of Ideas
Poor support and development of ideas is closely related to weak organization, and excessively short or long paragraphs are one indication that the ideas in a paper are not developed well. It is also difficult to develop ideas successfully without the use of effective topic sentences.
Look carefully at the first sentence of each body paragraph. This sentence is what readers most likely will regard as the topic sentence for the paragraph. Again, there should be no sentences or ideas in a body paragraph that are not clearly related to main idea or ideas conveyed in the topic sentence. Does the first sentence of each body paragraph in your paper accurately summarize everything you discuss in the paragraph?
The following questions should help you determine how well you support and develop ideas in your paper.
- Have you limited the number of claims that you present in your paper? In other words, in each body paragraph, you should give yourself only one point (or at least no more than a few points) to prove: the majority of each paragraph should be comprised of supporting facts, not of claims that need to be proven.
- Do you support each claim with specific evidence?
- Is the majority of support you use in your paper from the primary source, not from secondary sources?
- Does every piece of evidence in your paper clearly support a specific claim?
- In each body paragraph, do you use at least three or four pieces of supporting evidence?
- Do you explain how the evidence you present logically supports a specific claim?
- Are all of the claims and supporting evidence in the paper clearly relevant to the thesis of the paper?
- Could any quotation be shortened to exclude information not vital to the claim you are trying to prove with the quotation?
Remember that your research paper not only is interpretive but also persuasive: you have to argue your interpretation, convincing readers that you have an interpretation that is well supported with evidence from the work of literature itself and further supported by insights from other scholars and experts.
Problem 3: Weak Use of Secondary Sources
Another common problem is the weak use of material from secondary sources. The following questions should help you evaluate how effectively you use material from sources to support and develop your thesis.
- Does all material from secondary sources provide meaningful insightful? If any material only conveys information that is obvious from one of your primary sources itself, you should put the information into your own words and delete your citation of the secondary source. You do not need a secondary source to tell you what is obvious from your primary source.
- Are all of your sources credible? How do you know?
- Do you not use general reference sources in your paper, such as a general encyclopedia? You should use more insightful sources: general reference sources seldom go into much depth.
- Does your paper reflect that you understand well the meaning of the words and ideas you use from sources?
- Does your paper as a whole demonstrate that you have a good understanding of what others have said about your primary sources?
- Does material from secondary sources comprise, at most, no more than twenty percent of your paper?
- Do you avoid using long quotations and instead smoothly integrate shorter quotations into your own sentences?
- Does the material from secondary sources flow smoothly with your own writing and clearly and logically relate to the ideas you are developing?
- Do you avoid relying heavily on material from just one or two secondary sources?
- Do you avoid getting crowded out of your own paper by material from sources? Are there passages in your paper where you present several sentences in a row of material from secondary sources? If so, you probably need to get more of your own words and ideas into the passage.
In addition, problems with the proper presentation, citation, and documentation of sources in papers are common. With the following questions in mind, review all of the material you use from sources in your paper.
- Are all quoted words presented in your paper exactly as they appear in the original source?
- Do you put quotation marks around all words copied from a source?
- Are all paraphrases and summaries of material from secondary sources really in your own words? (Note that plagiarism occurs if you do not use quotation marks and copy a phrase, a sentence, or sentences from a source and only change a few words. The sentence structure and words of a paraphrase or summary should be your own.)
- Have you properly cited all material from secondary sources?
- Have you checked and double-checked your paper to ensure that it does not contain any plagiarism?
- Do you have a good understanding of what constitutes plagiarism? (Understanding plagiarism is extremely important. A paper containing plagiarism will receive a failing grade.)
- Have you properly listed all sources, including each primary source, on the "Works Cited" page? (If you guess about how to list sources, you can assume that you will be wrong!)
- Have you checked and double-checked to ensure that you follow proper MLA standards for the citation and documentation of all sources?
There are many things to consider when you use sources in a paper, but you have access to all of the resources you need to use, cite, and document sources properly. Of course, just ask if you have any questions.
Problem 4: Excessive Errors
English Composition 2 is the last writing course most students take in college. By now, errors should not be a problem. Errors on the research paper will significantly reduce the grade, so make sure to proofread very carefully. Review your other essays to identify any errors that have caused problems for you in the past, and make sure that those errors, or any other errors, are not a problem in the research paper.
You have many resources to help you understand and eliminate errors. If you have any questions about errors, though, make sure to ask those questions.
Problem 5: Stylistic Weaknesses
By now, your writing should be free from stylistic weaknesses. Use the following questions to help you determine how strong your research paper is stylistically.
- Have you integrated every quotation smoothly and logically into your own sentences? No quotation in your paper should be standing by itself. This is something that I cover during the first few weeks of English Composition 1.
- Have you avoided common wordy expressions ("the fact that," "at this point in time," "people in this world," etc.)?
- Do you use a formal voice throughout your paper, with no first-person references ("I think," etc.), no contractions, and no slang or other informal language?
- Do you use transitional phrases to take readers smoothly and logically from one idea to the next and from one sentence to the next?
- Do you use a variety of sentences, both in terms of length and structure?
- Do you use varied word choice, avoiding unnecessary repetition of words?
- Do you avoid using the passive voice, using it only sparingly for specific reasons?
See the following web handouts for more information about some of the items listed above:
Using, Citing, and Documenting Material from Secondary Sources
- Using Secondary Sources Effectively
- Understanding and Avoiding Plagiarism
- Citing Sources
- Paragraph on Antigone with MLA Citations and Documentation
- Using Quotations, Paraphrases, and Summaries
- Preparing a Works Cited Page
Developing and Supporting Ideas Effectively
- Bad Paragraph / Good Paragraph: Writing Effective Persuasive Paragraphs
- Organizing and Developing Persuasive Paragraphs
- Organizing and Developing a Persuasive Essay
- Effective Argumentation with Claims, Evidence, and Warrants
Style and Mechanics
- Identifying and Correcting Common Errors in Writing
- Integrating Quotations into Sentences
- Using Quotations Properly
- "Words, Words, Words"
- Using Specific and Concrete Diction
- The Proper Format for Essays