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English Composition 2

Researching and Writing the Research Paper

The idea of writing a long research paper can be intimidating at first, but try to take things one step at a time. Seeing the assignment as a series of smaller tasks can make things easier for you.

1. Decide on a Topic and Develop a Tentative Thesis for the Paper

After reading, rereading, discussing, and possibly doing some preliminary research on the play, you should be able to come up with a topic that you could write about. The topic is just a general idea or aspect of the play.

After deciding on a topic, you need to focus the topic into a tentative thesis statement. As the textbook suggests, you might regard the tentative thesis statement as an answer to a question about the play. For example, for the play Antigone, you might ask yourself, "What is the play supposed to tell us about the relationship between human beings and the gods?"

After studying the play, you might conclude that the play, while suggesting that human laws are important, emphasizes that divine laws must be regarded as more important when human laws and divine laws conflict. Such a statement could serve as a tentative thesis for a paper on Antigone.

2. Create a Writing Plan

After deciding on a thesis for your paper, your next step is to create a writing plan (or rough outline). The writing plan will divide your thesis into several related subtopics. It’s essential to create a writing plan before you begin taking notes, because the subtopics in your plan will be used as headings on your note cards.

Example: Sophocles’ Antigone

Thesis: While Antigone suggets the importance of human laws in maintaining order, the play finally affirms that the laws of the gods must take precedence when human and divine laws come into conflict.

Writing Plan:

  1. Introduction—Thesis statement
  2. Background: Polynices and Eteocles and Creon’s edict
  3. Creon’s emphasis on human laws to maintain order
  4. Antigone’s emphasis on divine laws
  5. Creon’s attitude toward Antigone, the gods, and divine laws
  6. The "lesson" Creon learns in the end: Divine laws must take precedence over human laws
  7. Conclusion

A writing plan alone should make it much easier for you to write your paper. In a sense, I have just turned one long paper into several much shorter papers, each with a related purpose: to help develop my thesis on Antigone concerning human and divine laws.

I can simplify the writing and research further by making a more detailed writing plan. In other words, I might list a few subtopics under 2 through 6 above. For example, under "Creon’s emphasis on human laws to maintain order," I might include the subtopic "Creon's good intentions." Making such a detailed plan will help with the research and with the writing of the paper, since the plan, again, divides one long assignment into several short but related assignments.

IMPORTANT: As best you can, try to "conceptualize" your paper before you begin writing it and before you begin doing much research on it. That is, try to "see" in your mind what your finished paper might look like. Imagine how you will begin, how one point will lead to another, and how each point will help support and develop your thesis.

3. Take Notes from the Primary Source

After you have a writing plan that you think will work, you are ready to begin taking some notes.

The first place you should take notes from is the play itself (referred to as the "primary source"). Reread the play carefully with your writing plan in front of you, and when you find something in the play that you think you might be able to use in your paper, take out a blank index card and write down the information. The information might be a direct quote, a paraphrase, or a summary of something that happens in the play (make sure to put quotation marks around direct quotes).

To make it easier to organize your notes, you should write down only one note per card and you should write at the top of each card the heading (taken from your writing plan) under which this note might be used in your paper.

(NOTE: Writing down the heading on each note card is very important, and note cards are almost useless without any headings.)

Near the top of the note card, you will also need to write down the name of your source (in this case, Antigone, and where in the source the note is coming from (for example, line 423).

4. Take Notes from the Secondary Sources

After you have gone through the primary source and gathered some notes, you are then ready to do some research and to take some notes from "secondary sources." A secondary source is an essay, chapter, or book that comments on or interprets the primary source. A different edition of the play is not a secondary source (though an introduction, preface, or afterwards published with the play might be a good secondary source).

In the library, locate those books or journals that discuss the play. When you find an essay or book on the play, scan through it to see if the author(s) discusses an aspect of the play that ties in with your thesis in some way. Do not waste time reading all you can about the play. When you do research, you try to locate information you can use in your paper; you do not try to learn all there is to learn about the play and its author.

You might also search the World Wide Web and Internet for information that you can use for your paper. However, evaluate carefully the credibility of such sources.

When you find a secondary source that you think you can use in your paper, you need to make out a bibliography card for it. A bibliography card contains publication information about your source, and if you eventually use the source in your paper, you will need to list the publication information on your "Works Cited" page, so make sure to record publication information accurately on your bibliography cards.

See Bibliography Cards for more information.

After recording the publication information on a bibliography card, you are then ready to examine the source more carefully. As you read through the source, have your writing plan in front of you, and look for any information in your source that you think you might be able to use in your paper. You are looking basically for insightful comments from other authors that you can "borrow" and use to support and develop your thesis.

Once you have found some information that you think you might be able to use, get out an index card and make a note of it, much the same way you did when you took notes from the play. Again, the information you record might be a direct quote, a paraphrase, or a summary of material from the source.

Again, use the headings from your writing plan to help you identify where the notes might be used in your paper, and include near the top of the note card the last name of the author of your source and the page number where you note originates. You do not need to record any additional publication information on the note card, since you have already made out a bibliography card for the source.

See Using Note Cards for more information.

5. Write the Paper

After you have done all (or at least most) of your research, you are finally ready to begin writing your paper. Take it one step at a time. Look at your writing plan and decide which subtopic you would like to write on first. Then take out all of the note cards you have with that heading of your subtopic (both from your primary and secondary sources). If you have done a thorough and careful job of taking notes, all the support you will need for that subtopic will be on the note cards. You might not have to consult any more secondary sources, and you might not even have to open your book to the play. Of course, if you find that you need more support, you will have to go back to the books.

Finally, keep in mind that a research paper is much like essays you have already written. The main difference is that you are now drawing support from a variety of different sources, and, of source, the research paper is a bit longer.

This page was last updated on June 06, 2013. Copyright Randy Rambo, 2006.