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Organizing and Writing a Research Paper

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Last time we covered strategies to help students find their footing as they begin to work on a research paper. This time we’ll offer some tips for organizing research materials and papers themselves. Remember, there is not a single approach to writing a research paper that works for everyone. The most important step you can take is to allow yourself enough time to figure out which strategies work best for you.

Organizing Your Research
In order to avoid being overwhelmed by your research material, it’s important to develop a research strategy. One popular strategy is writing each piece of information for your paper (along with a citation) on a note card. Another is to keep a research journal where you document anything you think might be useful. The note card strategy is useful if you want to visualize your paper before you begin writing it. You can easily arrange your note cards in various orders to see which one makes the most sense and if there are any gaps in your research. A research journal, on the other hand, is more versatile. You can use it as a full reference for your paper, a list of citations, or anywhere in between. A journal is also useful for documenting your own thoughts on the material that you are researching. This can help you to better analyze your sources when it comes time to write the paper itself.

Organizing Your Paper
Try to get out of the “five paragraph” mindset when writing a research paper. Instead, think of your paper as being comprised of separate but interlocking sections. Each section should be as many or as few paragraphs as you feel you need to successfully get your point across. While there is not a set format for a research paper, here are suggestions for argumentative and analytical papers.

For an argumentative paper, start with an introduction where you contextualize your argument. Discuss the current state of affairs in the topic that you have been researching. Begin broadly and get gradually more specific until you reach your thesis statement. Your body paragraphs should contain topic sentences with specific points supporting your thesis and evidence backing up those points. However, don’t just quote or paraphrase your sources and leave them to stand on their own. You need to analyze each source and explain how it supports your argument. If you can’t explain in your own words why a citation matters, why should you expect your teacher to be able to figure it out for him or herself?

At this stage, I recommend including a few counter-examples. Also known as “conceding the point,” counter-examples are a way of acknowledging that you know that your paper is not perfect. Far from weakening your paper, including counter-examples will actually strengthen it. The idea is that you anticipate possible rebuttals to your paper in order to dismiss them by showing why they are either irrelevant to or do not fundamentally undermine your overall thesis.

End with a conclusion that restates your main points and ties them back in with your thesis. This should be like a mini-summary of your paper, not just a repeat of your introduction. Your conclusion is also the place where you should provide any additional commentary you feel is necessary to successfully wrap up your paper.

For an analytical paper, I recommend following basically the same format but replacing counter-examples with comparisons and contrasts. Since you’re not advocating for a particular point of view, you should instead focus on exploring the similarities and differences between and among the various perspectives that you have raised in the body of your paper. Doing a dedicated compare and contrast section lets you dig into specific points of disagreement while simultaneously keeping your paper as a whole from reading like a game of academic ping pong.

As a rule, you should error on the side of caution when deciding whether or not to cite a source. You don’t need to cite literally every piece of research that you read in the course of writing your paper. However, you do need to give credit to any work that helped inform your opinion or argument, even if the contribution was relatively minor. If given a choice of citation style, I recommend sticking with MLA (in-line citations) for a high school level paper but using Chicago (footnotes/endnotes) for a college level one. Chicago requires more initial setup time than MLA does but makes handling a large number of sources much easier in the long run.

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