The following are tips based on personal experience for researching and writing research papers, which focus on source gathering and content over formatting and structure. There is no shortage of guidelines for the formatting and structuring of research papers, yet following those guidelines is only half of the task. The other half is how one goes about researching for papers and in choosing, organizing and restating gathered information. Having been a student myself, I would occasionally slip up on formatting and source citation, but for the most part, I could salvage just about any class grade with my ability to do research and write papers both effectively and efficiently. What follows are my tips on researching for papers, namely for academic purposes at high school and undergraduate levels.
Everyone knows or should know that the first task in researching for papers after establishing the general topic is forming a thesis, which can either be a question or a statement; either way, it usually reduces a broad set of criteria to a more tightly organized set of topics and subtopics. For example, instead of writing a paper on World War II, one is more likely to be writing about a certain element such as the European or Pacific fronts, or more specifically, a historical figure and their role in the conflict. On that note, my first tip is to begin your research by finding the best summary and picking out of that summary key words, phrases and topics that will guide you in your choice of source materials, etc. Once this is done, I find it a good idea to reword the summary (found best-worded in journals/periodicals) in your own words, ordering the elements and possibly coming up with the first sentence or paragraph for your paper – give or take some revision. Whatever the first sentence or paragraph, it should always reflect the content and structure of the rest of the paper.
Researching for papers or for anything requires source material, but not all source material will be useful or advisable. Most if not all scholastic papers are written in the third person and take a balanced or neutral stance on its topics and subtopics, so unless your goal is to get first person quotes to better illustrate sides of a relevant issue, my next tip is to avoid relying heavily upon books and articles written by authors whose primary goal is to strongly convey a personal viewpoint and opinion. Such quotes are usually preferred or even required, but their use should be minimal if not scarce. Whenever possible and appropriate, they should reflect more than one viewpoint for the sake of balance and fairness. There are exceptions, of course, and a teacher might have certain guidelines of his or her own, but unless you are writing a book report or are asked to defend a certain perspective that is popular and prevalent in the culture, I stand by the advice above.
Know how much of a given piece of source material is relevant to your paper and thus necessary to read, watch or listen to. This is helpful when dealing with specified deadlines and lengths for your paper(s). Returning to the macrocosmic topic of World War II, let’s say that your thesis makes mention of a certain prominent figure, such as President Roosevelt, Prime Minister Churchill or even the Nazi’s “Desert Fox” General Erwin Rommel. You could find numerous books just on any one of these people, but reading one or more cover-to-cover could not only waste time, but confuse you when it comes to just how much of the person’s life and career is relevant to your thesis and thus to your paper. Unless the book is short and only deals with the information you need about a certain individual or even event, avoid the temptation of TMI (too much information) by choosing books with useful tables of contents and indexes, then using each to pick which sections and pages you’ll read, making sure you’re then able to plug that information into your paper in the right places.
Last but not least, research papers come in a variety of different formats and structures, some with their own distinct rules for citing sources, all of which depends upon what those sources are. Therefore, a helpful tip in researching for papers includes making sure that a majority of your sources are from one or two mediums such as books, web sites, periodicals, etc. Nowadays, it’s likely that a teacher will instruct you to get your sources from as many different mediums as you can, yet when possible, experience has taught me that getting said sources mainly from a single medium such as printed books makes bibliographies and citations faster and easier to write as well as to read and understand. Otherwise, you could break your source material down into things such as quotes and passages, relying mostly on books for passages while gathering less-used and cited quotes from the more “exotic” mediums. After all, when it comes to web sites and other (or newer) electronic media, the rules for citation can and do vary and change from time to time.
Remember, these are just tips gleaned from personal experience. Whether to excel at researching and writing papers or just make it more fun and easier on yourself, the best of tip is to come up with your own ways of finding, organizing and wording things that can be used over and over with consistently positive results. Most importantly, try to approach the task of researching and writing papers with as positive an attitude as you can. I love to write, yet even I once dreamed of a day when I would be out of school and free from the task of writing research papers. Yet as with just about anything, learning to like or at least accept a task makes it easier and often makes you better.