Part 1 English Essay

Writing a Research Paper

by Owen Fourie

~ Part One ~

Without inquiring minds and research, progress would be stifled. Research is essential to our development. Bear this in mind when your assignment requires you to write a research paper. In this article, our purpose is to understand how a non-scientific, non-technical research paper is produced.

If your assignment requires a scientific or technical report, you will still find this useful, and you will see a link at the end of this post to an item that will give you further information.

Choosing a topic

When you receive your assignment, note its stipulations and take care to do precisely what it requires you to do. Unless you are given a specific subject, it will be left to you to choose a topic.

Be wise in your choice of topic and seek to deal with something that is within your area of interest, a subject about which you would like to know more. This will bring some joy into the task as well as a challenge. Do not choose something that is completely unknown by you, especially when you have a deadline to meet.

Become narrow! … Huh?

Once you have chosen your topic, narrow it down from the broad, general category to the narrow, particular point that you need to focus on and develop as you research and as you write.

If your interest is in geology, your broad category might be continents. You would need to narrow this down considerably to a specific continent, perhaps Africa. That is still too broad. Which geological feature in Africa? The Great Rift Valley. What about it? The rift is becoming wider and the continent could be splitting. Here you are beginning to narrow down your subject–despite the widening of the rift :-). The more you narrow the topic, the closer you will come to being able to write a thesis statement.

The thesis statement

Your thesis statement is the point that will motivate your research and the development of your report. This is where you will make a specific statement concerning what you believe about a particular matter. Ideally, it should aim to be controversial as you take a certain view, preferably your own unique view. Let it be unlike any other that exists.

To make the thesis statement, some quick searching should be done to see if your thoughts can be supported. For this purpose, the Internet could be useful. See “How Do I Organize an Essay?”for more about thesis statements.

Having settled on a thesis statement, you should approach your instructor to approve your choice of topic and your thesis statement. You want to be sure that you have such approval before you do any major research. The next step is to develop a working outline.

The working outline and preliminary research

A working outline is not your final outline. It is needed to kick-start you in the research process. In a sense, it is like a shopping list. You write down what you think you will need to put into your research report to establish your thesis. You will list your main points and some supporting details. With your working outline in hand, you are ready to do some research.

... it is like a shopping list.

What you should do at this point is preliminary research. This is where you find out about the availability of the materials–the books, papers, journals, magazines, newspapers–that you will need to research your chosen subject and thesis. It is a quick survey to select relevant items and to eliminate the items that are not likely to help you. The Internet can be a useful tool in this phase as you search by using keywords for your topic.

The Internet and life beyond it

Let’s say that you are searching for “great rift valley” in Google. The first page will give you many items, and some of them could be useful. As you read, you perhaps begin to feel that you could refine your search. What about “east african rift”? You may find these items better. What you should be looking for is more than the websites listed there.

You should be looking for books, for original sources, so it would be far more rewarding to search for “east african rift + books.” There, you will find various links, some referring to books about the East African Rift Valley. Note a few of these titles and look for them in the libraries available to you.

Horn of Africa

Get to know how to use the catalog system in the library. Remember that librarians are there to assist you to track down any item that is not immediately available. Remember, too, that research involves more than simply culling information from the Internet. The Internet is a useful tool, but you do need to do your own reading in original sources.

The bibliographies in many Wikipedia articles are also useful for finding books and articles relevant to your subject. Academic databases will help you in your research. Search for “online academic databases,” and you will find more than you will need.

If your preliminary research reveals a lack of sources for your subject, you should consider choosing a different topic. Even if the original subject has adequate information, your preliminary research could indicate that you need to change your thesis statement. Remember to get your instructor’s approval for any changes.

Revising your outline

Once your preliminary research is finished, it is time to look again at your outline to see if changes are needed. Your initial research should give you a feel for the subject and the direction it should take to support your thesis, and your outline should be revised before you enter into the in-depth research phase. You will find information about outlining at

In Part Two of this procedure for writing a research report, we’ll begin with the in-depth research phase.


What have you found to be really difficult about thesis statements? What benefits or frustrations have you experienced on the Internet while tracking down books you have needed for research? Your comments, observations, and questions are welcome.

The item at the following link deals with scientific or technical research reports:

Here are more articles to help you with English words, grammar, and essay writing.

Copyright © 2010 by English Essay Writing Tips

Anyone who has gone through the ecstasies and agonies of writing an essay knows the satisfaction (and sometimes the sadness) of finishing. Once you've done all the work of figuring out what you want to say, arriving at an arguable and interesting thesis, analyzing your evidence, organizing your ideas, and contending with counter-arguments, you may feel that you've got nothing left to do but run spell-check, print it out and await your professor's response. But what spell- check can't discern is what real readers might think or feel when they read your essay: where they might become confused, or annoyed, or bored, or distracted. Anticipating those responses is the job of an editor—the job you take on as you edit your own work.

As you proceed, remember that sometimes what may seem like a small problem can mask (be a symptom of) a larger one. A poorly-worded phrase—one that seems, say, unclear or vague—may just need some tweaking to fix; but it may indicate that your thinking hasn't developed fully yet, that you're not quite sure what you want to say. Your language may be vague or confusing because the idea itself is. So learning, as Yeats says, to "cast a cold eye" on your prose isn't just a matter of arranging the finishing touches on your essay. It's about making your essay better from the inside (clarifying and deepening your ideas and insights) and from the outside (expressing those ideas in powerful, lucid, graceful prose). These five guidelines can help.

1. Read your essay aloud. When we labor over sentences, we can sometimes lose sight of the larger picture, of how all the sentences sound when they're read quickly one after the other, as your readers will read them. When you read aloud, your ear will pick up some of the problems your eye might miss.

As you read your essay, remember the "The Princess and the Pea," the story of a princess so sensitive she was bothered by a single pea buried beneath the pile of mattresses she lay upon. As an editor, you want to be like the princess—highly alert to anything that seems slightly odd or "off" in your prose. So if something strikes you as problematic, don't gloss over it. Investigate to uncover the nature of the problem. Chances are, if something bothers you a little, it will bother your readers a lot.

2. Make sure all of your words are doing important work in making your argument. Are all of your words and phrases necessary? Or are they just taking up space? Are your sentences tight and sharp, or are they loose and dull? Don't say in three sentences what you can say in one, and don't use 14 words where five will do. You want every word in your sentence to add as much meaning and inflection as possible. When you see phrases like "My own personal opinion," ask yourself what "own personal" adds. Isn't that what "my" means?

Even small, apparently unimportant words like "says" are worth your attention. Instead of "says," could you use a word like argues, acknowledges, contends, believes, reveals, suggests, or claims? Words like these not only make your sentences more lively and interesting, they provide useful information: if you tell your readers that someone "acknowledges" something, that deepens their understanding of how or why he or she said that thing; "said" merely reports.

3. Keep in mind the concept of le mot juste. Always try to find the perfect words, the most precise and specific language, to say what you mean. Without using concrete, clear language, you can't convey to your readers exactly what you think about a subject; you can only speak in generalities, and everyone has already heard those: "The evils of society are a drain on our resources." Sentences like this could mean so many things that they end up meaning nothing at all to your readers—or meaning something very different from what you intended. Be specific: What evils? Which societies? What resources? Your readers are reading your words to see what you think, what you have to say.

If you're having trouble putting your finger on just the right word, consult a thesaurus, but only to remind yourself of your options. Never choose words whose connotations or usual contexts you don't really understand. Using language you're unfamiliar with can lead to more imprecision—and that can lead your reader to question your authority.

4. Beware of inappropriately elevated language—words and phrases that are stilted, pompous, or jargony.Sometimes, in an effort to sound more reliable or authoritative, or more sophisticated, we puff up our prose with this sort of language. Usually we only end up sounding like we're trying to sound smart—which is a sure sign to our readers that we're not. If you find yourself inserting words or phrases because you think they'll sound impressive, reconsider. If your ideas are good, you don't need to strain for impressive language; if they're not, that language won't help anyway.

Inappropriately elevated language can result from nouns being used as verbs. Most parts of speech function better—more elegantly—when they play the roles they were meant to play; nouns work well as nouns and verbs as verbs. Read the following sentences aloud, and listen to how pompous they sound.

He exited the room. It is important that proponents and opponents of this bill dialogue about its contents before voting on it.

Exits and dialogues work better as nouns and there are plenty of ways of expressing those ideas without turning nouns into verbs.

He left the room. People should debate the pros and cons of this bill before voting.

Every now and then, though, this is a rule worth breaking, as in "He muscled his way to the front of the line." "Muscled" gives us a lot of information that might otherwise take several words or even sentences to express. And because it's not awkward to read, but lively and descriptive, readers won't mind the temporary shift in roles as "muscle" becomes a verb.

5. Be tough on your most dazzling sentences. As you revise, you may find that sentences you needed in earlier drafts no longer belong—and these may be the sentences you're most fond of. We're all guilty of trying to sneak in our favorite sentences where they don't belong, because we can't bear to cut them. But great writers are ruthless and will throw out brilliant lines if they're no longer relevant or necessary. They know that readers will be less struck by the brilliance than by the inappropriateness of those sentences and they let them go.

Copyright 1999, Kim Cooper, for the Writing Center at Harvard University


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