Selecting A Topic : Writing Research Paper

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Selecting A Topic :

A research paper requires a major investment on your part. So why not be good to yourself right from the start? If you choose a topic that truly interests you, one that will be fun to explore, you'll write with more of a sense of purpose.

A good research paper topic has the following qualities:

  • The topic is interesting to you. You'd really like to know more about it.

  • The topic has an argumentative edge. You have a point you'd like to make with your reader.

  • The topic is tailored to a specific audience or audiences. You have in mind an audience that wants or needs to know more about the topic.

  • The topic is narrow enough. You have focused it on something you can cover adequately within the specifications given.

  • Pick A Good Topic :

    When you have a range of choices, pick an area you already know something about and would enjoy exploring further.

    Here are examples of the kinds of topics students might choose to start with:

  • You might want to learn more about the Mayan civilization because last summer you went on an archeological dig at the Tikal ruins in Guatemala.

  • You might want to write a paper on Nelson Mandela, the civil rights leader who became president of South Africa after spending more than twenty-five years as a political prisoner in that country.

  • Some aspect of the life of that remarkable medieval queen, Eleanor of Aquitaine, might make a good topic for you. Perhaps you can gather statistics on how many major symphony orchestras are conducted by women versus how many by men and then go on to explore the causes for that disparity of numbers.

  • Or

  • May be you wonder why in most historical periods of painting, there are so few women artists represented.

  • Define Your Purpose :

    Know the purpose behind your research. Perhaps your instructor has specified that purpose in the assignment by using a term such as analyze, explain, investigate, compare, prove or discuss. As you work on your draft, keep checking to see that you're doing what the assignment specifies.

    Then think about your own purposes. Most readers want you to take a position on your subject and then use the information you collect to support and amplify that position. Remember that research papers are always better pieces of writing if they have an argumentative edge.

    In this early stage of planning your paper, it's useful to get down a tentative thesis sentence that sums up the main points you plan to make and thus expresses that argumentative edge. For example, Artemisia Gentileschi, a talented artist in seventeenth-century Italy, overcame formidable cultural, professional and sexual obstacles to produce some of the finest art of her day. Some of that art reveals a strong feminist theme. Any such thesis is only a working statement. Almost certainly you would want to revise and refine it for the final version of your paper.

    Identify Your Audience :

    Whether you are writing on an assigned topic or on a topic you've chosen, begin by considering who your readers are and what they want to get from your paper. First is your professor. Professors always hope to learn something new from their students - that's one of the bonuses of teaching. But in addition to reading for content - new information and interesting ways of looking at familiar information - professors read your research papers with several other concerns in mind:

  • To evaluate your knowledge of your subject matter

  • To determine your ability to make a valid claim, find information that will support it and present your case in a clear and organized fashion

  • To see how you got to the claim your paper makes, how you found the information you use to support it - to see enough of the workings of your research process itself so they can evaluate its strength

  • To assess your mastery of the formal conventions of research writing in a given academic field : for example, the format recommended by the Modern Language Association (MLA) for an English paper or the format recommended by the American Psychological Association (APA) for a paper in sociology or psychology.

  • To create a good research piece, it's useful to identify another audience besides your professors, an additional group of readers you would like to influence or inform. You could choose a magazine or other kind of period-ical that might publish something about the topic you're writing on. For example, a travel magazine might be interested in an article on your visit to Tikal, the Mayan site in Guatemala. Today there are many online pub-lications, such as Salon (, that you can browse right at your own computer. Select one of those and write your research paper as an article for it. You can see a full listing at www.metagrid.coml. Who knows - you might even decide to submit your piece to be considered for publication. At the very least, assume that you are writing for other stu¬dents in the class for which you're writing the paper.

    Whatever audience(s) you decide to write for, ask yourself these questions:

  • What do they already know about my topic?

  • What would they like to know?

  • What kinds of details are likely to interest them?

  • What's in this topic for them?

  • What might their stake in it be?

  • If you are writing your paper in a class where students respond to each other's rough drafts, asking yourself these questions as you are writing will be particularly helpful. Asking your peer reviewers these questions as they review your draft(s) will give them good ways to begin to respond to your work constructively.

    Formulate A Research Question :

    Once you have decided on a tentative topic, you can begin to formulate a question (or questions) about your topic to answer through your research. You may, for instance, want to find out the answers to questions such as

    What can the average citizen do on a daily basis to help protect the natural environment?

    Why is California the site of so many earthquakes?

    How do the film versions of Jane Austen's novels, such as Sense and Sensibility, compare with the novels themselves?

    If you were writing a paper on Artemisia Gentileschi, you might phrase your question like this:

    Why have women painters from earlier centuries than the nineteenth received so little attention until now?

    Why are painters like Artemisia Gentileschi so little known today?

    How did Artemisia Gentileschi go about transcending the limitations which her culture and her personal history placed upon her?

    You need to formulate your research question early in your research and continue to reformulate, refocus and sharpen it as you move through every step of the research process.

    Resist the temptation to begin your research with questions that are built upon unproved assumptions or that lead to obvious or foregone conclusions. A question like "How has commercialism corrupted professional sports?" is inappropriate if the underlying assumption-commercialism has corrupted professional sports-cannot be convincingly established. When you are researching and writing about topics that are controversial or surrounded by debate, your first task may well be to show that you're arguing from valid assumptions. If you're going to have to spend half of the paper just establishing the validity of those assumptions, as you would have to in the topic of commercialism and professional sports, then recon¬sider your choice of topic.

    How do you go about creating a research question? How, for example, do you get from Artemisia Gentileschi to "What is unique about the career of Artemisia Gentileschi?" or from "phytoplankton in Wilson Inlet" to "In what ways does the growth cycle of phytoplankton in Wilson Inlet allow us to anticipate the growth cycle of phytoplankton in the Ross Sea?"

    One way to make that transformation is to ask these six questions about your topic:

  • Who has noticed the work of Gentileschi?

  • What is unusual about it?

  • Where can her work be seen?

  • When did she live?

  • How did events in her life affect her work?

  • Why was her work neglected?

  • Each of these questions can help get your topic moving in the direction of being a question to be answered and an argument or arguments to be made.

    Another technique for creating or discovering a research question, also one used by the authors of this book, is to look for anomalies, things that don't make sense, within the subject you are examining.

    Here are some examples:

    Why is it that Gentileschi's work was considered unimportant, yet some of her paintings were mistaken for the work of acknowledged masters such as Caravaggio? What is the anomaly there?

    Why is it that city X continues to spend millions of dollars developing the buildings, parks and sidewalks along the river that flows through the middle of town, but continues to do nothing about the terrible and deteriorating condition of the water quality in that river? What is the anomaly there?

    To continue the section on Writing Research Paper,

    1. Selecting a topic

    2. Researching your topic

    3. Writing your paper

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