Many people (students and professionals alike) are overwhelmed by the prospect of writing a substantial research project. The following statement is representative of the general attitude: “It’s so much! I don’t even know where to start!” If you aim to sit down and produce a quality paper of any length in a single evening, then the statement is true. No one can do that. What we must do is learn to look at writing as a process—a series of manageable steps that, over time, will result in a quality academic paper.
The hardest thing to convince people of is that the very last thing that you need to do is sit down in front of your word processor and start actually writing your paper. The most critical step in writing a quality paper is one that many people try to overlook entirely: Planning.
Tip: If you are writing in a field that you are not very familiar with, an effective way to select a narrowly focused topic is to examine the subheadings in your textbook chapters.
Determine your purpose. The first thing you need to do with any project is to determine your reason for writing in the first place. Different purposes require different approaches. Papers for a class require that you meet the professor’s expectations. Papers for publication in journals must meet the expectation of the social scientific community. Literature reviews in this context are usually highly focused and relatively short. The majority of a journal article will focus on the research that is being reported. Literature reviews for dissertations and theses are usually very long, moving from the very general to the very specific. The idea is to prove to your dissertation committee that you have mastered the literature of your field.
Define your topic and locate relevant literature. These topics are listed together because they are part of a cycle. For most papers, you begin with a very general idea. Your first idea will almost always be too broad for a paper topic. After consulting the literature, you can identify more narrowly focused topics and refine your search of the literature. This cycle continues until you end up with a topic that is manageable in the length of the paper you plan to write.
Create a Timeline. No matter what you are writing, you have to get it completed eventually. Students writing a paper for a class usually have a deadline near the end of an academic semester. Professionals writing books on a contract have deadlines. Scholars writing research reports must set deadlines if they want to get their work published (and keep their jobs). We will use a 15-week semester as an example. The process would be the same for a journal article, a book, or a Master’s thesis—you just have more time for these larger projects. The important thing is to be realistic about how much work you can get done in a given time. Unfortunately for the writer of term papers, a term only lasts about 15 weeks, so you must work within that span of time.
Here is an example timeline:
Step 1: Selection of the final topic and preliminary literature search completed by the end of week 3.
Step 2: Reading list and preliminary paper outline completed by the end of week 6.
Step 3. First draft of paper completed by the end of week 12.
Step 4. Revisions completed and final draft ready to turn by the end of week 14.
Narrowing Your Focus
The following are some suggestions for selecting a topic and narrowing the focus of your topic to something manageable. Overly broad topics are problematic and will usually result in a poor quality final product. Some topics just cannot adequately be considered in a 10-page term paper. You will end up with a paper that is superficial, that jumps from subtopic to subtopic, and that fails to demonstrate your command of the literature.
Suggestion 1: Unless you are very familiar with the literature in the area that you are researching, it is best to begin with very general search terms and then limit your reading list after getting an idea about the “big picture.”
Suggestion 2: Use an “on topic” paper to refine your search. Once you identify a single paper that directly relates to your topic, use the language of that author to formulate your own search. You can also use an on-topic paper to narrow your focus by examining subtopics within the general topic.
Suggestion 3: Start with the most recent articles and work backward. Not knowing the ending may be critical to your enjoyment of a mystery novel, but it can save a lot of time and effort if you begin your analysis of the literature with the most current developments.
Suggestion 4: Search for theoretical articles on your topic. The role of theory is critical in the social sciences, and a good paper will reflect an examination of the theoretical underpinnings of your topic.
Suggestion 5: Search for review articles on your topic. Previously published review articles are very useful in planning your own review. In addition, they can greatly improve your reading list. This type of article will almost always have a more extensive reference list than an empirical research report.
Modification History File Created: 07/24/2018 Last Modified: 06/11/2021
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