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The Research Paper: Soaking in the Literature

There are several important factors in writing a good research paper which are seldom mentioned. Here they are:

You must read everything available on your topic.

At first this idea may seem ridiculous. But let's just think about it for a minute. Let's say you've chosen a large subject, like the Civil War, as your topic. What will happen?

What will happen is that you will be able to read only a miniscule portion of the material available on the topic. Without very expert guidance you will not read the key material in the field. The topic will be too large for you to address. You can't even cover the facts of such a huge topic.

Reading just a few sources you will probably end up with a skewed, or even incorrect, idea of your topic. You won't know who the key authors and publications are in the field. You won't know the different issues and interpretations of the facts in the field. You won't even know how much of a literature about the field exists.

In fact, you will be as ignorant, or even more ignorant (because you have the WRONG facts), as when you began.

The result will be a paper which sounds like a high school student wrote it. Amateurish, ignorant, clueless.

In the REAL World

In the real world your boss will come to you and ask you to find out about some topic or company or person. He will not mean just read a few sample articles. He won't mean come back to me when you are equally ignorant. He will expect you to KNOW what's going on. That means reading EVERYTHING!

Doing a good job is the route to promotion. Reading everything about the topic is the route to really KNOWING about the topic.

Your topic must be narrow enough.

Your topic must be narrow enough. Narrow enough for what? Narrow enough so that you can read everything that has been written about it.

If you insist on an extremely narrow topic you can read everything that has been written about it. You can become an authority, an expert, on that topic. You will know all the key publications, the key authors in the field, the key issues being discussed in the field, the shape and availability of the literature on the field. You will be able to compare the quality of research and writing among the various people working in the field.

The only way to really know a subject is to "soak in the literature." That means reading everything. That means working on a narrow, narrow topic.

In the REAL World

In the real world, sometimes, people expect too much. You will have to explain the facts of life to them. You cannot learn a really large subject in a day or two.

There are two approaches when you have been assigned too much. One is to start reading and make progressive reports, stressing that this is just the tip of the iceburg and you don't know yet what else will turn up.

The other approach is to break the subject into small topics and really research one at a time. The reports you write on these smaller topics will impress on the boss both your expertise and the necessity of allowing you a lot more time to explore the REST of the subject.

YOU must have something to say.

The typical approach to research by amateurs is to read only a few articles about a large topic. The result is they have nothing to say.

Sure, they can quote from the articles. But what is the point of quoting from the articles? People can go read the articles for themselves!

The real object of a research paper is to review the entire literature on a topic and then discuss YOUR views on the various issues in the field, the quality of the research, the quality of the authors, connections between various people's articles and ideas. You should ADD something NEW to what already exists.

In the REAL World

In the real world, most people lie and cheat and have agendas. This includes people who write articles on subjects you are trying to learn about. If you do not recognize their biases and warn your boss... well, you're toast.

Nothing will make you a hero in the office more than exposing the REAL FACTS of a situation. Good research can save the day, and get YOU a promotion! Poor research... you can fill in the blanks.

You must have a conclusion.

Most research papers are for a class. You should make sure you thoroughly understand what is wanted by the professor before you begin. What is wanted is usually the answer to a question. If you don't know the question yet, you need to read the instructions again.. Or, ask your professor for further explanation.

After all your research, you should ANSWER the question in the paper. Say what the question is in the beginning of the paper. Then give your answer. Then explain, based on your research, why you came to the conclusion that you did.

Soaking in the Literature

When you've read enough about a subject you will begin to have ideas, questions, theories. As you go through your notes and begin writing the paper you should have more ideas.

The BEST ideas, however, usually come to most people--real CLARITY about the topic--after several re-writes of the paper. This takes time and work. Give yourself enough of both and you will turn out an outstanding paper for which you can be proud.

Now let's look at
The Necessity of an Outline

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Please send comments to: Colby Glass, MLIS

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