Writing a Research Paper

College papers require a more formal language and style of writing than most students are used to. 99% of all college writing requires research, in-text citations, and Works Cited pages. This is why ENG101 and ENG102 are required classes. In universities across the country, upper-division courses have three main areas for evaluation: Midterm, Final, and Research Paper. All of these are high stakes; there are no extra credit assignments, and if a student does poorly on one, that student often fails the course. With that frighteningly real statistic behind us, let’s dig into finding good topics and solid sources for papers.

Choosing a Topic

For many students, choosing a topic can be a challenge. When trying to decide on a topic, start with something general and work toward a specific focus. For instance, on the broad, overworked topic of gun control you could narrow it down by writing an argument on whether or not strict gun control decreases or increases violent crime—if it has any effect at all.

Remember that you are not merely informing your audience about the topic; you are also trying to persuade the audience that your thesis is correct, or at least plausible. Choose a topic that lends itself to analysis and that you can argue. Pick something that has roughly five points for it and five against it. This will provide plenty of information, and a real opposition that you must try to prove wrong.

Some topics are position topics such as abortion, gun control, and capital punishment. Other topics are solution topics such as teenage suicide, pollution, and global warming. Do not try to argue for or against a solution topic. No one is for teenage suicide, but there are arguments over how to stop it. It’s to your advantage to not just repeat what everybody else has to say about the topic, but rather to adopt a perspective that is, to the extent that it’s possible, unique and original.

Don’t feel that you have to latch onto the most common topic under the sun, or the major controversy of the day, in order to produce sufficient research to come up with an interesting essay. Likewise, do not discount any subject as too mundane, trivial, or whatever, until you’ve had a chance to do some research on it. There is a good analytical angle to almost any subject, even such an innocuous topic as the potato.

Choose something related to your major, your work, or your hobby; talk to friends, relatives, librarians, instructors, etc.; sit down and brainstorm a list of possible topics; do some freewriting; search for “term paper ideas” on the internet. Just be sure the topic is something that you are interested in learning about, or that you truly feel passionate about. If you are interested in it, the research will merely be demanding, and it may even be stimulating. But if you’re not interested, it will be torture.

The Research Process

To do a thorough job of research, you should do both retrospective and contemporary research. Retrospective research looks at information that is established or historical; it gives you general background on your topic and a sense of the “big picture.” Contemporary research on recent developments in the field gives you something current to write about. In some cases, you might also want to incorporate your own field research that hasn’t been published anywhere. Types of field research include: Interviews, Observation, Questionnaires/Surveys, Lectures/Conferences/Seminars, Case studies, Experiments, Correspondence. Field research can be fun, interesting, and informative to do.


You should have an appropriate “mix” of sources, meaning a variety of different types of sources on the topic. Wikipedia can be a starting place for information, but you need to dig deeper than that. Research your topic on the Internet; in books, newspapers, and magazines; in encyclopedias and other reference works; in academic journals and perhaps trade or professional publications. Check both primary and secondary sources. Look in scholarly, technical, special-interest magazines as well as popular, non-technical, general-interest publications.

Don’t forget to check your library’s periodicals databases. Even though these databases are on the Internet, they are only accessible with a paid subscription from your college or public library. So they will take you to articles that are not available through Google, Google Scholar, or other search engines. (See: Search Operators for Research.)

An easy way of finding the best sources on a topic is to read the bibliography, if there is one, at the end of articles and books (or references and external links at the end of Wikipedia entries). When a source is frequently referred to by other sources, it’s worth checking out. Find as many different sources, with as many different viewpoints toward the topic, as you can; see what they all have to say, and come to your own conclusion.

It would be nice, at the end of your research project, if, after choosing “all-day kindergarten” as your topic, you could make an argument on that topic with some conviction—and more importantly, with some credibility. That means being familiar with both the evidence in support of your view and that in support of other views.

The Working Bibliography

As you narrow and focus your topic, and gather your sources, remember to record the publication data (the information needed for a bibliography) for the sources you feel likely to use in your research paper. List those sources in a working bibliography. Even if you think you won’t actually cite them in your research essay—and you will eventually discard some of the sources you find—it’s easier to keep track of those sources as you go along rather than trying to find them again later if you do decide to use them.

If you can gather a list of twenty substantial sources, you will know that you have enough information relating to the topic to meet the research requirements. It is highly likely that in your final essay you will cite fewer than half of the twenty or more sources you started out with. But your research objective is to learn your topic well enough that you can write about it with some authority, and that means reading a lot of sources to familiarize yourself with all angles of the topic.

MLA Basics

Once you have your research, you need to be able to utilize the source materials in your paper and that is where the MLA Style Guide comes into play. MLA stands for the Modern Language Association, which is a group of college professors who develop rules governing formatting papers and citing sources. There are other style guides such as that of the APA (American Psychological Association) and the Chicago Manual of Style. But ENG 101 and ENG 102 courses across the United States all teach MLA.

In general, any information not considered common knowledge (something known by most people in your audience) that is included from another source whether quoted or not, must be cited. This includes statistics, theories, opinions, anecdotes, and of course all direct quotations. Always place quotation marks around any information taken directly from the original source. When in doubt, cite it.

The research paper must include a Works Cited list, which is the MLA version of a bibliography or list of sources. You will have to find out what information goes in each particular type of entry, in what order, and how it is formatted (for instance, article titles are placed in quotation marks while publication titles are italicized). For more specific details, refer to the MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers or the Online Writing Lab (OWL) at Purdue University.

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