Ah, the beauty and terror of the white page hungrily awaiting you to wow the world with an immaculate research paper. But what happens next when your mind is as blank as the new Word document and you are frozen in the icy glare as the computer screen stares back, your unexpected and formidable foe? As Douglas Adams profoundly advised us, “Don’t Panic”. Research papers are a little scary at first, but they quickly become old hat the more of them you get under your belt. And there will be more. You might as well start from the beginning by establishing a system to help you approach this college rite of passage.
Make sure you understand the requirements of the assignment. Know that the topic you have chosen is acceptable by checking with the professor before hand. Know that you have met any length, formatting, and subject criteria. Be aware of deadlines for drafts. Don’t procrastinate. Rare is the gift that enables a student to write a work of genius two hours before it is due. This simple step of verifying the fundamentals of the assignment could save major head aches later on, so don’t skip it.
Make sure your research is adequate. They don’t call it a research paper for nothing. You will actually need to do a lot of reading and sifting of information, probably five times as much work should be dedicated to this than to the writing process. You need to have something to say in this paper. You should have a minimum of three solid sources for a short paper, more as the page requirements increase. Be sure you include at least one dazzling source, such as a primary document, letter, autobiography, or data from a respected expert in the field. High light passages that are applicable to your topic as you go (don’t hate me librarians, I am the one)and then get your information organized and ready to be plugged in to your paper.
Begin the writing process. If you skipped steps one and two and can relate to the horror of blanking out in front of the computer, no wonder. Don’t attempt to tackle a research paper without honing in on your topic. You won’t know what to write. Begin with a loose outline that helps you to determine where the information is best addressed and what data you can reasonably include. If you were a good researcher, you will have an excess of information and won’t be able to include all of it. Give yourself the benefit of an uncluttered work space that is calming and comfortable. You should have relative privacy and minimal distraction. If you can’t get rid of everyone, get some headphones and motivating music. I think I already mentioned that you need to give yourself time. Do yourself a favor and start this baby way before it’s due.
Don’t you dare turn in a research paper that has not been edited by yourself and two other people. Print out three copies. One for you, one for a trusted friend or adviser, and one for the English major you met at a party last week. Seriously, get some other eyeballs to look at your work. A fresh perspective can really benefit the refining process. Offer to buy the coffee and then sit down and let your editing buddies loose upon your magnum opus with their red pens. It will make a difference in the final product. This is also the time to be sure you have cited your sources and taken care of any other formatting concerns correctly. Double check with style manuals (these can be found on line) and force yourself to care about the minutia. I guarantee the professor cares about the minutia.
Celebrate. A paper well written is a job well done. Sometimes just knowing there is something good waiting over the finish line is enough to get you through a tough paper. Make it a habit to reward yourself at the completion of every major college project and paper. It will do wonders for your motivation and help you not to dread the next round. Happy writing!