How to Write a Research Paper – Part 1

“Why do I have to write a research paper? It’s not like I’m going to be a professor or something….”  Surely, this is a thought that many students have had over the years, even if they may not have been bold enough to voice it to their professor. It is an understandable disposition, but one that I want to suggest overlooks the formational nature and the practical skills that are developed in writing a good research paper. There are a lot of ways students are shaped in writing a research paper. It takes discipline and perseverance to do the research and then to sit down to write on a focused topic for a sustained amount of time. That will build some patience, but it will also help one see the world differently. To engage a great thinker of the past is to enter into his or her world, but it is also to notice how and why the contemporary era is different. To contemplate intensely the depths of doctrine is to transform the way we think inevitably. We do not always notice the way what we study changes who we are because it does so in such a very gradual way, but that does not mean we are not transforming underneath it all.

But most of us are more pragmatic than that. Fair enough. Many of our graduates will land in traditional pastoral roles with the expectation of weekly preaching. Sermons typically run anywhere from 20-30 minutes. That works out to about an 8-12 page paper per week every week. I think I can speak for everyone at Winebrenner when I say that we hope you do some research before you step into the pulpit. One of my seminary friends told a story about a pastor he knew who had a tendency to not prepare a sermon for one reason or another and then declare that God wanted the Sunday service to be a worship service without a sermon. While that pastor may have legitimately felt that, doing that too often will likely lead to unemployment. Writing research papers now helps build the discipline and gives you the tools to write a strong sermon that will feed your congregation.

“But I’m not going to pastor…” Touché, but you aren’t off the hook, either. Doing research and writing a paper are actually pretty basic life skills that we desperately need in our culture. We live in an era of disinformation and “fake news.” How can we know fact from fiction? How we can we avoid being swayed by emotional arguments that may have no basis in reality? Research. But that is really only the first step.  A Google search will turn up all sorts of information on anything you like.  How do we know The Babylon Bee isn’t a legitimate news source? True story: I once listened to a sermon in which the pastor derided a tendency in the church to divide over minor matters. His primary example came from a satire site. It was…awkward. Done correctly, research can develop habits of detailed investigation that help to analyze a problem, determine relevant information, construct an opinion based upon facts, and state an intelligent and informed view. That matters whether one is debating with others on social media or deciding how to vote. Writing a research paper develops skills of critical inquiry and communication that are ultimately very practical far beyond the confines of the classroom.

For many students at Winebrenner, writing a research paper is often either an entirely foreign concept or a distant memory. In order to help students succeed at this common academic task, I wrote this little guide to help students navigate through the process. This is intended primarily for my courses, but may well help in other fields as well. Keep in mind, though, that each discipline in the Winebrenner curriculum and every professor is a little different, so what might be a reliable method for writing history or theology papers may not work so well in New Testament or pastoral theology.

Step 1: Identify a Topic

In most of my classes, students are fairly free to pick whatever topic they like upon which to write. Heard about this guy named Augustine, but don’t know much about him? He’s well worth your time, even if you don’t end up agreeing with him. Really into thinking about intra-Trinitarian relationship? Great! It is a rich topic with plenty of interlocutors with which you can dialogue. As always, details of what topic is fair game and what is out of bounds can be found in the syllabus. Failing that, just ask. I actually really do enjoy listening to paper topic ideas and am very interested in reading papers on subjects with which I am less familiar.

Topics can go in one of two directions into error. First, a subject can be selected that is so narrow or exotic that little material is available to do research. You may have heard about a late nineteenth century Russian theologian who sounds really interesting to you, but unless his writings have been translated or you have the necessary language skills and you have easy access to his books, your project will not go very far. For most students, this is not much of a problem, though. The other direction is more often an obstacle–selecting a topic that is much, much too broad for a simple term paper. Trying to write the entire 1500+ year history of monasticism in 15-20 pages may seem like a good idea, but I can assure you it is not. Inevitably, topics will be left out and the subject will not be treated with the proper nuance to give me a sense that there is any kind of mastery of the topic (and that really is the goal–to become something close to an expert on your selected topic). If you want to work with monasticism, for example, pick a person or a movement. There will be far less reading to do and your product will be much sharper.

The best advice I can give you is to examine something you are passionate about. Passion does not mean that you necessarily like your topic; it just means that you feel strongly about it. You will be spending a fair amount of your time and energy, if you hope to do well, reading and thinking about your paper. At the very least, it should be interesting to you.

Step 2: Gather Your Sources

Once you have a general idea of what you want to work with, it is then time to collect your research material. This is an absolutely vital step to do correctly. Oftentimes, the quality of one’s sources bear a relationship to the quality of the submitted research paper (and the ultimate grade received). Bad sources lead to less than satisfying grades. Not all sources are created equal; your church bulletin may present a very nice overview of the life of John Wesley, but it is not as respected as Kenneth Collins’s biography. In general, books published by university presses (publishing houses with the word “university” in it and named after a university) are going to be better than books intended for a Christian book store published by Christian publishers. There are exceptions, of course. There are a number of private publishing houses (Brill, for instance) that are not attached to a university, but turn out very fine scholarly work. This is true, too, for the Christian academic market. Eerdmans, Baker, Fortress Press are all examples of Christian printing houses that have an eye turned toward the academic market and often release books that are on par with university presses. Journal articles, too, can be very helpful. Use JSTOR and other tools to help find peer-reviewed scholarly articles. The advantage of journal articles is obvious–if you can find an article on precisely your topic, you may be able to get away with reading a bit less. Along those same lines, you will almost always be better served by picking up books on your specific topic rather than a more general study like a textbook or a broad introductory survey. Those works can be useful, but the topic will be opened up much more deeply in a book devoted to your subject. You can read a chapter on Karl Barth’s pneumatology and get an overview or you can read an entire book and really understand it. The broader your source, the more likely it is to lack details, which actually makes your work harder than it needs to be by failing to give you enough substantial material with which to work. It really is important to be critical in selecting sources with which you will work. For the record, to state the obvious, Wikipedia is not a reliable source.

One other note is important here, especially for history papers–the difference between primary and secondary sources. A primary source is written by the subject of your research; a secondary source is written about your subject. So, the 50+ volume collected writings of Martin Luther is a primary source; Paul Althaus’s survey of Luther’s theology is a secondary source.

Step 3: Read

You’ll want to spend a good portion of your time reading the primary sources. Your goal is really to open up the primary sources and then bring in secondary sources to either corroborate your views or show how your reading is better. Listen to your sources. Let them guide you as you begin to narrow down your research topic and decide what angle you will take. Read widely. Read a lot. Then, go read some more. Immerse yourself in the topic. Read until you know the material well enough that you can accurately predict what the author will say next. Take copious notes. It is much harder to write if you have not prepared to do so. Reading is how you gain the information to fill your pages quickly and meaningfully, so do it carefully and thoroughly.

One obvious question one might ask is, how much should I read? How many sources do I really need? The instructions in the syllabi will often tell you how many are expected of you, but that might not actually be sufficient to do your work well.  Too few sources and you will likely run out of content and begin to simply repeat what you find in your most trusted source. But that is a book report, not a research paper, really. Too many sources and you will never make it through them all and you may not need to anyway. How many introductory survey level books on John Calvin does one need anyway? The reality is that there is no single answer, no page limit to hit to achieve mastery. Writing is much more of an art than a science and the number of sources needed or pages to be read to do the job right is more of an intuition based upon experience, unfortunately. You’ll need to read more if your sources are poorly chosen and they are redundant. You might be able to get away with less if your sources are focused and high quality. There is some great advice over here about how wide to cast your net in the initial hunt for research materials. You may need as many as one source per page you intend to write, though you may require far less to finish your work.

Dr. David Barbee
Assistant Professor of Christian Thought and Director of the Master of Arts in Practical Theology Program

Image by Daniel Alvarez S. accessed via Adobe Spark