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How to Write a Research Paper – Part 2

In the first post, I talked about the process of developing a research topic, gathering your sources, and starting to build your database of knowledge. If you have done things properly, your workspace may look something like this.  (Mine often does when I’m in the middle of a project.) Now, it is time to tackle the task of organizing your thoughts into a coherent structure and putting them down on the page.  In this entry, I will start by making some suggestions about how to write an introductory paragraph that will give you a structure for the rest of your paper. Then, I will present some general reflections about how to arrange the body of your work and how to draw it to a conclusion. Finally, I will offer some tips about the editing process that will help polish your paper into a product of which you can be proud.

Step 4: Write

This is when your hard work comes together. Your paper should have three parts: an introduction, the body, and a conclusion. Think of your introduction like an inverted triangle with several parts: the introduction to the topic, the “hook,” foreshadowing, and the thesis.

Intro to the intro

      “Hook”

Foreshadowing

      Thesis

Each step narrows down the focus of your paper until you finally tell me exactly what it is you hope to accomplish in your work in the thesis. The intro to the intro paints a very broad stroke about your subject. For instance, “It is widely believed that Thomas Aquinas was heavily indebted to Aristotle and Augustine in developing his thought.” This sentence tells the reader that your paper will be about Thomas Aquinas and his thought and the reader might infer that the paper will touch upon the sources of his thought since Aristotle and Augustine are mentioned as influences. All you’re looking to do here is a give very broad comment about your work as a way to pique the reader’s interest.

The “hook” begins to narrow your topic by hinting at your particular line of inquiry and your approach to the question. For instance, “It is less commonly understood that pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite also deeply influenced Thomas.” This signals to your reader that your paper will center upon the relationship between Aquinas and pseudo-Dionysius and that you

hope to uncover some areas where pseudo-Dionysius’s influence has not been properly acknowledged.  The “hook” signals a contrast to the intro to the intro and begins to point toward the direction you want to take in your research.  This, too, is a very broad presentation of your research.

This is fleshed out in greater detail in the foreshadowing where the points of your paper are broached. Again, for example, “Thomas Aquinas was inspired by pseudo-Dionysius in his understanding of the doctrine of God, his metaphysical views, and in his belief in deification.” Here we have three signposts that the reader is told to look for in your paper with this simple statement. Foreshadowing can be extended into a sentence or two for each point for greater specificity. In that case, we would need to say something explicit about how Aquinas was influenced on each of these three points.  We would, for example, say something about the way used pseudo-Dionysius in his doctrine of God that points forward toward what will be said in the body of the paper.

Finally, you have the thesis. This is the most important part of the introduction. It tells me exactly what your paper is about (and, consequently, tells me what standard I should use to grade your work) and what you want to argue. If your thesis is missing or vague, chances are pretty good the rest of the paper will be somewhat amorphous, too. Nail this and the rest of the work will be much more clear. Again, to continue our example. “Mapping out the ways in which Aquinas was impacted by his reading of the pseudo-Dionysian corpus will alter the common perception of Aristotle’s influence upon scholasticism and leave a greater appreciation for the influence of the larger Platonic philosophical tradition.” This simple sentence tells me exactly what you intend to argue or prove and the significance of the point.  It is clear and concise.  With that, the intro is done. Generally, depending upon your writing style and the topic, the intro should be about a page, give or take. True confession: the writing process actually helps me to think through the topic so the intro is actually the last thing I write. I find that writing the intro last helps me to articulate a clearer sense of what I want to do after I have already done it. That may be beneficial to you as well.

So, our completed introduction looks like this:

It is widely believed that Thomas Aquinas was heavily indebted to Aristotle and Augustine in developing his thought. It is less commonly understood that pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite also deeply influenced Thomas. Aquinas was inspired by pseudo-Dionysius in his understanding of the doctrine of God, his metaphysical views, and in his belief in deification. Mapping out the ways in which Aquinas was impacted by his reading of the pseudo-Dionysian corpus will alter the common perception of Aristotle’s influence upon scholasticism and leave a greater appreciation for the influence of the larger Platonic philosophical tradition.

This is a really succinct outline of the paper that very broadly broaches the topic, tells the reader that you are going to offer a different reading of Aquinas, identifies three ways Aquinas was influenced by pseudo-Dionysius, and ends by stating what you intend to argue along with why it matters. If I were to actually write this paper, I would likely add two or three sentences that unpack specifically how it is that pseudo-Dionysius influenced Aquinas on the three selected topics, as suggested above. That would make the introduction a bit more substantial and give the reader more insight into what you plan to say in the body of your work.

The bulk of the paper is the body. This is where you unpack the ideas you presented in the introduction. Notice that the foreshadowing in the example had three points. Three points is not only a good standard for sermons; it works pretty well for term papers, too. You must decide in what order your research should unfold. If you are telling a narrative, go chronologically. If you are doing more theological work, make sure the basic ideas come before the more complex ideas. Our example introductory paragraph above is organized into a topical pattern, but it could be organized to trace how the influence of pseudo-Dionysius grows as Aquinas’ thought matures. Or, one could go in a different topical direction by outlining the ways Aquinas used pseudo-Dionysius in his biblical commentaries, his philosophical writings, and his theological treatises. All of these have potential, depending on what you find in the research phase and what kind of argument you want to make.  Just make sure you have a rationale for the structure of your paper. If I ask why you wrote the paper the way you did, be sure you have an answer. Write an outline, if it helps. Take the first point from your foreshadowing and break it down into sub-points. That’s the first section of your paper. Repeat the process with the other two points from the foreshadowing. You’ve now created a skeleton you can put some flesh on when you write. It also breaks the writing task down into much more manageable sections that feel a bit more like writing one or two page essays, rather than one large twenty page paper.

The conclusion is fairly easy after all this. You simply flip the introduction. Restate your thesis (in different words). Remind the reader of the main points of your argument by rephrasing your foreshadowing statement(s). Finally, tell me why it matters. To continue our Aquinas-pseudo-Dionysius example, we might say something like “Aquinas incorporated eclectic points of view into his theology and only when how he used different sources is considered can Thomas’s creativity in fusing disparate ideas into his distinctive system be appreciated.” This is your “outro,” so to speak. Why did you spend all this time researching and writing on this topic? Why did I read it? What was learned or gained in the process? Really, you’re looking for a smooth transition to conclude your paper. It should be something general that hints at why your work matters. Consider where your work lands in the larger field of research on your topic. A restatement of your “intro to the intro” might work here, but it will be more impressive if you can be a bit more specific about why your work is important. If you can’t do that, then you may not have mastered the material quite yet.

Step 5: Edit

Editing is often where an A paper can become an A- paper. The first line of defense is the spelling and grammar check function in your word processing program, but, remember that those devices are not always fool proof. You will need to re-read what you have written or have someone you trust (and is qualified) read it to pick out issues of style and substance. Remember that I cannot read your mind so whatever you have written is that upon which I will evaluate you. A few pointers may be useful here.

  • Write with precision and clarity. Write exactly what you mean with strong words and without ambiguity. This makes it much easier for me to grade. Short and punchy sentences will always leave a stronger impression than longer, run-on sentences that I have to decipher.  If I have to agonize over what you intended to say because your sentence is eight lines long and has five clauses, your grade will most likely suffer.
  • The thesaurus is your friend. Use vivid and descriptive words. It is simply more enjoyable to read when I see an array of words that perfectly capture your ideas.  Nobody wants to read a paper that follows the same formula over and over again or that reads like a technical instruction manual.  This is part of communicating well.
  • In general, “I” is frowned upon in academic writing. So is “the author” when referring to oneself. Find ways to write sentences without being self-referential. This makes your writing appear more authoritative.
  • Be mindful of the genre of academic research paper.  Remember that this is a written text, not intended for oral delivery. Many Winebrenner students are or will be familiar with preaching. This is not a sermon. This means the prose should be a bit more polished. Do not simply strap on a Dragon headset or whatever other voice recognition system you may use and dictate without revising. Since it is not a sermon, that also means the tone should be more objective and the intent is more to demonstrate your point than to edify the reader.
  • Pay attention to all the standard rules of grammar. Write in complete sentences.  Make sure that pronouns are connected to proper referents. Watch the use of different verb tenses (in general, use the present tense, but whatever you select, be consistent). Punctuate properly (by which I mostly mean, put commas where they belong, especially the Oxford comma). Do not end sentences with prepositions. Learn the difference between they’re, their, and there, it’s and its, your and you’re, etc.
  • Cite your sources in proper format.  Formatting footnotes properly can be a pain, but doing it the right way makes a paper look so much more professional and polished than a paper that has citations that are out of order or a bibliography that is completely unorganized.  Learning to do footnotes and a bibliography leaves a much better impression on your reader that it is worth doing it right, especially when there are so many tools available that make it easy to do.
  • Look at the rubric. It is there for you to make sure your paper meets certain expectations. I promise I have no surprises when it comes time to grade your work.
  • Above all else, don’t plagiarize! Of all the possible sins that can be committed in writing, plagiarism is the unforgivable sin. All the others will simply reduce your grade; this one can give you an automatic zero for the assignment. Careers have been derailed when scholars, even highly regarded, well established ones, have been found guilty of doing it. There are two kinds of plagiarism: intentional and unintentional. The former means you have blatantly stolen from another source without recognition, while the latter means that you have simply “borrowed” another person’s work or ideas with the best of intentions perhaps without realizing that you are plagiarizing. I have no way of telling which is which, so I am forced to treat them equally. You do not have to cite things like birthdates, birthplaces–objective facts that no one will debate. You do need to cite when you refer to other people’s work, either by explicitly quoting something or when you simply mention an idea that is not your own. The second case is particularly tricky. As a rule of thumb, when I write, I often have between three to five footnotes per page on average. More than that means I am citing too often and not including any of my own ideas. Less than that means that I may not have done enough research, that I am unintentionally plagiarizing, or that I am simply being negligent. When in doubt, drop a footnote. It’ll save everyone (myself included) a lot of misery.

That’s all there is to it. I realize that it seems daunting, but if you work through the process and give each step the time it requires, it can be a rewarding experience and you can complete a research paper you will be proud of (and receive a high grade to boot).

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

Image by Cyton Photography accessed via Adobe Spark

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