You've just been assigned by your instructor to write a paper on a topic. Relax, this isn't going to be as bad as it seems. You just need to get started. Here are some suggestions to make the process as painless as possible. Remember, if you have any questions ASK.
Is the assignment a formal research paper where you have to do research and cite other sources of information, or is the assignment asking you for your reaction to a particular topic where all you will need to do is collect your thoughts and organize them coherently. If you do need to research your topic, make sure you know what style manual your instructor prefers (MLA, APA, Chicago, etc).
Make sure you keep track of any restrictions that your instructor places on you. If your instructor wants a 4 page paper, they won't be happy with a 2 page paper, or a 10 page paper. Keep in mind that the instructor knows roughly how long it should take to cover the topic. If your paper is too short, you probably aren't looking at enough materials. If you paper is too long, you need to narrow your topic. Also, many times the instructor may restrict you to certain types of resources (books written after 1946, scholarly journals, no web sites). You don't want to automatically lessen your grade by not following the rules. Remember the key rule, if you have any questions ask your instructor!
You will also need to know which audience that you are writing for. Are you writing to an audience that knows nothing about your topic? If so you will need to write in such a way that you paper makes sense, and can be understood by these people. If your paper is geared to peers who have a similar background of information you won't need to include that type of information. If your paper is for experts in the field, you won't need to include background information.
If you're lucky, you were given a narrow topic by your instructor. You may not be interested in your topic, but you can be reasonably sure that the topic isn't too broad. Most of you aren't going to be that lucky. Your instructor gave you a broad topic, or no topic at all and you are going to have to choose the specific topic for your paper.
There are some general rules that you can use to help choose and narrow a topic. Does a particular topic interest you? If you are excited by a particular field, choose a topic from that field. While doing research you will learn more about the field, and learn which journals are written for your topic. Are you answering a relevant question? You and your instructor are going to be bored if you are writing a paper on the hazards of drunken driving. However, it might be more interesting to write about what causes people to drink and drive. The more interesting your topic the more you will enjoy and learn from writing your paper. You may also want to focus on a specific point of view about the topic, such as what teenagers think the causes of drunken driving are.
Now that you have a topic, it is time to start doing research. Don't jump to the card catalog and the indexes yet. The first research that you want to do is some general research on your topic. Find out what some of the terms used in the field are. You will also find that this research can help you further define you topic.
One source of general research is a general encyclopedia. Depending on the encyclopedia, at the end of each entry there may be a bibliography of suggested works. Good encyclopedias to consult are Encyclopedia Britannica, Encyclopedia Americana, and World Book.
You will also want to check to see if your topic is in a field that has a subject Encyclopedia, a Subject Handbook, or a Subject Dictionary. These guides contain information about a wide variety of topics inside a specific field. Generally the information in more detailed that what is contained in a general encyclopedia. Also the bibliographies are more extensive.
Now that we have some background information on our topic; we need to find information about our specific topic. Before searching, ask yourself what type of information you are looking for. If you want to find statistical information, you will need to look in certain types of sources. If you are looking for news accounts of an event, you will need to look in other types of sources. Remember, if you have a question about what type of source to use, ask a librarian.
Have you asked your instructor for suggestions on where to look? Why not? This person is experienced in the field, and they have been doing research in it longer than you have. They can recommend authors who write on your topic, and they can recommend a short list of journals that may contain information on your topic.
Books are one type of resource that you can use for your research. To find a book on your topic, you will need to use the online catalog, the CamelCat. Taking the list of keywords that you created while doing general research, do keyword searches in the catalog. Look at the titles that are being returned, do any look promising? If none do, revise your search using other keywords. If one does, look at the full record for that book. Check the subject headings that it is cataloged by. If one of those headings looks pertinent to your research, do a subject search using that particular heading.
Once you've got the books that you want to use start evaluating whether the book will be useful. Is it written by an author who is knowledgeable about that particular topic? Is the author qualified to write about the topic? What biases does the author have about the topic? Is the book current enough to contain useful information?
Once you've answered these questions, use the books that you deem useful for your research. Remember while taking notes to get the information that you need to do a proper citation. Also, pay attention to any bibliographies that are included in the book. These can help you locate other books and articles that may be useful for your research.
The Campbell University Libraries subscribe to a wide variety of Indexes and Journals for the use of students and faculty. Increasingly these materials are provided as Electronic Databases. These databases contain citations of articles and in some cases the full text of articles on a variety of topics. If you don't know which database will be useful for you, ask a librarian and they will be happy to assist you. You can also use the Find Articles link to search multiple databases at one time for information on your topic.
Once you've selected a database to use, use the keywords that you developed from your general research to find articles that will be useful for you. Once you've found one, see which terms the database used to catalog the article and use those terms to find more articles. Don't forget to set limits on the database so that only scholarly articles are returned if your instructor has made that a requirement for your paper.
Look at the journal articles that you have selected, and examine the bibliographies. Are there any authors that are mentioned in more than one article? Are there any articles that are mentioned more than once? You should find those authors and articles and include them in your research.
There are other useful sources that you can use in your research. If your report tends to be on a business topic or if you need company information for your research there are many companies that provide company reports. The contents of these reports differ, depending on which service that you are using. Generally speaking you will find company officers, financial statements, lists of competitors, and stock price.
The Internet is another source for information on a variety of topics. The major problem with the using Internet resources is authority. Anybody who knows HTML can produce a web site that looks pretty decent. However, a website produced by a sophomore in high school on a topic is not going to be useful to you in your research. Before using a website for information, you need to evaluate the site. Here are some questions you will want to ask: Who created the site? (If you can't tell, don't use it.) Has the site been recently updated? Is the site promoting a specific agenda/ does it have a bias? (Bias isn't necessarily bad, but you need to keep it in mind when interpreting the information presented?) Are there any misspellings on the site? (If there is one misspelling careless error more than three, don't use the page) Do the links on the page work? (If a few don't work, not a big problem, if most of the links don't work, the site isn't being maintained, and should not be used.)
You have all of your research, now it is time to write the paper. Don't forget to cite all of the research that you have collected using the preferred citation style of your instructor. If possible try to give yourself a couple of days to let the paper sit before you edit it. Look at a hard copy of the paper and check for mechanical errors (spelling, punctuation). Also try to imagine that you are the intended audience for the paper. Does your paper make sense? Are the arguments logical? Does the evidence presented support the arguments made? If you answered no to any of these questions, make the necessary changes to your paper.
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