Creating a Thesis and Gathering sources
A research paper doesn’t have to be a project for English class. Sure, you will be using writing skills that are taught particularly in the study of English, but depending on the subject you choose, this might be a history, science, or philosophy project. The subject being researched is at least as important as the writing skills you display. Writing a research paper doesn’t just make you a better writer. It gives you knowledge of the subject you are researching. That’s the real point of a research paper.
The first thing you’ll need to do is decide upon a topic for your paper. Send your ideas to your writing coach as soon as you can. He or she will give you input, helping you to either narrow or broaden the idea to something interesting and usable. Don’t wait to do this.
There’s really no limit to the topics you might choose. You can write a paper on a famous person, a historical event, a scientific theory, a discovery, or an invention. You can write about a favorite pastime or activity. Whatever you choose, it’s important to make a decision as soon as possible so that you will have time to do your research and write your paper. Oh, and make sure to check with your parents and/or teacher. You’ll want their approval of your topic before you get started.
Once you’ve decided on your topic, the next important step is to create a thesis, or thesis statement. By thesis, we mean a sentence that summarizes the paper’s main idea. Eventually, it will appear somewhere in the first paragraph of your paper. Some examples of thesis statements are:
Despite many misconceptions caused by horror story writers, Transylvania is a beautiful and modern part of Eastern Europe.
The dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki led to a speedy Japanese surrender in World War II.
Despite much evidence to the contrary, many people continue to believe in a serpent-like monster inhabiting the waters of Scotland’s Loch Ness.
Your assignment this week is to complete and submit the Project Plan form, which includes your paper’s thesis statement. This is the most important sentence in your whole paper, so take your time and craft it carefully. Still, at this point in the process you can consider it a “working thesis.” As your research and writing continue, you may revise and refine it. Just make sure to email your coach if you make changes to your thesis.
Some Tips for Writing a Thesis Statement
Be clear and precise. The point of your paper should be easy to discern from this sentence. You should be able to point to it and say, “This is what I am trying to say in my paper.”
Make it interesting. In trying to be clear and precise, many students end up with a sentence that is detailed but dull. Don’t follow a formula. One such formula involves stating the main idea, followed by your three supporting points. This approach often produces bland statements that don’t spark reader interest.
Formulaic:“Pelé was a great soccer player because of his vision, his selflessness, and his unique style.”
Better:“The world has never seen an athlete like Pelé, and probably never will again.”
Another problem with this formula approach is that it’s too early for you to know what your supporting points will be. For now, just state the main idea of the paper.
Narrow your topic. It is critical that your thesis statement points to a topic that can be adequately covered in your paper. Students commonly select a topic that is too broad, such as:
The major battles of World War II
The effects of the Great Depression
The history of the Protestant Church
Pop music in the 2010s.
These are subjects that would require entire books to cover adequately. It’s not possible to provide a thorough look at topics this big in one paper. The best papers narrow the focus to something that can be covered in detail in a brief research paper:
The role of U.S. Marines in the D-Day invasion
The effects of the Great Depression on popular film
The importance of Martin Luther’s 95 Theses
The popularity of Justin Bieber.
The examples above are only topics, not thesis statements. To turn them into thesis statements, we need complete sentences:
U.S. Marines played a vital role in the D-Day invasion of Normandy during World War II.
Popular movies during the Great Depression helped people deal with the hardships of daily life.
The publication of Martin Luther’s 95 Theses was the starting point of the Reformation.
Many fans of Justin Bieber are inspired by his rise from talented teenager to international celebrity.
The second part of your assignment this week is to acquire the sources you think you’ll need for the paper. You can always go back later for additional sources, but it’s best to begin by gathering everything you think will be useful.
You can’t start this process too soon. Start exploring online using search engines like Google or Bing (be sure to check with your parents about doing this safely). You should also schedule some time at your local library.
Below, we’ve listed several kinds of research paper sources. It’s not necessary to find something from every category, but try to include some variety. We recommend you use more than just online sources. Include at least some print material, including books and/or magazine, newspaper, or journal articles. You may substitute e-books for print books if you prefer.
Encyclopedias provide excellent general information on a topic. You can use printed volumes or web-based versions. Beware of getting too much information from a single encyclopedia, however. Wikipedia, a popular online encyclopedia, may be used, but be sure to include other sources as well. Because Wikipedia allows almost anyone to add or edit content, it is not considered as reliable as other sources.
Find books on your subject and you are likely to find the thoughts and insights of an expert. The problem with books, of course, is that they can take a long time to read. The solution here is to give yourself plenty of time and to be selective. Be sure the books you choose directly address your subject. It’s also usually not necessary to read entire books — find the chapters and sections that seem to relate most directly to your thesis by perusing the table of contents and index.
Magazines and Journals
The difference between a magazine and a journal is the target audience. Magazines are usually published for the general public. Journals focus on select groups of experts or professionals. Both can provide information for your research. Finding the right articles can be tricky, but this is where your local librarian can come to the rescue. Ask how you can find magazine and journal articles on your topic and most librarians will be happy to show you how to use their print and/or computer guides to periodical literature.
Depending on your topic, newspapers can provide timely articles on current issues. This can be particularly helpful for history papers. Once again, ask your librarian to help you find articles on your subject. Different libraries use different databases and catalogs for finding newspaper information. Librarians are almost always eager to help students locate information.
Learn how to search for a topic using one of several web search engines such as Google or Bing. There is an enormous amount of information on the web. Problems arise with this however, including the possibility of wandering off into inappropriate areas of the web. Don’t web surf. Stay disciplined and stick to the topic at hand. We recommend parental supervision of all research over the internet.
Also be aware that not all web-based sources are reliable. Anyone can post information on a website, and that means that much doubtful and outright deceptive information can be made to appear authentic. Be sure the information you find is current and from a reputable source. If you only see information in one place, be skeptical. If the facts are true, you should be able to find them in other locations, including print sources. See Appendix A on evaluating online information.
Many major newspapers have a strong online presence —The New York Times and Washington Post, for example. They often include articles archives that go back several years. Visit these sites and see what kinds of articles can be found on your topic. Be aware that some newspapers charge a subscription to access some articles.
Digital Libraries and E-books
More and more books are available these days for free online. This mostly includes older books, but it’s possible to find recently published works as well via various online digital libraries. You might want to check out the Internet Public Library (ipl.org) or Project Gutenberg (gutenberg.org).
Look for opportunities to interview an eyewitness or expert on your topic. A Vietnam War veteran, for example, might be willing to share his experiences for a paper on that conflict. Ask around; an interview can be a fascinating way to spend a few hours.
Videos available online or through local libraries can often provide useful information. Audio programs might be available as well.
Final Thoughts on Gathering Sources
The sources you find will make a huge difference in the quality of the paper you write. As you search for sources, be creative and diligent. Find as many sources as you think you can use, but keep in mind that you only have three or four weeks to spend reading and taking notes. For informational papers, three to ten sources should be sufficient.
Keep good records regarding where you found the materials. This will come in handy later. Use the Project Plan included in the assignment to list all the important information about your sources.
Next week’s lesson will review the process for efficient note-taking. You will need a pack of old-fashioned note cards. See if you can acquire those before next week.
In the meantime, take all the time you can to look through your acquired sources. We recommend keeping a running log of ideas that might be helpful later in the writing process.
Another suggestion in this preliminary stage is to keep a tablet of sticky notes nearby as you read through your material. Make comments on the notes and stick them to the pages where you find information that you’ll want to use later. Hanging the notes off the end of the pages serves as a good place-marker too.
An important aspect of research is remembering where you got your information. This will be essential when you begin writing your paper and citing sources. Use whatever note-taking method you prefer this week, but be sure to carefully note the source and location of your notes. Next week the lesson will provide more detailed note-taking advice.