© Copyright 1999, Charles King
Most university courses involve some sort of extended writing assignment, usually in the form of a research paper. Papers normally require that a student identify a broad area of research related to the course, focus the topic through some general background reading, identify a clear research question, marshal primary and secondary resources to answer the question, and present the argument in a clear and creative manner, with proper citations. That is the theory, at least. But how do you go about doing it all? This brief guide provides some answers.
From the outset, keep in mind one important point: Writing a research paper is in part about learning how to teach yourself. Long after you leave college, you will continue learning about the world and its vast complexities. There is no better way to hone the skills of life-long learning than by writing individual research papers. The process forces you to ask good questions, find the sources to answer them, present your answers to an audience, and defend your answers against detractors. Those are skills that you will use in any profession you might eventually pursue.
The Five Commandments of Writing Research Papers
To write first-rate research papers, follow the following simple rules— well, simple to repeat, but too often ignored by most undergraduates.
1. Thou shalt do some background reading, think hard, and speak with the professor in order to identify a topic. At the beginning of a course, you will probably not know enough about the major scholarly topics that are of most importance in the field, the topics that are most well-covered in the secondary literature or the topics that have already had the life beaten out of them by successive generations of writers. You should begin by doing some general reading in the field. If nothing else, begin with the Encyclopaedia Britannica, a wonderful but sadly neglected resource. Read a few books
or articles on topics you find of interest. Follow up the suggested reading on the course syllabus or the footnotes or bibliographies of the texts you are reading for the course. After that, speak with the professor about some of your general ideas and the possible research directions you are thinking about pursuing. And you should do all this as early in the course as possible.
2. Thou shalt have a clear research question.
A research question, at least in the social sciences, begins with the word “why” or “how.” Think of it as a puzzle: Why did a particular political or social event turn out as it did and not some other way? Why does a particular pattern exist in social life? Why does a specific aspect of politics work as it does? How has a social or political phenomenon changed from one period to another? The question can be general or particular. Why have some countries been more successful in the transition from Communism than others? Why did the Labour Party win the last British general election? How have conceptions of race changed in the US since the 1960s? How do different electoral systems affect the behavior of political parties? The point is that you should attempt to identify either:
novel trends, developments or outcomes in social life that are not readily apparent (the “how” questions), or the causes of a particular event or general trend (the “why” questions).
Professional social scientists—historians, political scientists, sociologists, international affairs experts—work on both these kinds of questions. In the best published social science writing you will be able to identify a clear “how” or “why” question at the heart of the research. “How” and “why” questions are essential because they require the author to make an argument. Research questions that do not require an argument are just bad questions. For example, a paper on “What happened during the Mexican revolution?” requires the author to do no more than list...