Note:The following material is excerpted from Appendix A in Moody's book, Aging: Concepts and Controversies, published by Pine Forge Press, 3rd edition, 2000. This material is reprinted with permission from the author and publisher.
Research and writing can be intimidating to many students, especially in a field such as gerontology, which is a new subject to most. But research and writing needn't be frightening. Skillful research is the key to good writing, and careful thinking is the foundation for both.
Doing the background research for a term paper in gerontology is more than half the task of actually writing the paper itself. If you are successful in the research, you end up having other people do your work for you! Of course, that does not mean plagiarism or simply copying what other people have written without giving proper credit. But the trick in writing is to save yourself the trouble of reinventing the wheel. You want to avoid floundering around trying to rediscover a fact or idea that someone else has already worked out before you. Wasting time that way is not necessary at all. In fact, it detracts from the real job of research and writing--namely, thinking about what others have written and deciding what to take and put into your own work.
The key is not to work harder but to work smarter. By building on other people's work, and giving credit to them where credit is due, you save yourself time and devote your best effort to expressing what you really have to say. The process is the same as the one that takes place in science. All science and all scholarship stand on the work of others. This point holds true for the beginning student no less than for great thinkers. Indeed, the great physicist Isaac Newton himself once said: "If I've seen further than others, it is because I have stood on the shoulders of giants."
How does this approach apply to your writing a term paper? Conducting library research for a term paper is a bit like looking for buried treasure. If you don't know exactly where the treasure is buried, you end up spending a lot of time digging in places where you imagine the treasure might be. You rely on guesswork instead of careful thought. Once you have a hunch about where the treasure lies, then the actual digging takes practically no time at all. It is just the same with library research. Once you have developed your search strategy--your map for where treasure might be found--then the information sources at your fingertips will guide you quickly to where the treasure lies. The rest of the work--including writing up your findings--will actually take very little time, because you can build on the work of others.
Defining Your Topic
Defining your topic. At every stage in the research process, you need to ask yourself, What is the question I am asking? (What information am I trying to find?) You don't ask this question only once. For example, suppose you are trying to find out what percentage of people are retired at ages 60 and 70. At first, the question may seem simple. But as you dig deeper, you find that there may be uncertainty about how to count people as "retired" instead of "unemployed" or "disabled." As you look into the statistics, you discover that, behind the solid numbers, differing assumptions are involved. In effect, you ask your basic question over and over again as you look through bibliographic sources.
When you are planning your topic, you might find it helpful first to free-associate, or let your mind wander. You need to think about points related to your topic, but also about other subject terms and ideas related to your topic. This process of cross-referencing is at the heart of research and creative thinking. For example, suppose you're interested in writing a paper on retirement. Retirement is a big subject, maybe too big for one paper. Social scientists have written whole books on the subject; some have devoted their entire careers to it. But stay...
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