Research Paper Basics
Interacting with your Audience
Focus on content, not on the writer
- Research papers are not personal letters from the student to the teacher, so leave off comments such as "Have you ever wondered about …?" and "I hope you enjoyed reading this as much as I enjoyed writing it."
- They are not a diary, so your discussion of all the hours you spent, all the false starts, and all the "gee whiz" comments about how wonderful you found this new information is inappropriate. Keep a journal somewhere for that kind of writing.
- They are typically very third-person and passive voice. This is because we do not really care that Hermione Granger carefully added the ingredients and watched them diligently as they simmered. We only want to know what happened to the stuff in the cauldron.
- Academic writing usually goes like this: "After the lacewing flies are stewed 21 days, they are added to the mixture of leeches, powdered bicorn horn, knotgrass, fluxweed (picked at full moon), and shredded boomslang skin. Finally, a bit of the person one wants to turn into (typically hair) is added."
Do not focus on the reader either
In drama, we would call this a "fourth-wall break," and most readers of academic papers find it very annoying.
- You do not know whether I smoke marijuana or have abortions, so do not make your paper a sermon to reform my behavior. (Besides, I am somewhat insulted that you figure a six-page student paper will totally revolutionize my life.)
- Comments such as "I'll bet you don't know that …" insult the reader. (Recently, in my twentieth year of teaching English composition, a student wrote to me, "I'll bet you don't know that there is more than one kind of writing.)
- Similarly, a conclusion that says, "Now you know all about …" sends the signal that you don't think I know very much and that your topic was incredibly elementary.
But you do have to understand the audience
- Write to a general audience of educated (at least high school graduates) adults. This means you do not have to explain very elementary ideas as if you were writing to a group of five-year-olds. (One anti-smoking paper recently explained—with appropriate source citations—the definition of "cigarette." You don't have to do that.)
- Every human activity has its own language and body of knowledge. The trick is to figure out what your target audience knows and doesn't know. A paper for Ashland Seminary would not have to explain what a gospel is, but it might have to explain that a sura is one of the 114 subdivisions of the Quran.
- Your audience is expecting a clear explanation of your findings. This means that a clear structure which begins with a well-crafted thesis is what we want. You are not writing a mystery novel, so do not worry about ruining your surprise ending. We don't want a surprise ending.
- Each discourse community has its own standards concerning proof and truth.
- You should be aware that saying "The Bible says …" doesn't count for much in the chemistry or geology departments. (It's a risky strategy even in a religion course because a Southern Baptist, a Roman Catholic, and a Greek Orthodox might have very different understandings of what you think is transparently obvious.)
- Citing strongly prejudiced sources such as Fox News or Breitbart immediately restricts your credibility to the people who already agree with those sources. You will not find a lot of University readers in that category.
Interacting with your Content
Know your place as author
- Your role is not to pass judgment on your source material—at least not to do so without giving a lot of objective reasons. Comments such as "I approve of what this author said" or "I like this part" set you up as a judge. We do not want to know what you like. We want to know what is true.
- Phrases such as "I think that" or "to me this means" prove nothing except that you have not done much reading. Your personal opinion proves nothing.
- Some television networks love to do surveys to find how many people think climate change is happening or taxes have increased. Even if 98% agree that taxes have increased, the way to learn the truth is to do the economics—not to ask people how they feel. Similarly, even if you strongly believe that the sun is smaller than the moon and goes around the earth, your opinion proves nothing about the sun. It only proves something about you.
- If you do not personally understand something, that does not mean that all scholars are uncertain or wrong. You do not get to stand up against the entire world of academia just because you have not done your homework yet.
Know how scholarship works
- Academic scholarship wants facts, findings, and logic to lead to conclusions—not the other way around.
- On many topics, a conversation has been continuing for hundreds of years, involving thousands of scholars. Thus, academic opinion is very settled on several issues: the earth goes around the sun; the earth is about 4½ billion years old; climate change is strongly driven by human activity; vaccinations do not cause autism. The appearance of uncertainty comes from two sources:
- Popular misunderstanding of the word "theory." In daily conversation, the word means "probably not true." In academic use it means "a system of ideas intended to explain something, especially one based on general principles independent of the thing to be explained." We are pretty sure gravity works, but we still discuss the "theory of gravity."
- Academic writers are wary of expressing things as absolute facts because there's always the possibility of a future piece of scholarship modifying the findings. (The vaccination-autism link showed up in one paper, but it was subsequently disproven by many more papers.) Academic writers prefer language such as "indicates" or "appears to." Absolute proof is restricted to theoretical constructs such as the Pythagorean theorem.