Research Paper Basics
Choosing a Research Paper Topic
College-level research papers are different from papers you may have written before. Here are some examples which will not work:
- "Everything about the United States Constitution" (which usually amounts to "Everything that Wikipedia article said") will end up at one of two extremes. This topic will probably resemble a middle school report where the student just brings out a few shallow common-knowledge facts from one or two sources. The other extreme, less likely, is to really lean on that everything part, but that would mean a paper thousands and thousands of pages long.
- "My political group is the only one that understands the Constitution—and all the others are idiots." Academic papers are not the place for rants, diatribes, or sermons. Such writing tends to be very one-sided and totally ignore inconvenient data.
- "You, dear professor, need to change your political party and get on the right side of the Constitution." Review your purpose for writing a paper like this. It's not a change-the-world sermon, or even just a change-the-professor sermon.
- "I'm going to present a few resources to back up what I already believed." This one is tricky: If you have done extensive reading and thinking about the U.S. Constitution so that you are already something of a minor expert, it might work, but most of us have at least a few half-baked myths we picked up from dodgy places (that video screaming on YouTube, Uncle Herbert at the family barbecue, and the latest thing from Twitter). If your mind is closed to new information, you are very likely to do a shallow "cherry-picking" job of research, and you won't learn anything new. Neither will your reader.
- "Here are some basic facts about the Constitution: It was ratified in 1788 and provides for a government with three branches." There's nothing really wrong with this one, but it presents information that could be found in any 9th grade civics textbook. You need to go beyond a simple explanation.
Choosing a topic: best practices
A good topic is limited.
A good general rule is "the tighter, the better." This will allow you to go deep within your limited paper length, and you will have some idea when you have covered the topic thoroughly. One possible example for a Constitution paper would be "The changing status of Africans in the U.S. Constitution."
A good topic can be supported with outside material.
If your topic is so new or so obscure that you cannot find research material by the end of the course, it's not a good topic. After all, you want to produce a paper and get a high grade. Concerning the topic I mentioned above, a lot of research material is available on the disputes between slave-holding states and non-slave states during the writing of the Constitution, and you could easily find material which discusses the 13th, 14th, 15th, and 24th amendments.
Note on finding outside material: You want your reading to be balanced. If the only reading you do (or, for some topics, the only reading available) is extremely biased and/or unscientific, you will not produce a good paper. If the only material you bring on the "Africans in the Constitution" paper is Nazi or white supremacist, you will get—and deserve—a very poor grade.
A good topic leads to an argumentative edge.
This is why "The American government has three branches: executive, legislative, and judicial" is a poor topic. Nobody can disagree with it. It will be dull to write and dull to read—like a footnote in a textbook. Go for something which a reasonable, educated person might disagree with (or at least need some convincing).
For a further discussion, go to A Writer's Reference §R1-b "Pose questions worth exploring"
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Revised 5/20/20 • Page author: Curtis Allen • e-mail: email@example.com.