Step One in Writing a Research Paper

Often times, and especially for new college students, the assignment description for your research paper is enough to send you into a panic. Before we even get started on finding research, we need to make sure we understand all of the information from our assignment and exactly what your professor is asking for.

The key to getting a better grade on your paper is to follow the assignment or rubric to the t.

Listed below are the typical pieces of an assignment description, along with some helpful hints!

  • Topic– Sometimes papers are assigned with a specific topic, broad topic that you are supposed to narrow down, or no topic assigned at all.
    • Specific Topic: If the topic assigned to you isn’t one you are interested in, take a moment to complain, yell into a pillow, or whatever you need to do to get rid of your frustration. Done? OK now put on your big kid pants and let’s write that paper. If the assigned topic is one you’re interested in, CONGRATULATIONS! you have won the academic lottery.
    • Broad topic to narrow down: This type of assignment often comes paired with a specific lesson or learning objective from your course. If your course was titled “Diseases of the 21st Century”, a possible broad topic assigned might be “Diseases in New England”. It is then up to you to find a smaller topic under the “umbrella topic” to write your paper on. This is often times harder than the other two types of topic assignments, but doing some Google searches (yes, a librarian just told you to use Google) about the topic can help you find smaller sub-categories.
    • No topic assigned: With this type of assignment you want to be extremely careful about what topic you select. Select something too specific and you risk not tying it in to your course material; select something too broad and you won’t demonstrate your ability to write a cohesive paper.
  • Length– Professor’s tend to describe the length of your paper in pages, but occasionally it will be word length instead.
    • Page Length: Unless otherwise stated in your assignment description, your page length is the length of you paper, not the length of your paper and citations page. Be sure to grab your Guide to Page Length and Topics to Cover.
    • Word Length: Typically your word length will have a range of 200-500 words of wiggle room, which equates to about 1-2 pages (double spaced). The average word length for a single-spaced page is 500, and double-spaced is 250 words. This will all depend on the length of the words you type, as well as in-text citations, but it’s a general rule to help you convert those pesky word requirements into something more tangible like page numbers.
  • Research requirements– Research requirements can generally be broken down into how many and what kind.
    • How many: You will likely see something in your assignment description that looks like “5-7 peer reviewed articles, 2-3 journal articles, and 1 book”, but what does it mean?
      • Peer Review: Peer review is a special process that some types of journal articles go through. When an article goes through peer review, it means it has been checked by other professionals in the same field to ensure it is the highest quality research (which is why your professors want you to use them). Often times there is a button or clickable link in your university’s database that says “peer-review”, and this is the fastest way to find results that fill this requirement.
      • Journal Articles: These are articles that are present in an academic journal (an online or print publication that contains multiple articles) that have not gone through the peer review process. These articles are still of great value to you and your research paper so don’t discount them too quickly.
      • Books: This often times means a physical book, but be sure to ask your professor if an e-book would be acceptable as well. With library budgets getting smaller and smaller everyday, physical books on niche topics can be harder to come by, but are often available through an e-book database that your university subscribes to.
  • Citation style– There are three basic options with this and it mostly depends on what type of class/major you are in. There is APA, MLA, and Chicago. We will discuss these more later so no need to fret about them now.
  • Format- This is usually where your professor’s lists things like “Times New Roman font”, “Double-spaced” or “single-spaced”, “12 point font”, “1” margins”… you know. All the annoying crap that can take forever and a day to make sure is correct but will loose you points if you don’t. We’ll talk about this in a later post as well.
  • Due date-When is your paper due? Is it due in segments or in one final drop? Be sure you know when it is due and mark it on your calendar, planner, fridge, shower wall…wherever you need it to be successful at completing this paper with a bang!

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blissfullybookish View All →

Graduate student in Masters of Library and Information Science programming trying to save the world one book at a time.

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