How to Research and Write a Paper

The following process is intended as a tool for undergraduate students learning how to research and write a paper in the arts. This process in not unique to undergraduates, as it is the same process that I (and others) use when working on larger scholarly projects.

1) Determine the general research area

This is the first step. You might pick an area because something has caught your interest (in a class, in reading, in art or culture you can encountered). However, you don’t necessarily need to start with something you know about or even like. Some of the most interesting things I have explored that influence me today are because I researched something I did not already know about and was not already interested in.

Start with a general research question, knowing it will need to be narrowed. As you find more information, you can narrow the question further. One of the most common problems with undergrad papers is that they try and cover too large a scope, and in the end are unable to deal with any topic with enough substance. In short, you should read widely but write more specifically.

Examples of general research questions:

  • How did the technology of radio affect concert music?
  • How did the Reformation alter views of the arts?
  • What role did the development of the concert hall have on musical values?
  • How was music or visual art used in domestic contexts in France in the 19th C?

2) Starting points for research sources

The ways you find specific information can vary by discipline, but there are some very common ways to identify quality research sources. It seems today that the main problem is not in finding information, but in determining what information is worthwhile and of a high quality. Below are some strategies for making those determinations.

Textbook: Start with your textbook. Your instructor chose the book for a reason. You can identify what the textbook has to say about your topic, and very often the textbook also provides references to other sources you should investigate.

Cross-references: Once you have found one reputable source, look at what publications the source references. Try and get a hold of those sources and see what they reference. If you find one particular source that is mentioned quite often, then chances are it is important and you should get a hold of it.

Example: If you are researching Igor Stravinsky, you will quickly find that many people source Richard Taruskin’s work. This should tip you off that this is a book to look at.

Keywords: By the time you have followed through looking up cross-references, you will likely have a good number of keywords that can be used to expand your search into other territories. Keywords might include authors, artists, names of pieces of art, and ideas. Keep track of these keywords, as they will open up other possibilities when used in searching databases.

3) Locating sources

With an increased number of digital resources, your search for sources does not have to start with you being physically in the library (although you’ll need to use online library resources and likely take a trip to a university library). One of the most important elements of using the internet to search is determining what is worthwhile spending your time on. Below are a list of different databases and resources and a bit about them.

Google and Content Factories: Nowadays our first response when we want to know something is to ‘google’ it. But it is important to know how Google ranks results. They are not ranked by most useful, but by an algorithm that mostly takes into consideration web traffic (for example, the number of clicks on a page and the number of cross-links). Many companies sell ‘search engine optimization’ services, where they try to get your page to the top of the list. Get to the top of the list, and you will get more clicks. Get more clicks, and you get more advertising revenue. So you see the problem here: just because it comes up on Google doesn’t mean it is reliable or worthwhile (although sometimes it is). One sort of site that gets lots of clicks are ‘content factory’ websites like ‘ehow’ and ‘about.com’ (I’m not giving links here as I don’t want you to click them and give them more money!). Here’s how they work. They pay writers to write ‘articles’ in very short periods of time, gleaning what they can from other web sites. These ‘writers’ get paid per article, so they try to write as many as they can an hour. So as you can see they aren’t the best quality. In short, when researching you can usually do better than just ‘googling’ a topic, and watch out for content factories.

Wikipedia: Wikipedia is different from content factories. It was not created solely for profit. It was created by a community, and as such it has some good information, and some not-so-good information. Sometimes there are footnotes and links to scholarly work. Wikipedia is an absolutely fine place to start for something you don’t know anything about. It can help give you an overview and help you generate some keywords. It is not, however, a scholarly source and should not be cited in a bibliography. When it conflicts with a scholarly source, lean towards trusting the scholarly source.

Library resources: Libraries aren’t just those big buildings on campus that you visit to find a quiet place to sleep. They actually have a lot of good information. Some of that information is in the physical books they hold, but most libraries have extensive electronic resources that can be accessed from outside the library. Note that library search engines do not work like web searches. You need to choose the proper category to search, so don’t search for a subject keyword when ‘author’ is the selected search parameter. Here are a couple of key databases and resources you library likely has access to:

  • JSTOR: the biggest and best source for full text journal articles. Not all journals are listed here, but it is a great resource for journals articles in arts, humanities, and social sciences. The archives go back over a hundred years in many cases, but don’t expect to find anything up here from the past five years.
  • RILM: if you are researching music, RILM is the largest database of abstracts of publications about music. You won’t find full text here, so when you find a source you’ll have to check if the library has it. If not, order it as an interlibrary loan.
  • EBSCO host: very modest full text resources in the arts and humanities, but worth taking a look at anyways. Note that just because something shows up on EBSCO does not mean it is a top notch source. EBSCO also archives some newspapers, and these – while interesting and potentially helpful – are in most cases not academic primary sources.
  • Open access journal lists: More and more academic journals are launching as freely accessible to all (also called ‘open access’). The quality of open access journals is maintained by having a quality editorial board. The journal I edit is one of those journals, and here is another example. These are great resources to tap into. Some are listed in library databases, and some are not.
  • Interlibrary Loan: For all those sources the library doesn’t have, you can either drive to a library that does have it, buy it, or for a low cost and less effort order it through the library’s interlibrary loan. Note that this usually takes a couple weeks, so plan ahead.

Personal Websites: These days, most scholars have their own web pages. They will have a list of their own publications, and very often have links to copies of those publications (for example, see hereand here). Some websites (like my own) provide links to other helpful pages.

Google Books/Scholar: These are tremendously helpful resources. Google books provides previews of many books. You can take a look at a few pages and then decide whether you should track down the book. Google scholar searches primarily for articles, and if you feed it enough keywords often comes back with helpful results. I think the most helpful element of this search is it locates sources that an author has been quoted in. (For example, here’s a search for me and a couple other keywords).

Scribd: While more than a little suspect in the copyright department, many full text articles and books have found their way to www.scribd.com

Finding sources for projects where the output is a creative medium: In many of my classes, I provide the option for the research output to be in an artistic medium (like music composition, visual piece, installation, etc.). Despite the popular notion that art simply ‘comes from within’ (a holdover from the idea of genius – for more on this see here), exploring new areas in art involves at least as much research as writing a paper. There are three different types of sources you will need to find:

  • Sources on the idea you are exploring
  • Sources on the techniques required to create your piece
  • Sources about other artists who have explored similar topics or worked with similar ideas

Example: Here’s an example of my own research in creating this piece. My idea was to create a sound sculpture exploring the ways that the sounds around us alter our interaction with the world, as well as ideas of ritual. For sources on ideas, I needed to explore ideas about acoustic ecology, including data from the World Health Organization, and ended up exploring the rituals in the Japanese tea ceremony. I had never built a sculpture before, so I needed to find several sources on what sort of building materials I needed to use. This research led me into some quite detailed physics of sound, as I needed to amplify the sound of a drop of water without electricity. I also looked at the work of many other people who created sound sculptures, and even travelled to Portland to talk to the curator of the Japanese gardens there to discuss the construction of their suikinkutsu (Japanese water harp).

 Example: Here’s an example of a process I went through with a student this semester that uses several of the tools above. She was interested in the music and culture of fin-de-siècle Vienna, and wanted to explore the relation of culinary life and musical life in this time period. We started with our textbook, which referenced Carl Schorske. The bibliography lists the book referenced, which then could be looked up on google books. After reading a few pages, it might be worth buying the book. This source could then lead to some keywords, cross references, and many other sources.

4) Sifting through research sources and creating a research database

Prioritizing sources

By now you have likely amassed a wealth of sources. Likely you have more sources than you can possible read before your paper is due, so you need to prioritize your sources. Start with the most relevant sources and read them carefully. This should give you a good grasp on the subject matter and even generate more keywords for you to find more sources on. When reading, create some sort of system for how you annotate your sources. If you have a source you can write in (not a library book), then mark up what you have read. This will help you find information you need later. If you can’t write in the book, use sticky notes. I talk about my own system of annotation below.

Quick reads

There will likely be several sources that you can read quickly, searching for relevant information. Annotate these sources as well. Find relevant information quickly through using the index. If the source ends up being useful, read it more carefully.

Creating your research database

Whenever I read something, I work under the assumption that it might come in handy again, so I have a system. When I read, I do the following:

  • Underline sentences important to the argument
  • Place an arrow beside underlined sections key to my own work
  • Place a star beside the most important ideas
  • Write notes about my own reactions
  • Write numbers in the margins when the author is making a numbered list of points

After reading, I take all of the quotations with arrows and copy them out so I can easily drop them into my paper. I also try to write brief summaries of everything I read so I don’t have to spend as much time re-reading later. I find this process very helpful for comprehending and retaining information about sources and for mining quotations that will be helpful for writing.

With so many electronic resources nowadays, this process has altered slightly, as now I do a lot of reading with my iPad either with the Kindle app or with the Goodreader app (More on this here). In both of these cases, the highlighted sections can still be extracted and added to my database.

There are a few different ways of keeping a database. The pre-computer way was to write quotations and sources out on pieces of paper or 3”x5” cards and keep them in a file. When writing, you can easily pull out the cards you need and visually rearrange them. You can also just create a word document and type the information there. Since my research database is so large, I use Jabref to manage my sources and quotes. Jabref is a free open source bibliography manager. You can also use it to generate your bibliography in many different formats. I highly recommend it, especially since the sources you read now might be something you want to look at again years from now. I wish I had started a system like this in my undergraduate studies.

Writing a paper

Now that you have done some preliminary research and narrowed down a topic, it’s time to write your paper. Note that it is rarely ever a process of doing all the research and then doing all the writing. Often when writing you will find a hole in your research and need to consult another source. Here are a few helpful steps for writing a paper:

1) Abstract

In my classes, I have my students write an abstract. This should come part way through the research work. Here are some tips for writing an abstract:

  • Begin with a one sentence summary of your paper
  • Then, explain how you will go about exploring this topic
  • Finish with a bit about your own evaluation of the topic based on the research you have done. Note that you don’t need have the definitive answer to your research question. You just need to explore and evaluate.
  • Include a bibliography of sources you have looked at so far

Most of the time, I respond to abstracts by saying what will work for a paper (often the topics are far too broad), and what other sources you need to consider.

2) Paper Outline

Creating an outline is key to writing a paper. Break your topic into sections, and write a short paragraph about every section of your paper. Ask yourself: does it make sense? Does it flow? Does it have a strong narrative (is it going somewhere)?

Have you clearly represented your research? Have you evaluated the topic?

Once you complete the outline, take your key quotations from your research database and place them in the appropriate sections. Note that a paper can have any number of sections. The five paragraph essay is only a small scale model of a good research paper. 

3) Write your draft

Write the draft, and then leave it for a couple days. If you have done your research, try to find a significant amount of uninterrupted time to do the bulk of your writing. Writing (at least for me) is something that needs a bit of time so I can get in the ‘zone’.

4) Editing

This is the most undervalued step in undergraduate writing, and will likely improve your mark by a letter grade. Re-read your draft. Ask: does it flow? How well do the sections transition? Could something be expressed more clearly? Did I do what I set out to do? Fix these issues, adding transition sentences where needed.

5) Introduction

Consider writing your introduction last. Oftentimes, the best introductions are written last. You already have your abstract and outline to guide the writing of your paper, so by leaving your introduction to the end you can make sure that you properly introduce what you actually wrote about and not just what you thought you might write about. Remember, writing a paper is a creative process. Even with the best planning and outline, your paper might lead to unexpected territory. Writing your introduction first will not allow for this additional exploration.

An introduction needs to do a few things:

  • Communicate what the paper is about: what is the question you are exploring?
  • Let the reader know what the paper is not about: determine the limits of what you can deal with in the paper. This will save you from comments like ‘well why didn’t you deal with such-and-such?’
  • Communicate how the paper will unfold. Academic papers need a narrative (they need to start somewhere and move somewhere else), and this is your chance to
  • At least hint at your own evaluation of the topic.
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2 thoughts on “How to Research and Write a Paper

  1. I’m extremely impressed with your writing skills and also with the layout on your blog. Is this a paid theme or did you customize it yourself? Anyway keep up the excellent quality writing, it’s rare to see a
    great blog like this one today.

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