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Steps in Writing a Research Paper
Step 1: Identify a historical question worth addressing.
Most people think that history is simply a succession of names and dates—one fact
after another. In fact, effective history writing is always argumentative. It responds
to ongoing debates in the field or in the public mind. Historians construct their
arguments in certain characteristic ways:
Identifying a Topic
1. Closing gaps in the scholarship: There are gaps in the scholarship, and I will close
2. Debunking myths: There is a "traditional" or popular interpretation of this issue
that I will debunk.
3. Complicating a topic: The existing interpretation of this topic is far too simple
4. Taking sides in a debate: There is a debate on this topic, and I will demonstrate
that one side is right and the other wrong.
5. Recasting a debate: There is a debate on this topic, and I will demonstrate that
the debate must be recast, because previous scholars have asked the wrong
questions, or viewed the topic in the wrong way.
6. Refining or rebutting generalizations: I will use a case study to refine or rebut a
Step 2: Find historical sources that address this question.
Historical papers draw on two kinds of sources:
1. Secondary sources are scholarly studies of a particular topic. From these, one can
learn about the arguments surrounding a specific subject.
2. Primary sources provide the raw data out of which history is reconstructed. They
may included printed or published texts, unpublished manuscripts and papers, maps
and other visual materials, music and other audio materials, and artifacts.
Reading a Primary Source
Content: What information can be gleaned from this source?
Interpretation: Does the source support or challenge commonly accepted
conclusions about a topic?
Reliability: Does the source provide accurate or biased information?
Reading a Secondary Source
Read the title
Read the book from the outside in:
What do the preface, introduction and conclusion tell you about the author’s
Follow the book’s argument:
Focus on the topic sentences.
Gathering Materials
History students need to develop proper research skills.
They need to be familiar with locating sources of information and properly citing
Reference Sources
Periodical guides
Newspaper guides
Encyclopedias, dictionaries, and handbooks
Biographical directories
Historical statistics
Archives and manuscripts
Book review digests and indices
Essays in an anthology
Government documents
Legal documents
Journals and magazines
Taking Notes
Notes should contain:
A descriptive heading
A summary the information
Direct quotations
The source of the information
Step 3: Writing your essay.
The Three Parts of a History Essay
The Introduction
The Body
The Conclusion
Part I. The Introduction
The introduction to your essay should:
Catch the reader’s attention with an anecdote, quotation, intriguing fact, or
Introduce the problem
Define key terms
State the thesis—a one-sentence statement of your argument—in a
provocative way.
Provide a road map for the paper.
Part II. The Body
The body of your essay:
logically lays out your argument
anticipates counterarguments
interprets and evaluates evidence
The body of your essay is built around paragraphs. Each paragraph begins with a
topic sentence that tells the reader what the paragraph is about.
In the body of your essay, you will support your argument with evidence, quotations,
and analysis. You need to remember that evidence does not speak for itself. It needs
to be summarized, explained, and interpreted.
Part III. The Conclusion
The conclusion of your essay should:
restate the thesis
explain the significance and implications of your thesis
Originally attributed to the University of Houston’s Digital History project at