I remember my first semester of college when my psychology professor gave us a five-page paper…I thought I was going to die. I went back to my dorm and tossed the assignment on my bed and headed out that night to hang out with friends and watch the game. I completely forgot about the paper until three days before it was due and began to work on it. I can remember how laborious it seemed to crank out five pages of content about schizophrenia and how proud I was when I turned the paper in. It was my first college paper and I could not wait until my psychology teacher saw how good of a writer I was. She gave me a 64% and underneath the grade she wrote, “You have sixth grade thinking and fourth grade grammar”…wow what an initiation. I knew I could not repeat that performance again.
I was a Government major with a concentration in Pre-law and a minor in history. My major and minor required three things of me that I became excellent at:
- Research – This was necessary for argumentation, essays, and reports.
- Public Speaking – I probably had close to 100 oral presentations.
- Logic – The most influential course I ever took in college was Logic because it taught me how to organize my thoughts.
As you can probably see, I am not the best writer. I have a tendency for comma splices, passive language, and misspelled words but after my freshman year I did not get lower than an B on any of my papers. (Dr. Blass docked me a grade point because I turned in my topic late…garbage) I managed to do this by living by these five quick tips on writing a research paper. Hopefully they help you in your quest to write a solid research paper.
1. Find an English Major to Proofread Your Paper.
My rooommate Matt was dating a girl by the name of Sarah (who he later married) and she was an english major. I do not remember one paper that I gave to her that she did not return to me with red marks scribbled all over it and paragraphs written in the margins. I violated so many different laws of grammar that I never knew existed and she helped me see them. I wanted my grade to be dependent on my thesis and how well I supported it and not about my poor grammar. After my freshman year I saw too many papers get docked points because of my sucky grammar and I was determined to not have that happen to me again. So I gave every paper I wrote to Sarah and told her to be as hard as possible and she was and my grade reflected her critiques. I never lost points for my grammar.
2. Use Wikipedia to Find References
If you cite Wikipedia in a college history research paper, then you will end up failing that paper. Wikipedia changes daily and while it is a great source for information it is not a reliable source for a history project, but it is not useless. I would always scroll down to the references and there was a gold mine of books, essays, and articles about the topic I was writing about and the exact page number that the information could be found on. It was an excellent way to quicken the research process.
3. Start Early
Listen you can’t write a good paper 2 days before it is due. I know some of the people reading this will tell me, “I work best under pressure” and my response is that you are an idiot. Sure you may work well under pressure, but if you have not done any research, then how does working under pressure mean anything? You need to have a variety of sources and you cannot gather those resources two days before it is due. I would always begin my paper the first day I received my assignment. When I say begin I simply mean that I would pick my topic. Once I had my topic I would start developing my thesis the week after. After I developed my thesis I would begin to collect resources and take notes and write a rough draft. You don’t get A’s without working for it. However, you will work too much if you don’t organize it.
4. Learn How to Skim
History books are always large and if you are taking 15 credit hours than you do not have time to weed through 500 pages of information. It is important that you look at that table of contents and search out the information you need for your paper and not get distracted in every chapter of the book. This is why Wikipedia is a great resource for finding sources. When you skim make sure you take good notes. I used note cards, but those are probably outdated with the invention of the iPad and iPhone.
5. Pick a Unique Topic That You are Interested in.
If you are taking a survey class and decide to write about George Washington, then it better be good because there will be 10 other people writing about the same topic. If you write a paper on a topic that many are writing on, then your paper will be compared to the others. If you are confident you have the best paper, then by all means write it. However, it is best to steer clear of that. I always chose unique topics and when I say unique I am not talking about obscure topics. For example, instead of writing about George Washington write about The Death of George Washington. Drilling down on a topic will help narrow your competition and make a much better thesis statement.
Also make sure you are interested in the topic. If you enjoy military history, then write your paper about a battle and save the paper on Millard Filmore for someone else.