The steps to writing a research paper

© 1999, 2002, 2006 by Jim Jones, Ph.D.
  1. Find a question about which to write
  2. Find out what has already been written about your question
  3. Find information with which to answer your question
  4. Decide if the question is answerable
  5. Find a new question to write about (Go back to #1)
  6. Find patterns in your information
  7. Write your paper
  8. Cite your sources
  9. Prepare a bibliography
  10. Print out a final draft

STEP 1: Finding a question about which to write

"Hmmmmm, another paper assignment . . . gotta get a topic . . . let's see, something about . . . is there something that's easy to research . . . I'll just get on the Web and see what's there . . . "

Have you ever had the preceeding conversation with yourself? If you haven't, then maybe this is the first time you have tried to write a research paper. This Web Page is intended to explain a step-by-step process to create a high-quality paper on original research. If you do all of this, you will earn a top grade, AND learn something important about history and how to present it.

WARNING: This is not a difficult process, but it requires commitment and determination. In addition to class time and the time you spend reading for class, you must be prepared to work from three to six hours each week on your research paper. That will give you time to locate and consult sufficient sources, prepare at least three drafts of your final paper, and reflect on the results of your research.

Not everyone finds the choice of question equally easy. If you already know something about the field of study (African history, in this case), and you have a topic that interests you, then begin with that.

Example: For instance, you might like to canoe and you know that there were Africans who used canoes along the Niger River in West Africa. You might begin by looking for books on the Niger River countries and see what they say about people using canoees.

If you have no idea what you want to research, then your first step is to read a general introduction to the history of the area. (You might also want to look at these project suggestions if you are taking HIS312.) Finally, you could think about some of the large questions that are relevant to your field and try to answer one. Some "large questions" that are relevant to colonial and independent African history include:


STEP 2: Find out what has already been written about your question

If time permits, you must review all of the literature relevant to your question. For a doctoral dissertation or an academic article, this can take months. For an upper-level undergraduate course, this should require a few hours in the library to locate relevant books and articles, and then as many hours as it takes to read them and take notes.

Use the WCU library on-line catalog to find titles, and then look at each book individually. Look at the table of contents and the index for words that relate to your question.

Example: If you are researching "canoes" on the Niger River, look in the catalog for books on the Niger River, each of the countries in the Niger River Valley (Guinea, Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso, Nigeria), West Africa as a whole, transportation, boats and of course, canoes. For books on Africa, look in the index for boats, canoes, fishing and so on. For books on transportation, look for Africa and river. For books on canoes or boats, look in the index for Africa, Mali, Guinea and the rest.

As you read each book, look for material that is related to your question, and look at the reference notes used by the author to show where s/he obtained that material. That will help you to locate other books and articles on your topic. After you have find the name of a journal that publishes articles relevant to your question, see if the library subscribes to that journal, and look in the index to articles (usually part of the first or last issue of each year) for more articles that relate to your question.

When you see that one of your authors cites primary sources -- government documents, personal interviews, and in some cases, newspaper stories -- you know you are getting to the good stuff. Your goal should always be to get as close to the original moment in history as possible by choosing sources that were as close as possible in both time and space to the event that you wish to study. Thus, primary sources are better than secondary sources.

If each book or article provides references to other books and articles, and they lead you to additional sources, then you will quickly develop a long list of sources. If the list keeps getting longer and there seems to be no end to it, then you need to narrow down your question. Otherwise, if your question is precise enough, eventually you will start to see the same works cited by different authors. You should even be able to follow the development of thought about your topic over time, since later authors will refer to the work of earlier authors. However, if your secondary sources are good ones, each new study should add to your list of primary sources.

Example: In the example given above, research on canoes in the Niger Valley is likely to result in too many sources and subtopics for you to examine in the course of a single semester. You could limit the topic by looking at one of the following sub-topics: canoe-building techniques, canoe-ownership, the ways that people used canoes, government policy towards canoes and canoe-owners, the kinds of things carried in canoes, and the symbolism of the canoe in popular thought and literature, to name a few. Use your imagination.


STEP 3: Find information with which to answer your question

As you read, take notes on your reading, and in particular, keep track of what you've read and where you found information that appears useful so you can revisit it if necessary and cite it properly if you use it in your paper. After each new book or article, refer back to your question and see if you have increased your understanding of the question.

Example: In the example given above, suppose that you have chosen to answer the question "Who owned canoes in the Niger Valley?" While looking through the index to Richard L. Roberts' book, Warriors, Merchants and Slaves: The State and the Economy in the Middle Niger Valley, 1700-1914 (Stanford University Press, 1987), you found on pages 68-74 that people called Somono controlled trade in the Middle Niger River valley during the 18th century. You also learned that freight canoes involved specialized forms of construction and investment, and that the Somono operated boats as large as thirty tons, although typical boats were more likely to displace from six to ten tons. The largest boats required 16-18 crewmen plus three officers, while the typical boats usually operated with only three crewman. Finally, you learned that by the late nineteenth century, large freight canoes cost 200-300,000 cowries, which was more than most merchants could afford. Instead, large canoes were owned by successful Maraka planters who used them to transport their own crops and sold space to individuals and groups of merchants.

This suggests three things that you need to learn. First, what was a Maraka planter? Second, how much was a cowrie worth, or more to the point, how much were 200,000 cowries worth at the end of the nineteenth century? Third, where did the Somono operate? Did they sail the entire length of the Niger River (roughly 2,600 miles), only in the Middle Niger Valley (between the waterfalls at Sotuba and Ansongo, roughly 800 miles), or in some smaller portion of the Middle Niger Valley?

The answers to these questions may lie elsewhere in Roberts' book -- use the index to look for Maraka, cowrie and Somono. Maybe the information is not in Roberts' book, but one or more of the footnotes on pages 68-74 directs you to another source. Finally, maybe neither of these is true -- Roberts assumed that the reader already knew what a Somono was -- so then you have to locate a source for that information on your own. Carefully note as much information about Somonos as you can from Roberts' book, and then head back to the library.

If you are taking HIS312, much of the information that you will use to write your research paper is available on this Web Site in the notes from documents from African history archives. If you were writing a doctoral dissertation, you would need to learn how those archives are organized so that you could make an educated guess as to where to look for relevant documents. However, since you've only got fourteen weeks to complete your assignment, the author of this Web Site has provided an index to the contents of the Web Site.


STEP 4: Decide if the question is answerable

If you are writing your paper during a fourteen-week semester, you need to reach this point fairly quickly -- probably some time before the end of the second week of the semester. If you decide that your question is "answerable," then you can relax a bit, but if not, this will give you time to find another question before it gets too late.

Ask yourself the following questions about the material that you have found:

  1. Do I know how to define every part of my question? In other words, can I explain the precise meaning of every word and/or phrase in my question?
  2. Do I have a source for everything that I want to say about my question?
  3. Have I reached an answer to all parts of my question?

If the answer to all of these questions is "Yes," then you are ready to start writing. If not, then read the next section


STEP 5: Find a new question

Example: Actually, you may not need to find a new question. You may be able to refine your first question. For instance, in the "canoe" example, you will have learned by this time that African canoes were called piroques by the French, and that they are still in use on the Niger River even though steamships and diesel-powered craft are also in common use. You may have considered asking how piroques are used, but become frustrated because no one seems to know exactly how many there are or what they carry. However, in your preliminary reading, you learned that the Middle Niger Valley produces cotton and wondered if any of it travelled in canoes. So you change your question to "how do export commodities produced in the Middle Niger Valley reach the world economy?"

If you do need to come up with an entirely new question because you found almost nothing on your first question, then it's back to step 1. Otherwise, take your modified question and proceed to step 2 where you can begin looking for work that has already been published on your new question.


STEP 6: Find patterns in your information

Once you have collected a large amount of information, you must analyze it to decide what it "means." The customary way to achieve this is to organize your facts in ways that reveal patterns and relationships.

Your first step is to organize your facts into chronological order. This is not enough to complete your analysis, but it will expose some relationships and help you to reject others. For instance, if one event occurred after another, then it cannot be the "cause" of the earlier event. Be careful though, because the earlier event is not necessarily the cause of the later event, since both could be consequences of a earlier third event, or even unrelated.

You should also organize your facts into "sub-topics" of your original topic. For instance, if you are writing about "Who owned canoes in the Niger Valley?" you should have learned that in addition to the Somono people (mentioned above), the government also used canoes for the postal service and another group of Africans, the Bozo, used them for fishing. You might organize your facts into those three categories -- Somono, government and Bozo -- to see if there are any patterns. If all of your facts about Somono ownership fall between 1880 (when the French first reached the Niger River) and 1923 (when the French introduced regular steamship service on the Niger), then you have established a pattern -- Somono canoe ownership was part of the precolonial economy, and it was reduced by the introduction of the colonial economy.

Using the same example, you may discover that the French began its canoe postal service in 1895 and discontinued it in 1923. That suggests another pattern -- of competition between canoes and steamships that was won by steamships.

If your notes on the Bozo indicate that they continued to use canoes after 1923, then you may be able to show that the economy of river traffic on the Niger River did not operate along purely "free market" lines, but instead offered ways for local transporters to survive. Determine how the economy of river transportation worked, and what, besides the amount of money collected per unit of distance, determined the success of a voyage?


STEP 7: Write your paper

Plan to write three drafts of your paper. The first draft is used to get your ideas down on paper in coherent paragraphs. The second draft allows you to put your ideas in a logical order that takes the reader from your question to your conclusion. The third draft gives you a chance to eliminate grammar and spelling errors, and to make sure that your paper is ready to hand in.

FIRST DRAFT: Begin writing your final paper at least three days before it is due, and preferably earlier than that. Start by thinking about how you discovered the "answer" to your question. Write an outline consisting of short phrases that represent each of the major ideas that you used to construct your answer.

Example: Suppose that you decided to answer the question, "Why did Africans continue to use canoes on the Niger River after the introduction of steamships by the French?" Your outline might look like this:

  1. Africans used canoes to carry freight and passengers before the French arrived in 1885.
  2. The first steamboats were used for military purposes and Africans could not use them.
  3. After steamboats were opened to African trade, African traders did not give up canoes.
  4. Discuss the costs and benefits of using steamboats.
  5. Africans derived other benefits from using canoes than just transportation -- employment, recreation, independence.

Now write at least one paragraph on each item in your outline. Don't interrupt the flow of your ideas to look up a fact -- if you need to look up a fact, just put a star next to the place that needs checking and keep going.

SECOND DRAFT: Put aside your first draft for at least one day so that you can reread it with a fresh mind. Read the whole thing through completely before you start to rewrite it. After you have finished reading the entire paper, ask the following quesitons:

Does the paper still seem as logical to you today as it did on the day that you wrote it? If not, then does your paper simply need transition sentences to connect your paragraphs together, or do you need to rearrange your paragraphs into a new order?

Is there anything -- a concept, a place name or an idea -- mentioned in any of your paragraphs that will be unfamiliar to the reader? If so, then can you explain it clearly by adding a descriptive phrase or sentence, or do you need to add an additional paragraph to explain it fully?

Have you answered the question completely? Imagine that this was someone else's paper and your assignment was to disprove the argument. Have you omitted anything that is needed to make the logic of your argument clear?

After you have done all of that, this is a good time to let someone else read your paper. A pair of fresh eyes will find mistakes that you cannot find, and someone who is not familiar with the topic can tell you whether your organization makes sense.

THIRD DRAFT: Now is the time to reread your paper for spelling and grammatical errors. First, run a spell-checker on your paper to get all of the easy errors. then go through it line by line and look for the following things:

  1. Make sure that every sentence has a subject and a verb.
  2. Make sure that every paragraph has a topic sentence.
  3. Put all of your verbs are in the correct tense -- usually simple past tense, since you are writing about things that took place in the past. Expand all verb contractions (write "did not" instead of "didn't"). Replace all passive voice verbs with active voice verbs that have specific subjects (instead of "war was declared" write "the French declared war").
  4. Look at every indefinite pronoun -- he, they, it, etc. -- and make sure that it is clear to the reader to whom or what each pronoun refers.
  5. Look for every foreign word and proper name to make sure it is spelled correctly. Use a dictionary to be certain. Put all foreign words in the body of you paper in italics. For foreign words in your reference notes, follow the rules for the use of italics that appear in the next section.
  6. Look for words like "their" and "there," "its" and "it's," "from" and "form," and "where," "wear" and "were" that can fool your spell-checker. Make sure that you have used them correctly.
  7. Make sure that no words are missing from your sentences, and that there are no extra words are "left over" from an earlier draft (like the third "are" in this sentence).
  8. Make sure that every abbreviation is also spelled out the first time that it appears in your paper.

Three drafts constitute the minimum that you need to write a good paper, but if you followed all of these instructions, you should have a presentable paper.


STEP 8: Cite your sources

Your paper should include reference notes that identify a specific source for everything that you included in your paper except arguments and conclusions that you created yourself. The reader should be able to use your reference notes to answer "Where did you find that?" for every single fact in your paper, and every opinion that is not your own. If your paper contains an opinion, and you provided no reference note for it, the reader will assume that it is an opinion that you developed during your research. If that is not true, and you obtained it from someone else's work, the failure to cite the source is an act of plagiarism. Note that if you have several statements of fact in the same paragraph, and they all come from the same source, it is acceptable to use a single reference note for the whole paragraph.

Example: If, in the research paper on canoes in the Middle Niger Valley, you included a statement like "Somono sailors operated freight canoes as large as thirty tons for Maraka owners who sold transport services to local merchants," you may use a single reference note:

Richard L. Roberts, Warriors, Merchants and Slaves: The State and the Economy in the Middle Niger Valley, 1700-1914 (Stanford University Press, 1987), 74.

There are rules for how to refer to a large variety of sources -- books, articles, interviews, unpublished masters theses and more. For complete information on how to do this, see The Chicago Manual of Style, 14th edition (Chicago & London: University of Chicago Press, 1993), 487-635 or Kate L. Turabian, A Manual for Writers of Term Papers, Theses, and Dissertations, 5th edition (Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 1982), 111-174, available on reserve at the university library's reference desk. (If you find a newer edition, feel free to use it.) You may use the following examples as a general set of guidelines for the most common type of sources: Chicago Manual of Style and Turabian's
Handbook

Book

Author's first and last name, Title of the book (City of publication, State and/or Country: Publisher's full name, Date of publication), pages.

Sanche de Gramont, The Strong Brown God: the Story of the Niger River (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1976), 127.

Chapter in a book

Author's first and last name, "title of chapter" in editor's name(s), Title of the book (City of publication, State and/or Country: Publisher's full name, Date of publication), pages.

Maxim Matusevich, "Reparation and Repair: Reform Movements in the Atlantic World," in Toyin Falola and Kevin D. Roberts, editors, The Atlantic World, 1450-2000 (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2008), 348.

Magazine or journal article

Author's first and last name, "Title of article" in name of magazine or journal , Volume and/or issue number (Date of publication), page range in the issue.

Capitaine L'Enfant, "Le Niger, voie ouverte à notre empire africain" in Le Tour du Monde, tome IX, nouvelle série, n°1 (3 January 1903), 1- 96.

Archival document

Author of document, "title of document" (place, date), name of archive where the document is located, name of file where the document is located

Commandant Supérieur de la Marine, "État de Situation des Équipages de la Station locale du Sénégal au 1 Jan 1865" (St. Louis, 1 January 1865), in Archives Nationales de France, Section Marine CC3 1183.

Interview

Name of person interviewed, "interview by" name of person who conducted the interview (location, date), location of transcript or original tape recording.

Moussa Guindo, interview by James A. Jones (Ségou, April 29, 1992), tape in James A. Jones collection

Web Page or Other On-Line Source

According to The Chicago Manual of Style, 14th editon (1993), sec. 15.424, in general, a reference should contain the author, title, name of source [type of source: i.e. database on-line, electronic bulletin board], vol. no., date document was created [date document was accessed], URL or other unique source. For more up-to-date information, see International Standards Organization standards for referencing electronic documents.

Jim Jones, "West Chester's Everhart Park: A Century of Recreation," web page, August 2004 [accessed January 19, 2005], http://courses.wcupa.edu/jones/his480/reports/everpar1.htm.

If your final project is a web page instead of a paper, a reference note to a web page should include the same material that appears in a written report, plus an active link to the source web page.

Jim Jones, "West Chester's Everhart Park: A Century of Recreation," web page, August 2004 [accessed January 19, 2005], http://courses.wcupa.edu/jones/his480/reports/everpar1.htm.


STEP 9: Prepare a bibliography

The bibliography contains a list of all the sources you used in your paper. It presents them in a way that permits a prospective reader to see how you did your research.

List your sources by type: the usual categories for historical papers are Newspapers and Periodicals, Interviews, Archives, Unpublished Theses, and Secondary Sources. Within each category other than Archives, list them in alphabetical order by author's last name, or the author is not known, the first word in the source's title. For archival documents, organize them by the name of the archive and the archive's file number in numerical order. For instance, the index page to secondary sources on this Web Site is presented in the form of a bibliography. For an example of archival documents, look at this index page for documents from the Senegalese National Archives.

To format entries in a bibliography, begin with the entries in reference notes. You will need to write the last name of the author (or first author in multiple author works) before the author's first name, to make your alphabetization clear. For additional information on how to format bibliographic entries, see The Chicago Manual of Style or Turabian's A Manual for Writers of Term Papers, Theses, and Dissertations.


STEP 10: Print out a final draft

By the time it is finished, your research paper will contain a complete, logical argument about a historical topic. The question that you have answered should be clearly identified in the opening paragraphs. The middle paragraphs should contain a clear and logical presentation of your argument. The concluding paragraph(s) should clearly explain the result of your argument. Your research paper should also contain complete reference notes for all sources used to construct the argument. Following the conclusion of your argument, you research paper should include a bibliography at the end of the paper which lists all of the sources used to create your argument.

To submit your research paper, it should be typed or laser-printed with one-inch margins on all size, and composed in a standard 11 or 12-point font such as Courier, Arial, Helvetica or Times Roman. All of your pages should be numbered. Fancy covers are unnecessary -- a staple in the upper left-hand corner will suffice. Do not include any blank pages, and do not use a separate title page. Instead, type (single-space) your name, the course number, the date and the title of your paper at the top of your first page, skip a line, and then start your paper (double-space).

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