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Writing a Research Paper – The Writing Center – UW–Madison
Contact or visit your instructor's office hours with questions. Conduct preliminary investigation into topic using Google or other web searches.
Work to understand your topic and the issues surrounding it. Try a specialized encyclopedia. Write down keywords about your topic including terms, jargon, events, people, places, etc. Percent time spent on this step:. Revise and narrow topic as needed. Many students think this is one of the hardest steps! Design your research strategy and try different keywords until you get results that are useful.
As you conduct research, ask yourself: What can this source do for me? How will I use this evidence?
As background or to provide a context? To introduce and situate your thesis within existing conversation on topic?
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To demonstrate the value of your working research question? To support or counter an argument? Gather and read different types of sources or evidence. Business journals, film studies journals, health sciences journals, etc.
Narrow your topic
How do I find articles? What does it mean to be a scholarly source? Evaluate sources based on your research question or working thesis. Make notes on margins. Use tools to comment or highlight PDFs.
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Conduct more research to fill in gaps as needed see step 3. If you are a graduate student writing a thesis, you will not receive a topic assignment from a professor; you must make that assignment to yourself. Take time to think about what you would like to know and how you could best come to that knowledge. Clarify for yourself what you intend to do by asking the same questions posed above.
What is your assignment? You will discuss your options with your major advisor or the chair of your graduate committee. For undergraduates, selecting your topic will depend on your assignment. If you are going to compare and contrast, you need to select a topic where comparison and contrast will be possible. If you are intending to review--such as review literature for a specific area--you will need to identify some areas of interest and go on an expedition to the library to discover which of those areas provides you with available material to review.
If you have been assigned to critique, you will want to select a topic you find intriguing so your critique will engage the reader.
In each case, your topic selection needs to be directly related to your goal for writing the paper. Be careful not to choose a topic that is too broad. One way to narrow your topic is to search communication literature at the library. Expect the search to take several hours. Look for academic journal articles that focus specifically on the topic you have selected. Look at the scope of the topic used by the authors of the article. Is their scope narrower than yours? For example, you might be thinking about writing a paper that reviews all the interpersonal literature about nonverbal communication.
If you looked for articles about nonverbal communication in academic journals, you would learn that your search generated hundreds of articles.
That result lets you know your topic is too broad. Once you discover this problem, narrow your topic by increments. You can decide the increments for yourself or you can use the articles you generated to help you. If you rely on your own knowledge, you might ask yourself, "What categories of nonverbal communication do I know about? If you are not sure about what categories exist within the topic of nonverbal communication, you could look at titles and abstracts of twenty or thirty articles that surfaced when you searched for nonverbal communication.
In those articles, you may begin to see patterns--ten articles about eye contact, three articles about touch, etc. Select one of the patterns as the next smaller increment you will search. Using either process, you might decide to narrow the nonverbal topic to eye contact. If you searched the academic literature for eye contact, you would discover you were still generating too much research to review; you would conclude that the topic needed to be narrowed even further.
After going through the same process again, you might settle on a review of literature about aversive gaze. You will have narrowed your topic from a broad one of nonverbal interpersonal communication to a narrow one of aversive gaze behavior. Narrowing a topic can be a difficult process because you want to know it all. You may feel as though you are leaving out something important if you narrow your topic to such a small slice of the information. Your feeling is a reasonable one. Part of the challenge of reading, writing, and conducting research is learning to limit your topic so you can thoroughly and exhaustively examine it.