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Research Papers 101: Pre-writing : an overview

College research papers : an introduction

One of the most common assignments in college is the research paper or argumentative essay. In a research paper, the writer makes an argument about a topic (which is generally stated succinctly in a thesis statement.)

Body paragraphs of a research paper are used

  • to give context about the issue being discussed and why it matters
  • to situate it within an existing or related scholarly conversation about the topic at hand
  • to provide supporting arguments for the thesis statement
  • to provide evidence (note: this is very important!) that the thesis and its supporting arguments are true
  • to address existing arguments and counterarguments that others have raised or might raise.

Like any other form of communication, the research paper is also an act of rhetoric, and like other rhetoric it can be ineffective if our logic is unsupported, if we haven't explained how our argument is meaningful, or if our credibility is undermined by sloppiness, nonstandard grammar, or not meeting the requirements of the assignment.

Stages of the Writing Process Reviewed






Pre-Writing : The Longest Stage

What are we trying to accomplish in the pre-writing stage?

In the prewriting stage, we are trying to unearth both our own preexisting knowledge as well as knowledge we develop through our research. There are various techniques for getting our own knowledge out of our heads and into a form where we can readily go back to it, ranging from pure brainstorming by free-writing thoughts related to the topic, creating a concept or mind map which connects related concepts and allows you to consider what the relations are between the concepts, or using a graphic organizer like a KWHL chart, where you write what you Know (K), Want to Know (W), How You Will Find Out (H), and afterwards, What You Learned (L).)

STEP 1: Recalling Our Prior Knowledge - KWHL

Know   Want to Know  How I
Find Out

Get an overall sense of my topicThis text can be edited.This text can be edited.This text can be edited.This text can be edited.

STEP 2: Developing a list of relevant search terms

Making a mindmap / concept map

When we make a mindmap (also known as a concept map), we organize the different parts of our topic visually, drawing lines between the topics to indicate that they are in some way related; and at this stage, we don't need to have a clear idea of how our various keyword are related.

(How does the Australian hard-rock band ACDC relate to hair, masculinity, the 1980s, and politicians like Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher? The links might seem fuzzy when we first sketch them out, but we might be able to better define these relationships as we do further research. An argument about such relationships might even become the thesis of our paper!)

You can make a mindmap using some online tools like, but you can also make one using the nearest white board or a spare sheet of paper.

Mindmap created for an ENG 105 course, using the Australian rock band ACDC as a starting point

Strategies for coming up with key words

Excerpt of an article on Rock Music in the Encyclopedia of Aesthetics, accessed through Oxford Reference Online

Associated words / synonyms

Consulting a tertiary source

Mining subject headings

  • Search the library catalog for a book or article on your topic
  • Click its title to view the complete record
  • Scroll down to the section labelled Subjects: to see what topics a library cataloger has assigned to the given book
  • Click the link to find more items on a topic, or browse adjacent books at the same call number

STEP 3: Narrowing your topic

Now it's time to narrow your topic. One way to do this is pick one area or question within your topic. Another way to narrow a topic is to introduce qualifiers. Instead of covering all of [my topic], how about [my topic] + [a particular time period] OR [a particular situation] OR [a particular group of people]? Each qualifier narrows the topic even further, and each time you narrow the topic, in all likelihood you also narrow the number of other scholars who have commented on specifically that topic + your chosen qualifiers at the length and depth that you can bring to it. (Fewer preexisting points of view means there is more space for *your point of view.*)This text can be edited.

STEP 4: Examining subtopics

Know   Want to Know  How I
Find Out

What are subtopics of your narrower topic?This text can be edited.This text can be edited.This text can be edited.This text can be edited.

STEP 5: Coming up with a thesis and supporting arguments

It is vital to have a clear thesis statement that asserts an original idea that you wish to prove. Without a clear, assertive, and original thesis, the remainder of the paper is undermined because readers cannot understand what it is you are marshaling all this additional information/verbiage to prove. Once you come up with a thesis, then you need supporting arguments. You will next gather evidence to back up those arguments.This text can be edited.

STEP 6: Finding evidence for supporting arguments

Know   Want to Know  How I
Find Out

Finding evidence to support argumentsThis text can be edited.This text can be edited.This text can be edited.This text can be edited.