Ellen Herman

Department of History, University of Oregon


The Stages of Writing Research Papers

1. Identifying and Refining a Researchable Topic or Question

2. Gathering Primary and Secondary Sources

3. Organizing Your Notes and Other Research Information

  1. What system will you use to keep track of your bibliographies? Your reading notes? The quotations, images, or other specific items that jumped out at you during the course of research? If you are writing about a complex event that unfolds over time, constructing a chronology can be helpful.

  2. It can be useful to group your materials in a way that relates to your questions and to the story you plan to tell. Try categorizing them so you can easily recall which are more important and which are less important.

4. Outlining

  1. What relevant background to your subject must your reader have to understand your argument?

  2. What organizational scheme makes the most sense for your subject and intellectual goals? Chronology is often useful in historical writing, and some historians prize narrative writing. Thematic forms of organization are also very common and can make a lot of sense. If your paper proceeds by way of a comparison, how will that comparison be structured?

  3. Are there terms you will need to define at the outset? Characters you will need to introduce? Periodization you will need to explain? If so, where should these go?

  4. Will you be placing your subject in the context of historiography? If so, where in the paper should this be presented? (Some historians devote considerable text to this; some utilize footnotes.) Historiographical questions include: What are the major interpretive debates about your subject? Who are the key commentators on your subject? What makes your approach and argument original and different?

  5. Outlines are good places to sketch out several kinds of “balance” in your paper.

    1. Balance between general context and the heart of your research. One common error is to get so involved in telling the background story that you forget to mention your actual subject until page 15! Aim for proportionality in your outline. The most important themes and questions should get the most attention and space.

    2. Balance between more general assertions and concrete evidence and examples to back those assertions up. Another common error is to gravitate toward either overly general or overly detailed writing. The former results in vagueness that cannot sustain an argument. The latter results in failure to develop an argument at all.

  6. Remember that evidence helps you answer questions about who, what, where, when, and why.

  7. Be careful not to expect your sources to do more than they can. Use multiple sources to support a claim you think is especially unusual or controversial. Consider tackling the weakness of your sources directly, anticipating obvious criticism rather than ignoring it.

5. Formulating Your Argument

  1. What exactly is your subject?

  2. What exactly is your argument (sometimes also called a “thesis”)?

  3. Your subject and your argument are not identical. Your argument is the original point you are making, the result of all the thinking you have done during the course of research. It is a claim about the significance of a historical subject (or problem or question) and a promise that you will demonstrate that your approach to the subject–your interpretation--is persuasive and compelling. An argument is more than an announcement about what your subject will be. It is an assertion about what your subject means and why it matters.

6. Writing an Introduction

  1. The introduction should introduce your subject, state your argument, and reveal for the reader what you plan to accomplish in the paper.

  2. You can also explain briefly why the paper is organized as it is so that the reader will know exactly what to expect. Think of the introduction as a textual map for an intellectual journey.

7. Drafting the Body of Your Paper

8. Writing a Conclusion

  1. Return to your argument and remind your reader of the most compelling evidence presented to support it.

9. Revising

  1. Excellent papers are drafted far enough ahead of time so that you have time to re-read, reflect, and revise–all of which will make your paper better than it would have been without revision.

  2. Consider asking trusted colleagues to read and comment on your work.

  3. Think about the overall organization of your paper. Does is flow logically and cohere throughout? Are there bumpy spots that need reworking, better transitions, and reorganization?

  4. Think about each paragraph. Does it go where you say it will go? Do you offer concrete evidence and examples when you make general points? Is the transition from the paragraph before smooth? Is the transition to the next paragraph equally smooth?

  5. Think about each sentence: grammar, spelling, punctuation, word choice, etc. Ask yourself if your writing is as bold and direct as possible. Be ruthless about eliminating pompous language, jargon, and fussy constructions. They will not impress your reader or do justice to your ideas.

10. Proofreading

  1. Use your computer’s spell checker, but don’t stop there.

  2. Many people find that it is easier to catch errors on paper than on a screen.

  3. Try reading your work aloud. It can be a little embarrassing at first, but it is a great technique for zooming in on errors, weak spots, and awkward phrases.