Choosing a Topic
The first step in writing a research paper is to establish the topic. The best topic is one that interests you. You can generate ideas for a topic by prewriting, such as by brainstorming whatever comes to mind, recording in grocery-list fashion your thoughts, or freewriting in complete sentences what you know or think about topics of interest.
Whatever topic you choose, it needs to be:
- Interesting: The topic should appeal both to you and to your intended readers.
- Researchable: A body of knowledge should already exist on the topic.
- Nonfiction: The information about the topic should be factual, not based on personal opinions or conspiracy theories.
- Important: Your reader should think the topic is relevant to them or worthy of being explored and discussed.
Open a new Word document. Identify at least two topics that you might consider for your research paper. For each topic, briefly explain how it measures up using the above criteria: interesting, researchable, based on fact and not opinion, and important.
Posing a Research Question
Once you have a topic, the next step is to develop research questions. If you do not know what to ask, start with one of the question words: What? Who? Where? When? Why? and How? Here are some examples:
Research questions: What ethics should guide photojournalists in war zones? Who are America’s ground-breaking photographers? Should photography be considered an art form?
Topic: Media violence
Research Questions: What impact does television violence have on children? Should evening newscasts limit the amount of graphic violence presented to viewers? How does television violence affect ratings?
Topic: College athletics
Research Questions: Should college athletes be paid for playing? Should college coaches be held responsible for their players’ behavior off the field or court? How do colleges bend the rules for star athletes?
Research Questions: What do career counselors do? What jobs are most likely to be underpaid and under-appreciated? Can someone expect to have a successful career without a college education?
Return to your Word document. Using one of the topics you identified in the previous exercise, pose three research questions such as those shown above.
Drafting a Thesis Statement
A thesis is a claim that asserts your main argument about the topic.
The thesis should
- be a complete sentence,
- identify the topic, and
- make a specific claim about that topic.
The claim you make will depend on your purpose for writing. Your assignment instructions will typically indicate the purpose. Commonly, the purpose of a college paper will be informative, expository/explanatory, or persuasive.
- Informative essays seek to enlighten and educate readers, so an informative thesis is one that claims something or a situation exists or is happening.
- Expository/Explanatory essays are similar to informative essays but also analyze and explain the components or characteristics of the topic. For example, an expository thesis might claim that something’s characteristics are x, y, and z.
- Persuasive essays aim to influence readers’ opinions, so they will adopt a particular position or take a certain course of action. For example, a persuasive thesis might claim that something should be done or believed about the topic.
Many research papers combine informative, expository, and persuasive elements. For example, if you are writing a persuasive essay, you will still need to give background on the topic (an informative element) or analyze the causes of a situation (expository).
Additionally, as you conduct your research and draft your paper, you may discover information that changes your initial thoughts about the thesis, so in the early stages of writing, the thesis is tentative. Still, it is an important step in narrowing your focus for research and writing.
Once you have figured out what you are asking (your research question), your thesis is simply the answer.
Here are some examples:
Research question: What ethics should guide photojournalists in war zones?
Answer to question and thesis sentence: Photojournalists should always be embedded with military troops for their own protection.
Topic: College athletics
Research question: Should college athletes be paid for playing?
Answer to question and thesis sentence: College athletes perform a valuable service for their schools and should be paid for their performance.
Topic: Media violence
Research question: How does television violence affect ratings?
Answer to question and thesis sentence: The effect of television violence on ratings has varied from decade to decade and depends on what society at large views as acceptable in each era.
Research question: What do career counselors do?
Answer to question and thesis sentence: Career counselors help people find employment by using aptitude assessments, evaluating background experience, and helping clients learn professional communication skills.
Return to your Word document. In complete sentences, answer the questions you posed in the previous exercise to formulate three potential thesis statements. Then, consider what the purpose might be for each of those answers.
Congratulations! You have completed the process and have your thesis statement!