Professor Aleydis Van de Moortel, head of the Department of Classics, recognized years ago that her younger college students often struggled with one of their most common assignments: writing a research paper.
Van de Moortel said many students learn good writing techniques in English class, but don’t always apply them in their other classes.
“Writing is a skill. If they can’t do it, they’re not going to climb. I think a university education should teach kids how to communicate, so students can benefit from training in paper writing in their majors as well,” she said.
Van de Moortel responded by adding a new component to her class on Greek and Roman archaeology. For years now, she’s provided her students with step-by-step instruction to help them prepare good research papers.
Here’s her advice, boiled down to eight simple steps:
- Choose a good topic. “Do some reading before you choose your topic, then form a research question that’s interesting and focused. Not too big. Not too descriptive,” Van de Moortel said. The best topics use the word “why.” As a research question, “What sort of temples were there in ancient Athens?” isn’t great. A better choice: “Why are there so many temples in ancient Athens?”
- Find your sources. “Since you’ve already done some research to choose a topic, you should already have some of your sources in mind,” she said. Online sources are fine, but make sure they are scholarly. The safest bet is to choose something produced by a university or scientific institution. Also be sure to follow standard form for bibliographies. “Writing them up properly allows your readers to find your source. We’re scientists; other people have to be able to find our information and make up their own minds.”
- Take notes. “You can get easily sidetracked, so put a card with your research question in front of you and only take down information that relates to your question,” she said. “If you find what you’re reading is more interesting than your research question, fine. Change your research question.”
- Construct an outline. Detail your introduction, list the points you want to make in the body of your paper, and form your conclusion. “It helps you organize your thoughts. It gives you focus,” she said. “Often, when you write your outline, you find you’re missing information. If that happens, go back and get more sources.”
- Write a rough draft. “Here, we don’t care about using great style. Focus on content. Word choice isn’t as important,” Van de Moortel said. Drop in your illustrations and tables. Add your bibliography.
- Make revisions. Go back through and polish up your work, paying careful attention to spelling, grammar, and style.
- Take a rest. If you can, take some time before giving it a second read. Fresh eyes will make you more apt to see errors or problems. Let someone else read your paper before you turn it in. “You have it all in your head. You think it all makes sense, but it doesn’t always make sense to someone else,” she said.
- Package it up. Follow your instructor’s directions precisely. Are you supposed to use a specific font or type size? Should it be single- or double-spaced? Do you need a title page? “I require a title page and students get marked down if they don’t have one,” she said. “A lot of this is learning to follow directions.”
Van de Moortel uses a guidebook called Write in Style: A Guide to the Short Term Paper to help her students. It was written by one of her friends, Edward P. Von der Porten, a maritime historian, after he, too, recognized that many of his students needed a little assistance with this basic college assignment.
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