What a Research Paper Is Not
Sometimes it is easier to say what something isn’t than what it is. Here are some of the top things that your next research paper shouldn’t be.
- A research paper isn’t “about” a topic.
This means that your paper doesn’t simply contain content about your topic. A research paper is a written attempt to offer and support a thesis. It should provide a clear point backed up by evidence.
- A research paper isn’t a list of all your research.
In the process of doing research, you will learn lots of things about your topic. If that research doesn’t pertain to your thesis, then it shouldn’t be in your paper.
- A research paper isn’t a string of quotes.
Although the foundational material for any research paper is your research, your job as a writer is to stitch it together in a way that makes sense. The primary goal is not to present research but to explore your thesis.
- A research paper doesn’t ignore contradictory evidence.
If you write enough research papers, eventually you will create a thesis that doesn’t stand up to your research. This is a challenge because you’ve invested time and mental energy into your thesis. However, a research paper is not meant to support ideas that you already have. It is meant to help the writer and reader form an educated opinion on a topic.
What a Research Paper Is
- An academic answer to a specific prompt.
One of the most important parts of writing a research paper for class is making sure that your paper answers the question your instructor asked you to write about. No matter how great your paper is, if it doesn’t meet to the assignment requirements then it won’t earn you the grade you want. While you’re working on your paper, return to the assignment prompt occasionally to make sure that you aren’t getting off track.
- A written argument with a clear focus.
A paper’s focus has to do with the breadth or narrowness of its topic. The wider your topic, the more data you will find on it. Ironically, a paper with a wide topic is often harder to write than a paper with a very focused, narrow topic. Having a wide topic can keep you from diving as deeply as you need to address your assignment. A focused topic allows you to analyze it properly and answer your assignment prompt in a substantive way.
Wide Topic: Bigfoot
Medium Topic: History of Bigfoot
Focused Topic: Evolution of Folk Stories about Bigfoot in the American Northwest
- Asks how and why.
Reports answer questions about who, what, when, and where. While you may need to answer these in your research paper, the body of your paper’s argument should address questions of why and how. This means that you will not just present research on your topic, but you will integrate that research into an informed opinion that offers an explanation. Your job is create your own argument in relation to your topic, not just present what others have said elsewhere.
Tip: When using quotes, make sure you give the quote a context and an explanation. Quotes shouldn’t stand by themselves.
How Long Should My Paper Be?
Most professors will provide you with a page or word count for the length of your paper with the initial assignment. However, you may occasionally encounter a paper assignment without one. What do you do then?
If you aren’t sure how long your paper should be, ask your instructor. They probably already have a size in mind but forgot to include it.
Look at your topic.
There are times when asking your instructor won’t be possible, or there isn’t a length requirement involved. It is then important to figure out how long your paper should be based on the topic you have been given. A paper should be short enough to be interesting (so it doesn’t drag on), but long enough to cover the topic (you don’t need to cut out important information). In essence, your paper should answer the question thoroughly while providing only the information necessary for a thorough analysis. A longer answer isn’t always a better one.