The College Research Paper
Organization and Outlining
Because research papers are rigorous and formal in function, they have a basic structure that actually makes them easy to organize and outline.
Research Paper: Parts and Their Functions
1) Introduction—Issue + Thesis: A good Introduction consists of a brief, compelling presentation of the issue, question or problem driving the paper, followed by a thesis statement at the very end. Think of your Introduction as a blueprint of your paper. It presents the central issue and the viewpoint (i.e. thesis) that the rest of the paper will support in detail.
and non-standard) Background Information and Opposing Arguments: This is a
short, intermediate section that may be useful to include between the
Introduction and the Body of the paper, depending on the topic. In this section
you can briefly present some background information that readers may need in
order to understand and evaluate the thesis support.
In addition (or instead), this section may include a brief discussion of views or arguments that run counter to the paper’s thesis, yet have some merit and are relevant to the central issue.
3) Thesis Support/Body: This is the main part of the paper—all of the ideas, arguments, facts, examples, statistics and so forth that support the thesis.
In shorter, college-length papers (five to seven pages), avoid a mechanical
ending (aka “conclusion”) that restates your main points. Either end with your
strongest supporting point or develop an idea that underlines or expands your thesis
support or strongest argument.
Try to leave the reader with something to think about.
Filling in the Parts—Approximate Lengths and Proportions
Assuming that five-to-seven pages is an average length of a college research paper, the approximate proportions of the four main parts are shown below.
1 or 2 paragraphs—usually no more than a page in total.
A proportionate Introduction for a college paper is typically one or two paragraphs. A published research paper that is longer and more complex may have an Introduction that runs several paragraphs or even pages.
However, the function of an Introduction is always the same—to present the main issue and a thesis at the end.
Optional Background Information and
Opposing Arguments: 1 or 2 paragraphs maximum, if and when necessary—no
more than a page in total.
Thesis Support/Body: the bulk of
the paper—i.e. from four to seven pages.
0 to 1 paragraph maximum.
In shorter college papers, the ending may be an extension of the last and strongest supporting point, and therefore, not require a separate paragraph.
If you conceive of a conclusion that contributes something to the paper (and doesn’t just restate the main points), add a paragraph but limit yourself to no more than one.
Filling in the Parts Effectively—Addressing Function
As you conceptualize your paper and adapt your draft to the structure above, remember that all the parts of the paper perform real functions. To do an effective job of conceptualizing and drafting, you may need to unlearn some generic concepts that you learned in high school.
For example, an Introduction isn’t an introduction
in a general sense (“Dana, this is Jim”). Its specific function is to present
the main issue (question or problem), then the thesis at the end.
If you start your paper with general information or a trite, high-school technique like defining a word from Webster’s dictionary, you won’t be writing an effective Introduction.
Similarly, if you base your thesis
support on the high school convention of having three supporting arguments or
ideas (no more, no less!), you won’t be doing college research.
The real function of thesis support in college is to make a compelling case,
irrespective of the number of arguments or ideas.
With that said, your paper almost certainly will have to conform to a prescribed length—a minimum and maximum number of pages. Whatever length your paper ends up being, keep the parts proportionate to their function.
For example, the Thesis Support is the most important part of a research paper; it should constitute no less than 80% to 90% of the paper’s overall length.
Drafting Your Introduction—the Blueprint of Your Paper
A good Introduction is a blueprint of a research paper
for both the writer and reader.
Drafting your Introduction early—i.e. while you’re still gathering information, taking notes and putting together an informal outline—will help you conduct your research and write the rest of your paper more efficiently.
As we have seen, the Introduction has two functions: to
present the central issue and the thesis.
Most of your Introduction should be devoted to presenting the issue. (The thesis is usually one sentence.) If you’ve conceived your paper around a question or problem, you know the central issue well enough to draft a description of it for your Introduction. Of course, you’ll learn more about the issue as you proceed with your research, but you can always refine and strengthen the draft later on.
Drafting your thesis statement is a little trickier. Normally, you won’t know your exact thesis until you’ve finished your research (i.e. until you’re able to answer the question or solve the problem that the paper addresses).
Nevertheless, you can draft a “working thesis” that poses the question driving your research (sometimes called a thesis question) or you can put forth a provisional thesis (similar to a hypothesis in science) that reflects a view that you want or expect your research to support but is subject to change.
Background Information and Opposing Views
Background information and opposing views are not standardized parts of a research paper, yet most research papers need judicious amounts of one or the other or both.
Experienced writers can weave background information and opposing views into their Introductions and their Thesis Support without disrupting the clarity and flow of the paper.
Less experienced writers are more likely to get sidetracked and lose themselves and their readers. One common mistake that some students make is starting a paper with background information instead of defining the central issue so that readers can grasp the purpose of the paper right away.
Other students are not always sure if or when to include opposing viewpoints; they sometimes undermine the conviction and credibility of a paper by floating an opposing view at the very end.
You can avoid these problems by fitting your background and/or opposing views into an intermediate section after your Introduction and before you start your Thesis Support.
The virtue of doing this is that readers won’t be confused. After the Introduction they will know what the purpose of your paper is and where it is going. They won’t be uncomfortable reading a few interesting paragraphs before the Thesis Support starts in earnest.
Thesis Support—Building to a Climax
While you are researching you will be focused on the quality of the information and how well it addresses the question or problem driving your research.
Typically, not all of the information that you decide to use to support your thesis will be equally significant or strong.
As a result, when you draft your paper, think about the best way to arrange your thesis support. If your strongest support comes too early, then the rest of your paper may be anticlimactic.
Your goal should be to organize your support in such a
way that it builds to a strong conclusion or climax.
You won’t always find the ideal sequence in your first draft. Don’t be afraid to change things around as you revise the paper. Discussing drafts of your paper with your instructor and classmates will help you determine the best way to organize your thesis support.