Writing Well

Subject to Change

Writer's Block

Don't forget: A research paper isn't a laundry list of your findings. Rather, it's a unified argument that incorporates all relevant information.

Some of us have greatness thrust upon us; the rest of us have to settle for subjects. If you're given the subject of your research paper (a common occurrence in business and government jobs), you're all set. If not, the ball is in your court.

The right subject can make your paper; the wrong one can break it. How can you tell if you've picked a stinker? Unsatisfactory subjects …

Understand that nearly every subject can be researched, but not every subject should be researched. After all, why waste your time finding information about a subject that's been done to death? Banal and boring subjects often lead to banal and boring research papers. Give yourself (and your readers) a break by starting with an original subject or an original way of looking at an old subject.

One Percent Inspiration + Ninety-Nine Percent Perspiration = Great Subjects

“I don't have anything to write about,” you moan. Quit your kvetching; you know far more than you think you do. Besides, Dr. Laurie's here now. So take two of these ideas and thank me in the morning.

Top Ten Ways to Get Great Research Paper Ideas

  1. Read subject headings. You can skim the multi-volume Library of Congress Subject Headings (a reference text), leaf through a Readers' Guide to Periodical Literature, or even check the subjects listed on your Web browser.
  2. Browse through encyclopedias. Skim online, book, or CD-ROM encyclopedia headings for a rich list of topics.
  3. Stroll the stacks. Walk around the shelves and see what topics catch your eye. Or, let your fingers do the walking by skimming the library's book catalog.
  4. Consider textbooks. Pick a field that intrigues you and check out a few textbooks in that area. Read the table of contents; leaf through the pages. Find an idea that piques your interest and delve into it.
  5. Tap into your journal. As you learned in “Picture This: Description,” your journal can be a place to store fabulous writing ideas. Make a withdrawal now.
  6. Make a list and check it twice. If you've been assigned the paper in a class, jot down all the ideas linked to the subject of the class. For example, if you're taking a sociology class, you might list working women, divorce laws, immigration regulations, and eating disorders. One of these might make a good paper.
  7. The medium is the message. Create a visual, as you learned. Many writers find that charts, webs, graphs, and other pictures help them generate a slew of ideas.
  8. Ask questions. Use the five Ws and H (who, what, when, where, why, and how) to help you consider all sides of an issue.
  9. Talk the talk. Speak to people who have written research papers: teachers, parents, and professionals. Doctors, lawyers, accountants, real estate salespeople, computer programmers, and other business people are all excellent sources for ideas.
  10. Read, listen, and watch. Read anything and everything: newspapers, magazines, journals, critical reviews, essays, and matchbook covers. Watch TV, listen to the radio, go to the movies. Inspiration is all around; just tap into it.
Write Angles

If you've been assigned a subject you detest, see if you can find an aspect of the subject that you like. Nearly all topics can be tweaked a bit here and there. Of course, always clear those “tweaks” with the person who assigned the topic.

Writer's Block

Warning: Your teacher may make selecting and narrowing a subject part of the research paper process itself. As a result, you may be assessed on how well you choose and focus the subject of your paper.

Write Angles

The media is an excellent source of research paper subjects, but rather than focusing on the side everyone else sees, probe a little deeper for the story behind the story. This can help you get an intelligent and unusual slant.

Time to Squeeze the Tomatoes

So now you have some ideas for subjects—how can you tell if they're keepers? Ask yourself these questions as you evaluate your catch:

  1. How much time do I have? The amount of time you have to write a research paper is vital since it's all too easy to get caught up in your research and make it a career choice. So choose a subject that you can complete in the time you've been allotted.
  2. How long must my paper be? When it comes to subjects for research papers, length matters. It will obviously take you much longer to write a 50-page research paper than it will to write a 10-page one. Weigh this consideration as you select a subject. The shorter the paper and the longer you have to write, the more leeway you'll have to select a challenging subject that will require more research.
  3. What type of research must I do? As you'll learn in “Seek and Ye Shall Find,” there are two main kinds of sources: primary sources and secondary sources. Primary sources include firsthand material such as letters, interviews, and eyewitness accounts. Secondary sources include almanacs, biographies, and encyclopedias. Sometimes, you'll have to use a specific type of source, or a mix. If that's the case, factor it into the subject/choice equation.
  4. What are my reader's expectations? Some subjects play better than others. You don't want to parrot back the reader's own words, but neither do you want to deliberately antagonize your reader. I'm always astonished at the number of times I explain, “I'm fed up to here with papers on gun control, euthanasia, and the death penalty”—and I still get papers on gun control, euthanasia, and the death penalty. I crave papers on new topics, such as cloning, filtering the Internet, and a flat tax. Heck, I'd even be delighted to receive a paper that argues the merits of artificial turf over natural grass … rather than another research paper on gun control, euthanasia, and the death penalty.
Writer's Block

Never select a subject that condescends to your readers, offends them, or panders to them. Don't try to shock them, either—it always backfires.

You can stint on many things, but not when it comes to selecting the topic for your research paper. Judge your topic harshly; you don't want to end up picking a stinker.

Judge and Jury

You shouldn't pick a subject just like that, but you're not going to have time to dally. If you're stuck in third gear, try these suggestions to get your engine revving:

  1. Remember that your purpose is to persuade. With a research paper, you're arguing a point. If you can't slant the subject to be persuasive, toss it back.
  2. Select a subject you like. If you have a choice, try to select a subject that interests you. You'll be living together a while, so why not make it pleasant?
  3. Be practical. Look for topics that have enough information available, but not so much information that you can't possibly dig through it all. Writing a research paper is challenging enough without shooting yourself in the foot.
  4. Beware of hot subjects. “Hot” subjects—very timely, popular issues—often lack the expert attention that leads to reliable information. The books, articles, and interviews on such subjects have often been produced in great haste. As a result, they're not carefully fact-checked.
  5. Recognize that not all questions have answers. Some questions invite informed opinions based on the evidence you've gathered from research. Dealing with questions that don't have definitive answers can make your paper provocative and intriguing.

You can pick a winner, fellow writer. After all, you had the wisdom to invite me to guide you on the path to better writing. That's how I know you're an intelligent, sophisticated judge of character.

book cover

Excerpted from The Complete Idiot's Guide to Writing Well © 2000 by Laurie Rozakis, Ph.D.. All rights reserved including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form. Used by arrangement with Alpha Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

To order this book direct from the publisher, visit the Penguin USA website or call 1-800-253-6476. You can also purchase this book at Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble.

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