How to start a research paper

Choose a topic that you are interested in! Anything we have covered in the course that has particularly sparked your interest would be a good topic. Perhaps you feel particularly strongly about an issue like affirmative action, or perhaps you would like to look in more detail at a question you have addressed in one of your response papers. Or perhaps you would like to choose an issue related to race, gender, nationality, ethnicity, or sexuality that we have not covered.

Perhaps you choose to write on the debate over multicultural curricula, or affirmative action, or whether the concept of race exists, whether it is coherent and helpful, or whether it is illusory, pernicious and racist. First, identify your sources. Use the materials we have looked at in class as a starting point. Consult the footnotes and bibliographies for further references. Do a subject search in the library. Once you have assimilated your sources, read them, read them again, take notes on them. Begin to organize your notes into themes. Try to identify patterns that emerge, and to envision an overall strategy. Plan your research paper. Write a rough draft. Outline your introduction, thesis statement, the body of the argument, and your conclusion. What quotes will work best where? What points do they support?
If you choose to focus on a film, watch the film two or three times. Take notes on it. Get a clear sense of what each of the characters contribute to the film, what the overall plot or story line is, and think about what devices or effects the director uses to accomplish the atmosphere of the film. Is the film told using flashbacks or is there temporal and narrative continuity? How effective is the editing, or the lighting? Look at reviews of the film to establish the range of different responses to the film, and to get a sense of what issues it raises. How do the reviews amplify, challenge, or complement your understanding of the film? Who supports your view, and who disagrees with it? Why and how do they agree or disagree? What do they take to be the most important aspects of the film? What do they take to be the message of the film? How successfully do they think the film accomplishes its ends?


Introduction: provide an overview of the theoretical issues
It is often helpful to set up two poles, representing extreme positions, even if you want to ultimately undercut them, by mediating between them, or introducing a compromise. Your introduction should establish the importance of your research topic by pointing out the central theoretical issues it raises.
Whatever topic you choose, examples of questions you might ask yourself in order to clarify your thesis include:

  • Why is this film interesting, important or controversial?
  • What questions do race riots raise?
  • What are the range of positions available on affirmative action, or multicultural curricula,
  • the viability of the concept of race?

Thesis statement: take a position, and give a brief rationale for it. Try to make your thesis neither completely uncontroversial, nor so controversial that it is hard to defend. Your thesis should be a brief statement of what you are going to argue and why. Situate your position within the general debate, and identify the main points you are going to use in order to argue for your position.

  • What is your argument?
  • How does it differ from other possible positions?
  • What are the major reasons for holding your view?

Debate: explore both sides of the controversy
This is the body of your essay. What are the decisive issues to be explored, and how do they play out? How do you articulate and organize the evidence available to you in order to demonstrate the arguments for and against your position

Development: build up a coherent, step by step, analysis
Make sure your arguments are cumulative. That is, don’t just randomly introduce different points. Use linking statements to highlight the structure of your argument. Don’t start a new paragraph with, “Also” or “In addition” or “Then the author says” or “The next point to make” but, “From the preceding argument we can see that . . .” or “Having established x, we can now go on to explore y” or “Now that we have examined x it will be clear that y” – in other words, make sure there is an internal coherence to your paper, and make sure its logical development is clear.

Conclusion: Trace significance of arguments made, assess evidence. Summarize the various positions you have outlined, weigh up the evidence, and come down on one side or the other, given the preponderance of evidence, or the moral weight of the arguments, or the importance of balancing different factors against one another. Don’t use your conclusion to simply repeat yourself!

Footnotes: It is essential that you cite all sources in full, and put all quotations in speech marks. Author, title (of article or book), place of publication, publishers, date, and page number should be included. If you use the internet, provide full information, including the address of the we bsite.

Bibiography: List all your sources in full.

  • Remember: Focus on the theoretical issues.
  • Proofread your essay
  • Include all the components listed

Example of a research paper: Questions to focus on in Neil Jordan’s “The Crying Game”:

  1. Does the film succeed in exploring identity in a complex, multi-faceted way, rather than one- dimensionally?
  2. In what ways are nationalism, race and ethnicity explored in the film?
  3. How are our usual expectations of gender identity upset by Jody, Fergus, Dil, and Jude?
  4. How does class play itself out as a relevant social category of analysis?
  5. Does the film succeed in representing the fluidity of identity in a transgressive way, or does it consolidate identity in essentializing or reactionary ways?