I’ve got a research paper to write…now what?

Task Definition

You are here because you have been assigned a report or research paper. Whether it is for your history, chemistry, or English class, you will need to have a plan for where to start. Ask yourself about your assigned task, what problems need to be solved, and what the final result might look like. Now you are ready to begin.
Choosing a Topic
As a student, you are most likely in one of two situations. Both situations have their benefits and drawbacks. Let’s take each one in turn:
Limited Choice: you have very little or no choice about your topic. In school, high school or college, this first situation is the most common. If you are taking specific courses—Biology, U.S. History, 19th-Century British Literature—your range of topics when it comes to research is already narrowed considerably. When assigning a research paper, your teacher or professor will often give you a list of prompts or suggestions from which you may choose. The benefit here is that you can tell from the proposed topics which issues your instructor finds most compelling. Plus, with a limited choice, you can move through the “Choosing a Topic” stage rather quickly.
Free Choice: you have complete control over your topic. If you are taking Composition, electing to pursue an independent study, writing a thesis or dissertation, or continuing in the world of academia after college, your choices about what to research will be much more broad and open. You will be free to study whatever interests you most and to seek answers to burning questions generated by your own curiosity. The benefit here is obvious: you have creative and intellectual control of your research from beginning to end. Of course, the same phrase might be used to describe the drawback: you have creative and intellectual control of your research from beginning to end. For many students, this is less thrilling than it is terrifying. With the whole world to choose from, where do you start?

With each situation, the initial approach is the same: brainstorm and free write.

Brainstorming involves making lists, diagrams, charts, and other visual expressions of your thinking. Putting the possibilities on paper makes it easier to see where your thinking is most inspired and where it lacks interest or creativity.

Brainstorming Techniques
•    Lists
•    Diagrams
•    Charts
•    Comparisons
•    Contrasts
For a “limited choice,” take some time to brainstorm about each proposed topic: list your initial responses to each topic, compare two or three frontrunners by charting your possible approaches, and, once you’ve narrowed your choice, try a bubble diagram or some other graphic organizer to focus your thoughts around one central idea. For a “free choice,” brainstorming may take a little longer. You may need to make several lists first. Start with your interests. Think about things you have enjoyed studying in the past that you’d like to know more about. Consider activities or issues that inspire you outside of school. Which topics spark your interest and curiosity? Once you’ve got some good ideas, follow the suggestions for “limited choice” above.
Free writing encourages you to explore a single idea. This technique will be especially useful once you have selected a research topic. Free writing can give you a better sense of what you already know, what you think you know, and what you need or want to know.
How to Free Write
•    Pick your most comfortable writing method: keyboard, pen, or pencil.
•    Set a timer: 5 to 15 minutes.
•    Write for the whole time.
•    Spelling and grammar don’t count!
The only rule in free writing is that you have to write the whole time, even if your writing is not on topic. You may begin writing “I don’t know what to write” over and over, but eventually your brain will kick in and you will turn to your topic. Free writing can be useful throughout the writing process, whenever you feel stuck. For example, after you have compiled your research and made an outline, you may turn to write your introduction and discover that you have no idea how to begin. Free write! Ask yourself, “How might I introduce this topic?” Set your timer and begin. Once you have finished, you may want to read what you have written. However, you may find that the exercise has sparked your thinking and that, while what you actually wrote is not very useful, free writing has gotten you thinking again. It’s important to understand that the product of free writing is not always what is written on the paper, but rather the energy you get from the exercise and the new ideas that come to you.


Choosing a topic requires you to think about what interests you, what sparks your curiosity, and what inspires your thinking. No matter what the nature of your assignment, this is a stage that requires some brainstorming and some free writing. Once you feel good about your topic, you’re ready to move on to Developing Research Questions on the next page. But remember to be flexible! You may need to return to this stage if you find that your choice is too narrow or too broad for the requirements of your research task.


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