This new edition includes fresh examples of research topics, clarified terminology, more illustrations, and new information about using online sources and citation software. It features updated citation guidelines for Chicago, MLA, and APA styles, aligning with the latest editions of these popular style manuals. It emphasizes argument, research, and writing as extensions of activities that students already do in their everyday lives. It also includes a more expansive view of what the end product of research might be, showing that knowledge can be presented in more ways than on a printed page.
Friendly and authoritative, the fifth edition of Student’s Guide to Writing College Papers combines decades of expert advice with new revisions based on feedback from students and teachers. Time-tested and teacher-approved, this book will prepare students to be better critical thinkers and help them develop a sense of inquiry that will serve them well beyond the classroom.
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About the Author
Read an Excerpt
Imagining Your Project
1.1 How Researchers Think about Their Projects
1.1.1 Topic: "I am working on the topic of ..." 1.1.2 Question: "... because I want to find out how or why ..." 1.1.3 Significance / So What: "... so that I can help others understand how or why ..."
1.2 Conversing with Your Readers
1.3 How Researchers Think about Their Answers/Arguments
1.3.1 Think of Your Readers as Allies, Not Opponents 1.3.2 Think of Your Argument as Answers to Readers' Questions 1.3.3 Use the Parts of Argument to Guide Your Research
1.4 How You Can Best Think about Your Project
All successful researchers do at least three things: they raise questions readers want answered, search out answers to those questions, and argue for those answers in their papers, presentations, or reports. In this chapter, we show you how to get started by finding or inventing a research question that will be interesting enough for readers to care about and challenging enough that you have to research its answer. Then we show you how to plan your project by mapping out the parts of the argument you will need to support that answer.
1.1 How Researchers Think about Their Projects
All researchers set out to discover things they don't already know: facts about the world that we'll call data. But they undertake their projects for different reasons. Some just want to satisfy their curiosity: baseball fans memorize statistics about their favorite players and teams; foodies investigate the ingredients that go into a fine meal; space buffs read everything they can about NASA's space program. These sorts of people do research just for the fun of it. They don't have to care whether others are interested. They can research in whatever way they want without bothering to write up what they find.
Most researchers, however, pursue their projects not just for themselves but also for others, their readers or audience. They do their research to share it — because their colleagues or clients need it, because they think their question and its answer are important to other researchers, or just because they want others to know something interesting. But when researchers share their results, they have to offer more than just whatever data they happen to dig up on their topic. They seek out certain kinds of data — those they can use to show that they have found a sound, reliable answer to a research question, such as Why did the Apollo moon landing become a symbol of America's identity? In other words, they look for data that they can use to build an argument — that is, data they can use as evidence to support a claim that answers a question.
The best researchers do more than just try to convince others that their answer is right. They also show why that answer is worth knowing by showing why their question was worth asking in the first place. For example, in a business setting, researchers usually show why their research helps someone decide what to do:
If we can understand why our customers are moving to the competition, we can know what we have to change to keep them.
But in an academic setting, researchers usually show how the answer to their research question helps others understand some bigger, more important issue in a new way:
Historians have long debated about how nations construct their individual identities. If we can figure out how the Apollo moon landing contributed to America's national identity in the 1960s, we can better understand how symbolic events shape national identity in general.
If you cannot imagine yourself appealing to an audience of historians, you can still imagine one closer to home: your class. Locate that larger issue in the context of what you are studying:
A major issue in this class has been how interest in space exploration has waned since the end of the Apollo mission. If we can figure out why getting to the moon was so important in the 1960s, we can better understand how such events shape national identity.
You can find out whether your question is worthwhile by describing your project in a sentence like this one:
1. Topic: I am working on stories about the Apollo mission to the moon,
2. Question: because I want to find out why it was deemed so important in the 1960s,
3. Significance: so that I can help my classmates understand the role of symbolic events in shaping national identity.
In its second and third parts, this sentence takes you beyond a mere topic to state a question and its importance to readers.
When you state why your research question is important to your readers, you turn it into a research problem. A research problem is simply a question whose answer is needed by specific readers — your audience — because without it they will suffer a cost. That cost is what transforms a question that is merely interesting to you into one that you can expect others to care about.
TQS: How to Identify a Worthwhile Research Question
You can help yourself think about your project by describing it in a three-step sentence that states your Topic + Question + Significance (or TQS):
TOPIC: I am working on the topic of __________,
QUESTION: because I want to find out __________,
SIGNIFICANCE: so that I can help others understand __________.
Don't worry if you cannot at first state your question's significance. As you do your research and develop your answer, you'll find ways to explain why your question is worth asking.
Note: Like all of the formulas you will find in this book, the TQS formula is intended only to guide your thinking. Use it to test and refine your question, but don't plan to use it in in your paper in exactly this form. In your introduction you will use the information from each part of this TQS sentence but not the sentence itself (see chapter 13).
That three-step TQS sentence is worth a closer look because your project's success will depend on your ability to discover or invent a good research question.
1.1.1 Topic: "I am working on the topic of ..."
Researchers often begin with just a topic, something that sparks their curiosity, such as the Apollo mission. But if you stop there, you've got problems. Even a focused topic is a poor guide to your work, because a topic alone gives you no principled way to decide what data to look for or, once you have them, which data to use in your paper and which to discard. When that happens, students often run into trouble, producing a data dump. They dump everything into a paper that reads like a grab bag of barely connected facts. Most readers quickly become bored, asking, Why are you telling me this? They might read on if they are already interested in the topic, but even those readers will want to know: What do these facts add up to?
1.1.2 Question: "... because I want to find out how or why ..."
More experienced researchers begin not just with a topic but with a research question, such as Why was the Apollo mission to the moon important to America's national identity? You may have to do some preliminary reading about your topic to come up with a question, but in every research project, formulating that question is a crucial early step. Experienced researchers know that readers will think their data add up to something only when they serve as evidence to support an answer. Only with a question can a researcher know what data to look for and, once obtained, what to keep — and not just data that support a particular answer but also data that test or discredit it. As we'll see later, with sufficient evidence to support an answer, a researcher can respond to data that seem to contradict it. In writing a paper, the researcher tests that answer and invites others to test it too.
1.1.3 Significance / So What: "... so that I can help others understand how or why ..."
Experienced researchers also know that readers won't be interested in just any research question. Readers want to know not just your answer but also why that answer is worth knowing. So expect your readers to respond to your question with one of their own: So what? Think of it this way: What will be lost if you don't answer your question? Maybe nothing: you just want to know. That's good enough to start but not to finish, because eventually your readers will want an answer beyond Just curious.
All questions, in short, are not equally good. For example, you could ask the question Who was taller, Neil Armstrong or Buzz Aldrin? But you would have trouble answering So what? to the satisfaction of any but the most fanatical NASAphiles. Readers ask So what? about all research questions, not just the off-the-wall ones. If you ask the question Why was the Apollo moon landing a symbol of America's national identity?, you should also expect readers to ask in turn: So what? Why should I care about that? But this time you can justify your question by pointing out the significance of its answer: If we can answer that question about the Apollo mission, we might better understand the bigger issue of how such events in general shape national identity. Readers care about a question only when its answer makes them say That's worth knowing!
Of course, professional researchers have a big advantage: they already know what questions their readers care about. Students, especially beginners, usually have less to go on. So don't worry if at first you cannot find some great significance to your research question. Keep hunting for a good So what?, knowing that all won't be lost if you don't manage to find one. As long as you find a question that is relevant to your class, you can always explain its significance in terms of the class (for more on this, see 13.1.3):
... so that I can help my classmates understand how such regional myths have shaped America's sense of a unified national identity, which has been an important issue in our study of American diversity.
1.2 Conversing with Your Readers
Experienced researchers understand that genuine research must matter not only to the researcher but also to others. That is why our formula — I am working on the topic of X because I want to find out Y so that I can help others understand Z — is so powerful: because it emphasizes that informing others is the real end of research.
Whenever you read a text, you silently converse with its authors. The same goes for your readers when you are the author. But imagining and then entering into such conversations can be difficult for beginning researchers — and especially for students, who sometimes misunderstand the kind of relationship with readers they should strive to create. Your task as a student researcher is not simply to rehearse whatever facts you've managed to turn up, in order to prove to your teacher that you've learned enough to get a good grade. Doing that might be — at best — a useful student exercise, but it is the opposite of genuine research. You may, it is true, receive some assignments that ask you simply to regurgitate information. But the best assignments will do more: they will invite you to experience genuine research by imagining and contributing to a community of readers who care about your question. In such research you become a kind of teacher yourself who says to your reader (even if she is your teacher), Here is something that will help you remedy a situation that troubles you or, more typically, Here is something that will help you better understand something you care about. When you present your research in this way, you write for others who are open to learning from you and even to changing their minds — if you can make the case.
We now understand the goal of genuine research, at least in its pure form: it is not to have the last word, as some students mistakenly believe, but to keep the conversation going. The best questions are those whose answers raise several more.
There is yet another reason to think of yourself as conversing with your readers: it will prod you to produce a better, richer, more thoughtful argument. Imagine your readers as interested and inquisitive colleagues, as a community of fellow researchers and even partners who want an answer as much as you do. Imagine that conversation taking place not in a classroom but around a table. Your question grabs the attention of your peers because they recognize that they'll be worse off if they don't get an answer. You share not just your answer but all the information you can find that is relevant to deciding whether your answer is a good one. In sharing that information, you try to anticipate their questions. You are candid enough to acknowledge any information that challenges or complicates your answer, and you address objections they might have. Even so, they have many more questions, alternative explanations, and other issues — each of which you consider and address as fairly as you can.
If you can imagine your readers in this way, your paper will be better. If you think of your project in these terms, you'll make more good decisions and waste less time as you write your paper. But just as importantly, you'll be preparing yourself for the day when your readers are indeed colleagues who need from you the best answers you and they can find.
1.3 How Researchers Think about Their Answers/Arguments
For researchers who see themselves as participating in such extended conversations, arguments are not just edifices of data but responses to questions readers can be expected to ask. Students are often surprised to realize that what they had thought was the main job of research — looking up information on a topic — is only a small part of a successful research project. Before you can even begin, you may have to do some preliminary reading to help you figure out a good research question. That question will then guide your work: you won't just look up information on your topic in the library or online; you will search for information — in the library but perhaps also in the field or the lab — to help you answer your question and then to test the strength of that answer. And once you think you've found an answer that satisfies you, you'll still have to justify it to your readers. Readers won't accept that answer just because you believe it: you have to give them reasons to believe it themselves. And they won't just take your word that your reasons are good ones: you have to support each reason with reliable evidence. In short, readers expect you to offer a complete and convincing argument that uses the data you have found to explain and support your answer.
1.3.1 Think of Your Readers as Allies, Not Opponents
By argument, we do not mean anything like the heated exchanges you see on cable news shows, where anything goes because all anyone cares about is winning. Unfortunately, many students imagine all arguments are like that, partly because the loud and angry ones are so memorable but also because the language we use to describe argument makes it sound like combat:
I will defend my position from the attack of my opposition; then I will marshal my most powerful evidence to counterattack. I'll probe for weak spots in the other position, so that I can undermine it and knock down its key claims. We will fire away at each other until one or the other of us gives up and surrenders, leaving only the victor and the vanquished.
Experienced researchers know that they cannot treat readers like enemies to be vanquished. To succeed, researchers must enlist readers as allies who agree, at least provisionally, to follow along in the hope of learning something new. As we've said, a good research paper is like a silent conversation with your readers, and it's much easier to converse with an ally than with an enemy.
You can make allies of your readers — encourage them to be receptive rather than defensive — by treating their values, ideas, and perspectives with respect. That does not mean telling them only what you think they will agree with or want to hear — after all, your ultimate goal is to expand or change their minds. But you do have to attend closely to what you know (or imagine) your readers already believe, so that you can move them from where they are to where you would lead them.
Don't Pander to Teachers
Students sometimes think they will be rewarded for writing papers that tell teachers what they want to hear by repeating what the teacher has already said. But that can be a grave mistake, in college and even in high school: it bores your teachers, who think it is not enough that you just rehash what's said in class and in the readings. Your teachers want to see not only that you know the class material but also that you can use that knowledge to think for yourself. If your papers, especially your research papers, merely summarize what you've read or repeat back your teacher's ideas, you will get that dreaded comment: This does not go far enough.
When your teacher says that you must make an argument to support your answer, don't think of having an argument, in which everyone stakes out a position and no one changes his or her mind. Instead imagine an intense yet amiable conversation with people who want to find a good answer to your question as much as or even more than you do. They don't want unsubstantiated opinions; they want claims you can support with reasons, and they want the evidence that makes you think your reasons are true. As in a conversation, they will also expect you to consider their points of view and to address any questions or concerns they might have. And they'll expect you to be forthcoming about any gaps in your argument or limitations in your evidence. In short, they want you to work with them to achieve the best available answer, not for all time but for now.
1.3.2 Think of Your Argument as Answers to Readers' Questions
You can think of the parts of your argument as answers to different sorts of questions readers might ask. If you can imagine these questions, you can write your argument.
188.8.131.52 The Core of an Argument: Claim + Reasons + Evidence
Your answers to the first three questions readers ask constitute the core of your argument.
1. Claim: What do you want me to believe? Once you raise your research question, readers naturally want to know the answer. We call this answer your claim because it is a statement that you are claiming to be true. Papers can have many claims running through them. A paper's main claim is also called its thesis.
Although some people still believe that early education should focus only on reading, writing, and math, elementary schools should actually make teaching languages other than English a priority.claim
2. Reasons: Why should I believe that? Unless your answer is obvious (in which case the question was not worth asking), readers will not accept it at face value. They'll want to know why they should accept your claim as true.
Although ..., elementary schools should actually make teaching languages other than English a priority because we acquire languages best and most easily when we are young, because those who begin second languages as adults rarely attain fluency, and because language instruction fosters an awareness of cultures and societies beyond one's own.
3. Evidence: How do you know that? Even when your reasons seem plausible, responsible readers won't accept them just on your say-so. They expect you to base each reason on data you've discovered through your research. These data are your evidence.
Although ..., elementary schools should actually make teaching languages other than English a priority because ... Studies of childhood language acquisition show that ... evidence for reason 1
The terms reason and evidence are often used interchangeably, but they aren't synonyms. We will say more about this distinction in chapter 6. But for now, it is enough for you to understand that reasons are statements that support claims, and evidence is data on which those reasons rest.
184.108.40.206 Honoring the Conversation: Acknowledgment and Response
A claim supported by reasons that are based on evidence is the core of every argument. But if your argument consists only of these three elements, thoughtful readers may feel unsatisfied. When you make an argument for a community of readers, you make it not in a vacuum but in the context of all the arguments about your topic that have been made before. Careful readers therefore want to know not only that you can support your claim but also that you have thoughtfully considered the views of others — especially when their views differ from your own. Of course you can't address every claim that has come before your own, but you can honor the conversation by anticipating and responding to questions your claim might raise for your readers.
4. Acknowledgment and Response: But what about this other view? You cannot expect your readers to think exactly as you do. They will know things you don't, they will believe things you don't, and they may even distrust the kind of argument you want to make. If you adopt a genuinely cooperative stance, then you are obliged to acknowledge and respond to at least some of the questions that arise because of those differences.
Although some people still believe that early education should focus only on reading, writing, and math, elementary schools should actually make teaching languages other than English a priority, because ... To be sure, widely introducing language instruction in elementary schools would be expensive, and it would require giving less time to some other subjects. But the long-term benefits both to individual students and to society at large far outweigh these costs.
There are several types of acknowledgment and response, including rebuttal or counterclaim, in which you note and then challenge a competing view; reflection, in which you describe the evolution of your views or weigh your claim's strengths and limitations; and concession, in which you accept another position's merits before asserting the merits of your own. But all of these forms have a common purpose: to show your readers that you recognize the limitations of your own ideas and that you have thoughtfully considered the views of others before advancing your own. These are things you must do. If you want readers to take your arguments seriously and possibly to change their minds in response to them, then you have to show that you are open to having your own mind changed as well.
220.127.116.11 Explaining Your Logic: Warrants
In some cases, researchers make arguments in which they have to explain not only their reasons and evidence but also the principles that guided their reasoning. Suppose, for example, you were visiting your friend Paul in Cajun country. It is a warm July evening, so he invites you to go for a walk on the levee, and then he adds, "You might want to put on long sleeves." This makes no sense to you, so you ask, "Why?" "Because the sun's going down," he replies. Now you are truly baffled. You understand Paul's claim, and you can see the sun going down. But you just cannot understand why that means you should wear long sleeves on a warm July night. His reason is true, and his evidence is good. But his argument so far fails.
That's when we need a warrant, or a principle that connects reasons and evidence to a claim. So you ask again, "Why does the sun going down mean that I need long sleeves?" As it happens, Paul has a good answer. "Ah," he says. "You don't know about swamp country. You always need to protect yourself from mosquitoes, and when the sun goes down, they come out in droves. If you don't cover up, they will eat you alive."
Now it all makes sense. As an expert in swamp-country living, Paul was able to reason in a way you couldn't. First, he knows a factual correlation you don't: When the sun goes down, mosquitoes come out. That lets him apply a general principle of reasoning — a warrant — to reach his conclusion: And when mosquitoes come out, you want to protect yourself. That warrant lets Paul connect his reason to his claim: So put on long sleeves. (You still might wonder why anyone would want to go walking among those mosquitoes in the first place.)
5. Warrant: How does that follow? A warrant is a principle stating that when some condition (a reason, evidence) is true, we can draw some conclusion (claim). For example, you would have to supply a warrant if some readers asked, But why does it matter that people learn languages best when they are young? To which you would have to reply with a general principle: From a developmental perspective, we should teach children(Continues…)
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