Reasearch paper writing tips needed
March 22, 2011 12:13 PM   Subscribe

I have cousin who is an undergrad college student overwhelmed by the research paper process, who asking me for help Any tips to help me help him?

My cousin is bright and fun, but has largely coasted on the merits of being clever and articulate. He's recently decided to change majors to a hard science and this semester has had to write real research papers for the first time. He asked for my help, but it has been (gulp) ten years since I had to sit down to write a paper, so I'm looking for some tips I can share with him.

I went over outlines and citations with him, and he understands how to use a database and the library effectively (I think. We're 2000 miles apart.) I also found an on campus resource for editing, some sort of writing lab where he can go for help, but he reports that they were very busy and didn't provide much help. He plans to return another time at a slower time of day.

Sent him a couple books from amazon, but I suspect that reading a book is pretty low on his priority list.
posted by Nickel Pickle to Education (13 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
Has he gotten a specific assignment? Maybe brainstorm back and forth about his topic and maybe he can do some preliminary research on a few ideas to see which are good for information.

If the university is large enough, he should go to the library specific to his college and speak with a reference library. He or she will have a knowledge of electronic and non-electronic resources available and has probably helped other students in very similar situations before.
posted by amicamentis at 12:36 PM on March 22, 2011

speak with a reference librarian, of course.
posted by amicamentis at 12:37 PM on March 22, 2011

The Research Papers resource at the Purdue OWL may help. Seconding the use of the reference librarians and adding a recommendation to visit his school's writing center, if they have one. The best way for you to help is to point him in the direction of resources he can access on his own at any time for any future paper. The reference librarians and writing tutors can help him work through this assignment but also give him strategies and resources to help him on future assignments.
posted by BlooPen at 12:40 PM on March 22, 2011 [1 favorite]

Impress upon him the importance of proof-reading.
posted by jeffamaphone at 12:41 PM on March 22, 2011

I suspect that reading a book is pretty low on his priority list

Then his research paper is beyond help.
posted by BitterOldPunk at 12:47 PM on March 22, 2011 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: Then his research paper is beyond help.

I'm sorry, I think I was unclear. I sent him several books on the art of writing a good research paper. Considering his stress, I believe that they might go unread until the end of his semester. He does appear to be doing the appropriate reading of primary sources.
posted by Nickel Pickle at 12:58 PM on March 22, 2011

Best answer: I think the biggest thing I've learned since coming to college about doing research is how to use the reference list of other peoples' works. Coming into a research paper as an undergrad, it can be intimidating trying to figure out where to start- who's respected in the field, what are the key papers/books to read, what are the major schools of thought, etc. Once I have one or two good sources found by searching article databases or whatever, I comb through their reference lists and use that to take my next steps. Databases that let you rank articles by how often they've been cited can also help with this.
posted by MadamM at 1:08 PM on March 22, 2011 [2 favorites]

Yeah, if he's having trouble with the research part, he should most definitely speak with a reference librarian, and more specifically the science reference librarian. Generally colleges have reference librarians for at least each of the major areas of study, so there will be someone who is really familiar with the science databases, and other sources.
posted by grapesaresour at 1:16 PM on March 22, 2011

Best answer: I work at a university writing lab. I'm sure that the specifics are different, but they generally work pretty much the same. So I'll give you some ideas to pass on to him to make sure he gets the best experience out of it.

- He's right to try a less busy time, everyone will be less frazzled and he'll get better help. He can probably call ahead to see how it looks, or just ask tutors when the down times are. We have really weird peaks and valleys.

- He should probably go see the reference librarian first, and get a handle on some good sources. Reference librarians are awesome! However, actually getting the paper started is not really in their job description, at least where I am.

- He should bring the assignment and any materials he has already secured with him.

- He should be ready to talk about what direction he wants to go in, or at least different ways to approach the topic that he's thought about.

A lot of people have trouble just getting started on papers, particularly big research papers. It's daunting! A big part of what we do at the writing center is help prime people and get their ideas down. We provide help with thesis generating, outlining, and planning, in addition to editing and so forth. I can't tell you how many times a student has come in, deer-in-the-headlights, with no idea where to start a paper, and left, 20 minutes later, with a thesis, a basic outline, and a checklist of things to do next. It's not magic, it's just really helpful to have someone else sit down with you, force you to focus, and tease your ideas out.
posted by charmcityblues at 1:29 PM on March 22, 2011 [3 favorites]

There are some excellent blog posts for college students over at - example

Also, get the format (template, style etc) right before you start writing the paper. During my time at college, this was one thing that kept us tense in the last couple of days as we would format (even re-write some sentences) tens, if not hundreds of times. Going over previous papers may be a good idea.
posted by theobserver at 2:48 PM on March 22, 2011

theobserver: "Also, get the format (template, style etc) right before you start writing the paper."
Oof, careful with this one though. Getting the format/typeface/template just right is among my favorite ways of procrastinating. I now use Scrivener so I can write without having to think about that stuff, then deal with it once I've gotten all the hard work done.

References, on the other hand, are a good idea to get right from the get-go; if he uses software like EndNote or Zotero, he'll save himself a lot of trouble down the road.
posted by Rickalicioso at 3:13 PM on March 22, 2011

@Rickalicioso: I know, I know

I was probably not clear on the format/style, but having the template in hand (and going through it ahead) is useful. You don't need to type the paper using the template though. A couple of profs also used to insist on us following a standard style manual.
posted by theobserver at 3:29 PM on March 22, 2011

Where is the breakdown happening? Topic choice & question development? Mechanics of researching? Documenting his research? Organizing the info? Analyzing & interpreting it? Drawing conclusions? There are so very many places a research paper can go wrong. To help him, more info would be helpful.

In case it's useful, I learned this trick in college from a speech professor (who'd have thunk) and have since modified/expanded it for my high school students who also struggled with research papers to address issues of organization, citation & analysis/interpretation of facts. It should be done after preliminary research notes.

1. Invest in a stack of index cards and some highlighters/markers/crayons in different colors.
2. Write one fact you think you want to use on one side of index card (including page number if it's from a print source). Make a colored line along one of the edges.
3. On another index card, color all one side that same color. On the reverse, write the source info (APA, MLA, whatever the required style for the paper is). This is now the key to where you found the info for your works cited page. All data/fact cards from this source should have a line of the corresponding card drawn on them along the same edge as the card in step 2.
4. On the back of the card in step 2, write down why you picked this fact: why was it important, interesting, note-worthy, imply etc.

Repeat 2-4 as needed.

The cards can now be physically shuffled around and reorganized before writing begins. This is a physical way for people to work with information. It ALSO requires that they not just parrot facts/data, but actually interpret/analyze it, which is what my students always had the hardest time doing. They now have something to start with when drafting time begins, which can also help with pre-writing jitters.

I'm also a firm believer in outlining (although I'm a pretty methodical person) and the Perdue OWL site is FANTASTIC. I used it all the time when I was teaching English, and will likely hit it up again when I go to grad school in the Fall. Hope some of this helps!
posted by smirkette at 5:38 PM on March 22, 2011

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