Short Research Papers

This document focuses on the kind of short, narrowly-focused research papers you might encounter early in a course, when professors want a quick peek at your abilities. 

Such papers typically do not require that you build a complex argument, or offer your personal evaluation of a text, or aim for poetic effects. You will have the chance to get more intellectually daring later on, but for now -- unless your instructor has told you otherwise -- just stick to the basics.

Plan to Revise

Even a very short paper is the result of a process.

  • You start with one idea, you test it, and you hit on something better.
  • You might end up somewhere unexpected. If so, that's good -- it means you learned something.
  • If you're only just starting your paper, and it's due tomorrow, you have already robbed yourself of the time you need to do your best work.
Don't bury your best insights at the end of your paper.
  • An academic paper is not a mystery novel.
  • A rushed or bored grader will not have the patience to hunt for clues. Your thesis statement should include a clear blueprint. (See "Blueprinting: Planning Your Essay.")
  • You won't know what your best insights are until you have finished at least your first draft... hence, you will need to reorganize your thoughts -- perhaps several times.

When you submit, the title, the introduction, and the conclusion should match. (I am amazed at how many students overlook this simple step.)

Choose a Narrow Topic 

A short research paper assigned in the first month of class is not the proper occasion for you to tackle huge issues, such as, "Was Hamlet Shakespeare's Best Tragedy?" or "Women's Struggle for Equality."  You won't be graded down simply because you don't have all the answers right away.  The trick is to zoom in on one tiny little part of the argument.

Short Research Paper: Sample Topics
No The Role of the Government in the Lives of Its Citizens
  This paper could very well start with Biblical tribes, then move through ancient Greece, Rome, the rise of monarchy and nationalism in Europe, revolutions in France and America, the rise of Fascism and Communism, global wars, education, freedom of religion, AIDS, etc. This topic is huge!
No The Role of Government in American Race Relations
  While this version of the topic at least settles on a single country, it is still way too complex. Papers with titles like this tend to be filled with the student's personal opinions about what governments should or should not do. Your professor is probably more interested in first making sure you can explain specific details, rather than make sweeping generalizations about what governments should or should not do.
Maybe The Role of Government in American Race Relations during the 1930s
  Now we are starting to get somewhere... a student couldn't possibly write this paper without knowing something about that specific time period.
Yes Federal Policies Affecting Rural Blacks during the 1930s
  Even though it is still possible to write a whole book with this title, the topic is narrow enough that a student might write a short paper giving the basic facts, describing (or at least listing) the crises and conflicts, and characterizing the lingering controversies. 

How would you improve each of these paper topics?

  1. Environmentalism in America
  2. Immigration Trends in Wisconsin's Chippewa Valley
  3. Drinking and Driving
  4. Local TV News
  5. 10 Ways that Advertisers Lie to the Public
  6. Athletes on College Campuses

Use Sources Appropriately

Unless you were asked to write an opinion paper or a reflection statement, for short papers assigned early in the semester, your professor probably expects you to draw a topic from the assigned readings (if any)

Some students frequently get this backwards -- they bring a certain idea along with them when they do their readings, and then they use the readings to illustrate the general ideas that they already had in the first place.

When asked to submit a short research paper on the place of women in Victorian society, Sally is shocked to learn women couldn't vote or own property.  She begins her paper by listing these and other restrictions, and adds personal commentary such as: 

Women can be just as strong and capable as men are.  Why do men think they have the right to make all the laws and keep all the money, when women stay in the kitchen?  People should be judged by what they contribute to society, not by the kind of chromosomes they carry.

After reaching the required number of pages, she tacks on a conclusion about how women are still fighting for their rights today, and submits her paper. 

  • Sally has failed to notice that among the readings assigned by her professor is an article exploring how the role of women changed from the beginning of the Victorian period to the end.
  • In addition, female authors were being published and read like never before; the public praised Queen Victoria (a woman!) for making England a great nation; some women actually fought against the new feminists because they distrusted their motives; many wealthy women were downright nasty to their poorer sisters, especially the Irish. All these controversies are mentioned in the course readings, but Sally hasn't used of any of it.
Start with the readings, but don't pad your paper with summary

Many students try doing most of their research on the Internet.  Depending on your topic, the Internet may simply not have good sources available.

Go ahead and surf as you try to narrow your topic, but remember: you still need to cite whatever you find. (See: "Researching Academic Papers.") 

On the advice of her professor, Sally revises her paper as follows: 

vague original:
"The Role of Women in Victorian Society"

focused revision:
"Mary Wollestonecraft's Revolutionary Ideas"

Women can be just as strong and capable as men are.  Why do men think they have the right to make all the laws and keep all the money, when women stay in the kitchen?  People should be judged by what they contribute to society, not by the kind of chromosomes they carry. In "The Rights of Woman," Mary Wollestonecraft said women appear weak because they lack men's rights: "Let woman share the rights and she will emulate the virtues of man" (136).  She questioned the assumption that womanly jobs, such as breastfeeding, were inferior to manly ones, such as war.  Now that we have packaged baby formula and female fighter pilots, we may have to rethink some of her specific points, but her overall argument is still valid.
(Paper concludes with a bibliography)

Sally's focused revision (right) makes specific reference to a particular source, and uses a quote to introduce a point.  Sally still injects her own opinion, but she is offering specific comments on complex issues, not bumper-sticker slogans and sweeping generalizations, such as those given on the left.

Documenting Evidence

Back up your claims by quoting reputable sources.  If you write"Recent research shows that..." or "Many scholars believe that...", you are making a claim. You will have to back it up with authoritative evidence.  This means that the body of your paper must include references to the specific page numbers where you got your outside information. (If your document is an online source that does not provide page numbers, ask your instructor what you should do. There might be a section title or paragraph number that you could cite, or you might print out the article and count the pages in your printout.)

Avoid using words like "always" or "never," since all it takes is a single example to the contrary to disprove your claim.  Likewise, be careful with words of causation and proof.  For example, consider the claim that television causes violence in kids.  The evidence might be that kids who commit crimes typically watch more television than kids who don't.  But... maybe the reason kids watch more television is that they've dropped out of school, and are unsupervised at home. An unsupervised kid might watch more television, and also commit more crimes -- but that doesn't mean that the television is the cause of those crimes.

You don't need to cite common facts or observations, such as "a circle has 360 degrees" or "8-tracks and vinyl records are out of date," but you would need to cite claims such as "circles have religious and philosophical significance in many cultures" or "the sales of 8-track tapes never approached those of vinyl records."

Don't waste words referring directoy to "quotes" and "sources."

If you use words like "in the book My Big Boring Academic Study, by Professor H. Pompous Windbag III, it says it says" or "the following quote by a government study shows that..." you are wasting words that would be better spent developing your ideas.

In the book Gramophone, Film, Typewriter, by Fredrich A. Kittler, it talks about writing and gender, and says on page 186, "an omnipresent metaphor equated women with the white sheet of nature or virginity onto which a very male stylus could inscribe the glory of its authorship."  As you can see from this quote, all this would change when women started working as professional typists.

The "it talks about" and "As you can see from this quote" are very weak attempts to engage with the ideas presented by Kittler.  "In the book... it talks" is wordy and nonsensical (books don't talk). 

MLA style encourages you to expend fewer words introducing your sources, and more words developing your own ideas.  MLA style involves just the author's last name, a space (not a comma), and then the page number.  Leave the author's full name and the the title of the source for the Works Cited list at the end of your paper. Using about the same space as the original, see how MLA style helps an author devote more words to developing the idea more fully:

Before the invention of the typewriter, "an omnipresent metaphor" among professional writers concerned "a very male stylus" writing upon the passive, feminized "white sheet of nature or virginity" (Kittler 186).  By contrast, the word "typewriter" referred to the machine as well as the female typist who used it (183). 

See "Quotations: Integrating them in MLA-Style Papers."

Avoid Distractions

Stay On Topic

If you are like most students writing a short paper, you will stare at the computer screen for a while until you come up with a title. Then you will pick your way through your topic, offering an extremely broad introduction (see Glittering Generalities, below). You might also type in a few long quotations that you like. After writing fluff for a page or two, you will eventually hit on a fairly good idea.  You will pursue it for a paragraph or two, perhaps throwing in another quotation.
By then, you'll realize that you've got almost three pages written, so you will tack on a hasty conclusion.  Hooray, you've finished your paper!  Well, not quite.  At the very least, you ought to rewrite your title and introduction to match your conclusion, so it looks like the place you ended up was where you were intending to go all along.  You probably won't get an A, because you're still submitting two pages of fluff; but you will get credit for recognizing whatever you actually did accomplish.
To get an A, you should delete all that fluff, use the "good idea" that you stumbled across as your new starting point, and keep going.  If you want the "A", you have to work for it.  Even "good writers" have to work hard (in my class, anyway).

See: Sally Slacker Writes a Paper, and Sally's Professor Responds

Avoid Glittering Generalities

Never turn in a paper that begins with broad, sweeping statements in an attempt to make your little three-page paper sound more important than it really is.
Throughout the ages, mankind has found many uses for salt.  Ancient tribes used it preserve meat; around the world it adds flavor to food; the Bible uses it as a symbol of zest for life.  Salt became such an important part of people's diet that a way was needed to allow early nomads to carry salt with them on their perilous travels; such a device ideally also helped ancient gormandizers to distribute portions of the precious flavor enhancer onto their foods.  Thus was born the salt shaker. 
(Some writers appear to believe that the introduction should provide a sort of cosmic overview; however, you are not required to amuse your professors or entice them to read.  Just do the assignment.)
In a similar vein, resist the urge to call the Great Depression the "saddest chapter in American history," or T.S. Eliot "the most famous modern poet."  If your paper does not actually examine all chapters in American history, or all famous modern poets, such a vague claim adds nothing to your argument.
Don't Patronize the Great
Don't waste time talking about why Shakespeare is a genius, or why Napoleon is important to history, or why The Great Gatsby is the greatest American novel ever written. After ten, twenty or maybe forty years of study, few professors will claim to be able to to answer such huge questions in three or four pages.  They won't expect you to do so, either, after only a couple of weeks of classes!
Don't Summarize [Excessively]
Your professor already knows what's in the assigned readings.  Unlike high school, where you got credit for proving to your teacher that you actually did the assigned readings, in college, the assigned readings are not nearly as important as what you do with them.
Summarizing the plot is a great way to knock off half of a page; summarizing a book chapter that focuses on your topic is an easy way to frame an argument, but your professor knows that it requires much more mental effort to apply what you learned, to analyze a situation, to synthesize opposing viewpoints, to evaluate an argument.  Summarizing is, by comparison, a very simple intellectual task.  See "Bloom [et al]'s Taxonomy."
Don't Regurgitate Your Lecture Notes
...I'd much rather read your original thoughts (backed up by your frequent reference to the source materials, of course).  I can't speak for other professors, but when I lecture, I am primarily trying to give you background information that will spur you into thinking for yourself.  I will not reward you for simply parroting back to me the example I suggested off the top of my head three weeks ago in response to a student's question.
I suppose students wouldn't keep trying to do this if it didn't sometimes work.  Nevertheless, If you pull out your lecture notes and serve them to me like so much warmed-over meatloaf, I'm bored and frustrated -- probably even more bored than you were when you wrote it in the first place, since I have thirty other papers to grade.
Don't Inflate Your Prose
Simplify.  Most first drafts are about 50% deadwood.


Concise Revision

Another factor that should be considered is the fact that X. Just say "X."
In the 1992 book, Cooking Disasters of the 20th Century, by Fred Smith, it explains why an important state dinner in England was ruined, resulting in a social calamity that caused the host to lose nearly all of his social status and prestige:  "Lord Alfred's infamous celebration in honor of the Treaty of Ulm was marred when an assistant chef failed to notice that the cheese was was spoiled" (Smith 102).

At Lord Alfred's infamous Treaty of Ulm Banquet, a junior chef ruined the cheese.  The scandal all but ruined Lord Alfred (Smith 102).

The "Works Cited" page will have all the additional information a reader needs to know about the source. Don't clutter up the body of your paper with redundant information.

It is clear that... The student knows darn well the meaning is not clear at all; this is a weak attempt at fooling the reader into seeing structure that isn't there.
In other words... Don't waste words.  Say it correctly the first time.
It is interesting to note that...
Some people might say...
I think...
These empty statements are the academic equivalent of saying "umm" in a speech.  Omit.
Bill walked into the room.  Once he arrived, he looked for an appropriate table so that he could sit down.  He had come into the room in order to eat his lunch.  His lunch box, which he had brought with him, was a large metal container.  It made a loud clumping noise when he put it on the table.

Revise completely:

Bill clumped his big metal lunchbox onto the table.  He was ready to eat.

Category Tags