1. Select Your Topic
The first place to start is selecting a topic. You may have guidelines from your teacher and a list of choices, or you may have a broad field from which to choose. Either way, choose a topic that lights your fire. If you can't find a topic for which you have a passion, choose one you're at least interested in. You're going to be spending some time with the topic. You may as well enjoy it.
Depending on how long your paper must be, it's also important to choose a topic that's big enough to fill that many pages.
We've got some ideas for you:
2. Make a List of Possible Questions
Now that you've got a topic, be curious about it. What questions do you have? Write them down. What do you wish you knew about the topic? Ask other people. What do they wonder about your topic?
Add to your list pros and cons, if relevant, controversial sides in the matter, factors, anything that will help you determine possible subheadings. You're trying to break the topic down into smaller pieces to help you organize the paper.
Now think about your topic from every angle. Are there two sides to the issue? More?
Look for experts on both sides, if there are sides. You'll want to interview experts to give your paper credibility. You also want balance. If you present one side, present the other too.
Consider all kinds of resources, from newspapers, books, magazines and online articles to people. Quotes from people you interview yourself will give your paper authenticity and make it unique. Nobody else will have the same conversation you have with an expert.
Don't be afraid to go to the very top of the list of experts. You might get a "No," but so what? You have a 50 percent chance of getting a "Yes."
4. Interview Your Experts
Your interviews can take place in person or on the phone.
When you call your experts, immediately identify yourself and your reason for calling. Ask if it's a good time to talk or if they prefer to make an appointment for a better time. If you make the interview convenient for the expert, they'll be more willing to share information with you.
Keep it short and to the point. Take very good notes. Watch for quotable remarks and get them down exactly right. Ask your expert to repeat a quote if necessary. Repeat the part you wrote down, and ask them to finish the thought if you didn't get the whole thing. Use a tape recorder if available, but ask first.
Be sure to get the correct spelling of names and titles.
5. Search for Information Online
The Internet is an amazing place to learn all kinds of things, but be careful. Check your sources. Verify the truth of the information. There is a lot of stuff online that is merely someone's opinion and not fact.
Use various search engines. You'll get different results from Google, Yahoo, Dogpile, or any other of the many engines out there.
Look for dated material only. Many articles don't include a date. The information could be new or 10 years old. Check.
Use reputable sources only, and be sure to attribute any information you use to the source. You can do this in footnotes or by stating, "...according to Deb Peterson, Guide to Continuing Education at www.adulted.about.com...."
6. Scour Books on the Subject
Libraries are fabulous founts of information. Ask a librarian to help you find information on your topic. There may be areas in the library with which you're unfamiliar. Ask. That's what librarians do. They help people find the right books.
When using printed work of any kind, write down the source -- the author's name and title, the name of the publication, everything you need for an accurate bibliography. If you write it down in bibliography format, you'll save time later.
Bibliography format for a book with a single author:
Last name, first name. Title: Subtitle (underlined). Publisher's city: Publisher, date.
There are variations. Check your trusty grammar book. I know you have one. If you don't, get one.
7. Review Your Notes and Determine Your Thesis
By now you have notes galore and have started to form an idea of the main point of your paper. What is the core of the issue? If you had to condense everything you learned down to one sentence, what would it say? That's your thesis. In journalism, we call it the lede.
It's the point you're going to make in your paper, in a nutshell.
The more intriguing you make your first sentence, the more likely it is that people will want to keep reading. It could be a shocking statistic, a question that places your reader in a controversial situation, a striking quote from one of your experts, even something creative or funny. You want to grab your reader's attention in the very first sentence and make your argument from there.
8. Organize Your Paragraphs
Remember those subheadings you identified earlier? Now you want to organize your information under those subheadings, and organize your subheadings in the order that makes the most logical sense.
How can you present the information you gathered in a way that best supports your thesis?
At Gannett, journalists follow the First Five Graphs philosophy. Articles focus on four elements in the first five paragraphs: news, impact, context, and the human dimension.
9. Write Your Paper
Your paper is very nearly ready to write itself. You've got your subheadings and all the information that belongs under each. Find a quiet, creative place to work, whether it's in your home office with the door closed, outside on a lovely patio, in a noisy coffeeshop, or sequestered in a library carrel.
Try to turn off your internal editor. Write down everything you want to include in each section. You'll have time to go back and edit.
Use your own words and your own vocabulary. You never, ever want to plagiarize. Know the rules of fair use. If you want to use exact passages, quote a specific person or indent a specific passage, and always credit the source.
Tie your ending statement to your thesis. Have you made your point?
10. Edit, Edit, Edit
When you've spent so much time with a paper, it can be difficult to read it objectively. Put it away for at least a day if you can. When you pick it up again, try to read it like a first reader. I can almost guarantee that every time you read your paper, you'll find a way to make it better through editing. Edit, edit, edit.
Is your argument logical?
Does one paragraph flow naturally into the next?
Is your grammar correct?
Did you use full sentences?
Are there any typos?
Are all sources credited properly?
Does your ending support your thesis?
Yes? Turn it in!
No? You might consider a professional editing service. Choose carefully. You want help with editing your paper, not writing it. Essay Edge is an ethical company to consider. EssayEdge.com