Good Research Papers by Mistress Derbail (Updated November 1, 2004)

Welcome to my class! I plan to begin by "walking you through" the steps in writing a good research paper, suitable for submission to an A&S competition. I'd then like to work with you all on developing topics and discussing good resources. I encourage you to share with one another your ideas on writing and research.

The First Step: Choosing the Right Topic

While this may seem like a simple step, it's more complicated than you might think. It's often a challenge to find a topic that isn't too broad or too narrow. If the topic is too broad, you'll be overwhelmed with information and end up with a paper that is too long and not cohesive. If you choose a topic that is too focused or narrow, you may have difficulty finding sufficient information and sources.

Likewise, you need to consider a topic which you find personally interestingbecause you will be spending a LOT of your time conducting research on the topic. Choosing something that keeps your interest over the long haul is vital.

As a quick exercise, consider the following topics. Are they too broad? If so, how could you narrow them down? Are they too narrow? If so, how could you expand them?

In choosing a topic, also consider what kind of research paper you are producing. Will this be a descriptive paper, one that details a person, place, or event? Is it a position paper, where you argue for or against a particular point of view or statement? Or is it an analytical paper, where you are drawing conclusions and perhaps suggesting new ideas?

Second Step: Gathering Information

We are fortunate to have so many accessible research sources today, ranging from university libraries to the Internet. If you know little about your subject, you may want to start your research with a general source, such as a history textbook or a modern book on a period craft or whatever is appropriate for your subject. From that source, consult the bibliography for additional reading materials.

You may also want to use an online search engine, such as Google, to gather preliminary information. Don't forget, as you are researching, to write down each and every source you consult. Your information should include the following:

Not all websites are created equal, so I encourage you to use my web evaluation rubric (following) and be picky about the Internet sources you consult. The best ones are usually affiliated with college and universities. Likewise, not all websites have authors and dates listed, but at the very least, you should record the web address for future reference.

Other places and items to consult for research include local public libraries, almanacs, atlases, general encyclopedias (which can give you good preliminary information), abstracts and research reports, magazines, and indexes.

Once you locate a book or website that seems useful, it's time to make notes. If possible, I recommend photocopy or printing out the materials and keeping them in a notebook. This lets you work with the materials at leisure, instead of having to go to the library every time. You can make notes on the margins of the pages or use a highlighter to mark specific points. At some point, before writing, you'll want to organize the notes and main points of your findings into a cohesive order that matches your outline (which you'll be reading about here in a minute).

Third Step: The Tricky Thesis Statement

This isn't as hard as you think! The thesis statement sounds difficult, but it is simply the main idea of your paper compressed into one sentence. All material in your paper should somehow relate back to this thesis statement. Consider the following; which do you think are good thesis statements? Which are not? How could you improve the poor statements?

"Chaucer put a lot of symbolism into The Canterbury Tales ."

"One possible interpretation of the Magna Carta is that it was an early example of the role of checks and balances in government."

"Some recent evidence has come to light which may show that William Shakespeare was not as prolific a writer as first thought."

"Early cannons displaced cavalry as the main machines of war."

A thesis statement should clearly and precisely summarize and present the main idea or argument of your paper. If you need help sharpening your thesis, consider asking your how the thesis statement presents your ideas, or why the statement summarizes what you want to say. The thesis statement should stick out; the reader should be able to zoom in on it with little difficulty. And while many thesis statements can be one sentence, more often you might have two closely connected sentences to present your thesis.

Fourth Step: Make a Thorough Outline

You are now, no doubt, familiar with your topic. You know your main idea and the arguments, evidence, or details you are going to present. It's now time to draw up your outline.

How long should a research paper be? It varies according to topic, of course, but my personal thought is that 5-15 pages is usually sufficient, exclusive of bibliography or any illustrations. A paper less than 5 pages probably doesn't have enough details. More than 15 pages, unless you have a lot of good material to present, is a lot for a judge to read.

All papers have three basic parts: the introduction, the body, and the conclusion. The introduction tells the reader, in a nutshell, what the paper is about and why it's important enough for you to write on the topic. You'll also want to give your reader a short "roadmap" of where you plan to take them on the journey through the topic (i.e. the key points you plan to make) and how you intend to present your topic (description, opinion, analysis, argument, whatever). The body of the paper is the "meat" of your topic. This is where you'll present each key point, description, or argument, well supported by facts and examples. Each paragraph of your paper's body (and the recommended minimum number of body paragraphs is three) should relate directly back to your thesis statement. The conclusion is the final summation of all your points, and often, the conclusion should relate back to the introduction. The conclusion should not ever leave your reader wondering if you were finished or not.

Here is a basic "framework" for an outline. You would, of course, elaborate under sections II., III., IV., and V. according to your topic. Some writers leave their strongest point for last; others do the reverse; it's entirely up to you.

I. Introduction

II. Key Point One

III. Key Point Two

IV. Key Point Three

V. Key Point Four

VI. Conclusion

Fifth Step: Getting Your Information Organized

Now comes the part that is time consuming, but absolutely essential, and that's organizing your notes and research into a useable form. One of the best ways to organize is to match up information with your outline. Some people like to put each separate piece of information on a note card, then label the card according to the section of the outline where it best fits. You could do much the same thing with printed matter, just indicating in the margin where the information would go in your outline. You'll most likely find that not all your information previously gathered gets used, just like you'll likely have to go back and do more research to fill in any gaps in the outline.

Many times, once the information is all organized, you'll find that the skeleton of a paper is in place. By the time you type up all the note cards or printed material (always citing your source according to whatever citation style you choose within the body of the paper and in a bibliography at the end), you'll likely have several pages completed. But you can't stop here; you need connective tissue on your skeleton. This is the point at which your writing style and approach is so important. You have to use the information you've gathered and organized to make your points, but what you have to say and how you express yourself are equally important.

Here is an example of a perfectly correct paragraph that just isn't really interesting to the reader:

Norse traders brought red dye materials north. They bought the dyes in Constantinople . They sold the dyes in various villages. The villagers then dyed wool red. The red woolen goods made a good profit for everyone involved.

Here is the same information, with variations in sentence structure and words that are more appealing to a reader:

Norse traders, traveling as far south as Constantinople , carried red dye materials north. There in their homelands, they sold the dyes in various places. The villagers used these bright red dyes on native wools, and these red woolen goods brought a good profit margin for everyone involved.

Sixth Step: The First Full Draft

Sometimes, I find it useful to write the body of the paper before I write the introduction and conclusion. Once the body is complete, I have an even better idea what I want to offer in the way of a "preview" to my readers. Others, though, prefer writing the intro and then the body. Whichever way works for you is how you should proceed.

Continuing in the manner you started organizing your notes into paragraphs and filling in your own suppositions, ideas, and theories (Step Five), proceed until you have covered all the headings in your outline. Remember that you may have to go back to the library or Internet for more information. Don't forget to cite a source whenever you state a fact, and be particularly careful if you use any direct quotations (set off by quote marks, of course). As much as possible, try to paraphrase when you are using sources, unless a quote is particularly apt.

When you finish filling in all the points of your outline, and you have an introduction and conclusion, take a break! You have completed your first full draft, and you deserve a pat on the back. Even if the paper has some weak points, the bulk of the heavy research is complete. Now comes the polishing and finishing.

Seventh Step: Revisions

One of the best ways to check your paper is to read it aloud, particularly if you have an audience willing to listen. Ask your audience if your points are sound and well supported. You may end up switching some paragraphs around for clarity and emphasis. You may also need to get some more information to help prove any weak points.

Once you have a second draft, see if you can get a friend or colleague to proofread for you; this person should ideally be someone who hasn't seen your paper before. Another set of eyes is always helpful.

Eighth Step: The Final Draft

In some ways, the final draft can be surprisingly difficult. You are probably tired of working on the paper and ready to do something else. But this final bit of polish can mean the difference between a good paper and a great one. Here are some tips for making the final draft the best it can be:

Things to Ask About Your Paper (Before You Print the Final Copy):

1. Is the thesis statement clear and concise?

2. Was my outline logical, and did I follow it or change it as needed?

3. Are the arguments in logical order?

4. Is there sufficient "connective tissue" between paragraphs, so the paper flows smoothly?

5. Are all sources cited both within the body of the paper (as footnotes, endnotes, or parenthetical notes)?

6. Are all sources included in a complete bibliography?

7. Did I prove my point or fully detail what I proposed in the thesis statement?

8. Did I check the grammar and spelling, and make corrections as needed?

9. Did I get someone else to proofread the paper for me? (And did I make corrections after that?)

10. Have I avoided making sloppy mistakes, such as too much passive voice, run-on sentences or sentence fragments, or using contractions?

11. Do I have the same verb tense throughout the paper?

12. Did I keep the same voice/person pronoun throughout the paper?

And Don't Forget

1. To regularly save your paper on disk and on the hard drive of your computer.

2. To make sure every source cited in the paper is listed in the bibliography.

3. To spell check.

4. To proofread.

Bibliography of Useful Sources

Andrea, Alfred, and Overfield, James. (2001). The Human Record Sources of Global History, 4 th edition .

Paul Halsall's Internet History Sourcebook : A collection of primary source materials on the Web. Available at:

Purdue University 's Online Writing Lab : Available at:

The Chicago Style of Citation : Available at:

The University of Wisconsin at Madison 's Writing Center Handbook : Available at:

Using APA Style : Available at:

Using MLA Style : Available at:

What is a rubric and how is it used?

Simply put, a rubric is a set of rules for scoring assessments, performances, or other activities. Rubrics work best when they are derived from looking at concrete, "real world" examples. The author should have some experience in evaluative techniques of the activity for which the rubric applies.

Rubrics have become quite popular in the field of education, as they can provide a clear standard of evaluation for students, teachers, parents, and administrators to use. The author of a rubric can set up an almost infinite number of assessment categories, with "scores" either quantitative (numbers) or qualitative (words); a range of 3-5 levels of description in proficiency is typical.

In constructing the paper evaluation rubric, I looked over learning objectives I had set for my students in history, the stated goals and objectives of typical English and communication departments, and several writing style guides (i.e. Strunk and White's Elements of Style ). I also consulted with several colleagues who are instructors of English at the college level for their feedback.

In constructing the web evaluation rubric, I considered both the typical webpage evaluation criteria (i.e., content, organization, graphic presentation and layout, technical expertise presented, navigation, and narrative) and the criteria my college-level students use in evaluating non-web sources (i.e. journal articles and books, for which I recommend categories of evaluation that include level of analysis, organization, writing style, ). This hopefully reflects that our needs are perhaps greater in the "narrative and scholarship" realm than the "cool website" realm without ignoring the fact that the latter can have significant impact on the former.

Informative Web Sites on Rubrics

My Personal Rubric for Evaluating Research Papers





Analysis and Evidence


Superior Paper
(A; 90-99)

Easily identifiable; pertinent to material; clear and insightful

Smooth transitions; paper flows logically from point to point. Each paragraph has strong topic sentence.

Varied sentence structure; no spelling errors; 3 or less minor grammar errors; citation style used correctly.

Has strong, well-explained examples to substantiate every point. Uses quotes as well as paraphrases. Has fresh perspective on the topic. Uses quality sources.

Engaging and creative. The writer makes the paper particularly interesting and enjoyable to read.

Good Paper

(B; 80-89)

Promising, but slightly unclear or not as pertinent as another topic may be. Lacks slightly in originality

Clear and satisfactory; a few transitions may be unclear, but the organization is generally consistent

Some variance in sentence structure; no more than 4-5 grammar errors or 2 spelling errors. Minor errors (less than 3) in citation style.

Points generally well-substantiated, with some quotes and paraphrases. Some analysis may be new, but some is not. Sources are generally acceptable

The paper is enjoyable to read but may not be as creative and engaging as an A paper.

Average Paper

(C; 70-79)

Topic is unclear and/or unoriginal; provides weak framework for writing

Weak transitions; writing wanders off topic

Little variance in sentence structure; 6 or 7 grammar errors; 3-5 spelling errors. One or more major citation style errors.

Only some points supported. May rely overmuch on direct quotes. Some sources questionable. Analysis is not particularly new or fresh.

Paper is adequate but nothing about the style makes the document stand out to the reader.

Poor Paper

(D; 60-69)

Difficult to find thesis; may be redundant or off topic entirely

Unclear, poor transitions, few topic sentences.

Run-on sentences and comma splices are copious. Many spelling errors and no evidence of correct style for citations.

Weak attempts to relate evidence to points. Sources are inappropriate for topic.

Minimal or unsuccessful attempts to make the paper stylish or creative.

Failing Paper


59 or below)


No thesis statement of any kind

No discernible organization at all.

Citation style nonexistent. So inundated with errors that it is impossible to read.

No sources or evidence used. No analysis of topic and points.

No attempt whatsoever has been made to make the paper a good read.

Quick Definitions

Thesis : The main idea or premise of your paper; what the paper is all about. Picking a pertinent and interesting topic is important.

Organization : How the paper is put together. Most papers have three clearly identifiable parts: introduction, body, and conclusion.

Mechanics : Grammar, spelling, punctuation, and citation using one consistent style.

Analysis : How well you "prove" your point or explain and develop your ideas.

Evidence : Sources and examples to back up your claims and arguments; also includes the use of "good" sources versus "poor" ones.

Style : Style is admittedly subjective. It is that instinctual flow and creative knack that makes a written document memorable and pleasurable to read. It also includes word choices that are unique and non-repetitive.

Website Evaluation Rubric








Little if any evidence of scholarly research is provided. Sources are scanty or non-existent. Sources present are of poor quality.

A bibliography is present, though it contains secondary sources of varying quality (some reliable, some not). Most facts in evidence are supported by sources.

A thorough bibliography is existent comprised of quality primary and secondary sources. All facts in evidence are well supported.


Narrative is confusing and poorly written. Few if any links for additional information or resources are provided, and the links present may not work.

Narrative is cohesive, but may not be as clear as it could be. Website has some links, but could have more. Some links may not be working

Narrative is well-written and easily understood. The website is easy to navigate; all links work and are clearly labeled.

Author's Scholarship

Author's training and professional credentials are unknown or questionable. Works are amateurish and non-scholarly. Contact information for author is absent.

Author may be a beginning scholar or skilled non-academic. Works are informative, but not as detailed or well-researched as they could be. May omit author contact information.

Author is noted for scholarship in field and/or is associated with a well-recognized institution or research group. Contact information is provided for the author.

Content and Detail

The author only provides basic information, along the lines of a simple encyclopedic entry. Narrative has gaps in information. No theme or clear purpose. Sources are questionable, and/or no primary sources are used. Citations are incomplete.

An overarching theme may not be present, or may be unclear. The author provides a moderate level of information, but leaves some questions unanswered or omits certain aspects of the topic. More secondary sources than primary. Citations are adequate.

Throughout the site is clear purpose and theme. Consistent level of skill in writing. Extensive information backed up by primary and secondary sources. Narrative answers almost any question about the topic a reader might ask. Citations are accurate and thorough.

By the way, this class can't replace a good, reliable writing guide. I am partial to The St. Martin's Guide to Writing for basic information and reference. If you want something livelier, some of my English major friends have recommended A Writer's Reference by Diana Hacker.

In college, no doubt your professor will have a preferred citation style. For an SCA paper, unless specifically stipulated, I don't think it matters much as long as you are consistent . The major styles most of us are familiar with include MLA (Modern Language Association), Chicago/Turabian, and APA (American Psychological Association). Often, citation styles are just different enough to make your head spin, so be sure you pick one style and stick with it.

A word on the passive voice: I guess some English teacher will shoot me, but I am going to go out on a limb and say that every now and then , the passive voice is a better choice than the active voice. Just be careful not to overdo it!

  Copyright (c) 2005 Dee McKinney. Used with permission.