Let’s begin by giving a simple definition for a research paper. Your teachers might be asked you to write “a report”, “a term paper”, or even just “paper” on a subject. Are these research papers? Are we talking about the same thing? These terms are all quite vague, and there is no set definition for each, but this article will give you a brief example of what is usually considered acceptable for each of the following types of assignments. In this article, I will use George Washington as an example.
If an instructor at you to write a report on George Washington, most likely he or she would expect you to read some general information about George Washington and present the material you have learned in written form. You would demonstrate to your professor that you have done the reading required for the class, as well as some outside reading. You would not be expected to go beyond basic sources (textbooks or reference works), or find out anything startling or knew about George Washington.
A persuasive essay is usually quite short (perhaps a page or two). Its purpose is to persuade a reader of a particular point of view. If you were asked to write a persuasive essay about George Washington, it might have a title like “George Washington: Our Greatest President” to present a reader with an argument for George Washington greatness, you would use some of the information gleaned from basic sources read in the class. You would find facts to support your point of view, but, unless you are asked to do so, you do not necessarily have to find contradictory sources.
Personal essays are also usually quite short and are frequently assigned in writing classes. You are not expected to do research for a personal essay. Here, you are simply relating some personal experience. A professor might ask you to write a personal essay relating your grade school instruction on George Washington. This might be a useful way to discuss some of the myths and information children are taught.
A term paper is a broad category, into which many types of papers might fall. It is usually a final paper for a course. Its form will vary depending on the course and the teacher. A term paper is not necessarily a long research paper.
Review of the Literature
This is most similar to a report. If you were studying George Washington in your Introduction to Political Science course, you might be asked to read several different sources and summarize each. A “Review of the Literature” assignment allows you to demonstrate that you understand the basic information presented in each source. Typically, you will include a “Review of the Literature” as part of a full research paper or thesis.
A traditional research paper goes beyond all of the above in scope. First of all, you are typically looking to find out something you didn’t know before. A research paper about George Washington might set out to prove that George Washington was not a great general, but only one of the American War for Independence, because of the British or incompetent. For a research paper on political science, you would seek out many different sources to support your idea or thesis. You are expected to do more than just summarize what you read; you are expected to draw conclusions from it.
Theses and Dissertations
These are the most advanced forms of research writing. Thesis work generally refers to a high caliber of detailed research conducted only graduate level, or on the undergraduate level in a senior honors class. A dissertation is a book-like report that culminates years of research on the topic. It is the completion of the doctoral degree and, as such, must conform to the most rigorous standards of research and writing.
Different papers require different things from the writer. Your professor will spell out in detail the type of paper you are writing; he or she will expect you to ask. The first question is: always consult your professor about any lingering questions you may have. No book can answer questions about the teacher’s expectations.
Why Should Papers Conform to Certain Styles?
There will certainly be some point in your research and writing when you throw your hands up in the absurdity of it all. Why bother with nitpicky footnotes? Who cares if the commas are here, periods are there? Why can’t I write things in my own style? These are legitimate questions. It may appear to you that professors are a bunch of sadists, whose only joy is getting students to fret over arcane points of style and grammar.
Whether you are writing something simple as book reports, or you are dwelling into the depths of a research paper, the primary goal of writing is always communication. While you may be more relaxed about points of style in your speech, you need to be exact in written communication. Good writing is precise and clear. Don’t confuse using a lot of big words with being a good writer. Learning about how to style a research paper properly will help you learn how to communicate clearly. Using standard notation for things like footnotes and bibliography entries enable your teacher to identify your outside sources and see that you have cited them correctly.
It bears repeating: the process of writing a research paper will be rewarding and useful in many different areas throughout your life.