Research and Writing

How to research and write a paper

How to Research and Write a Paper

The following process is intended as a tool for undergraduate students researching and writing a paper in the arts and humanities. This process in not unique to undergraduates, as it is the same process that I (and others) use when working on larger scholarly projects. There is also advice on researching for a project when the outcome is in a creative medium (painting or piece of music) rather than a written paper.


1) Determine the general research area

This is the first step. You might pick an area because something has caught your interest (in a class, in reading, in art or culture you have encountered). However, you do not necessarily need to start with something you know about or even like! Some of the most interesting things I have explored began by researching something I did not already know about and was not already interested in.

Start with a general research question, knowing you will need to be narrow it eventually. As you find more information, you can narrow the question further. One of the most common problems with undergraduate papers is that they try and cover too large a scope, and in the end are unable to deal with any topic with enough substance. In short, you should read widely but write more specifically. More on this in the section on ‘writing a proposal’ below.

Examples of general research questions: How did the technology of radio affect concert music? How did the Reformation alter views of the arts? What role did the development of the concert hall have on musical values? How was music or visual art used in domestic contexts in France in the 19th C?

As you create general research area question, ask yourself: is researching this question interesting to you? Who might this research be valuable to? What might I be able to contribute to the dialogue? (in rhetorical terms, you’re identifying your motive)

2) Starting points for research sources

The ways to find specific information can vary by discipline, but there are some very common ways to identify quality research sources. Today the main problem is not in finding information, but is determining what information is worthwhile and of a high quality. Below are some strategies for making those determinations.

  • Course texts: Your instructor chose these books for a reason. You can identify what the course texts have to say about your topic, and very often these texts also provides references to other sources you should investigate.
  • Cross-references: Once you have found one reputable source, look at what publications the source references. Try and get a hold of those sources and see what they reference. If you find one particular source that is mentioned quite often, then chances are it is important and you should get a hold of it.

Example: If you are researching Igor Stravinsky, you will quickly find that many people source Richard Taruskin’s work. This should tip you off that this is an author to look at!

  • Keywords: By the time you have followed through looking up cross-references, you will likely have a good number of keywords that can be used to expand your search into other territories. Keywords might include authors, artists, names of pieces of art, and ideas. Keep track of these keywords, as they will open up other possibilities when used in searching databases.

Locating sources

With an increased number of digital resources, your search for sources does not have to start with you being physically in the library (although you will need to use online library resources and likely take a trip to a university library). One of the most important elements of using the internet to search is determining what is worthwhile spending your time on. Below are a list of different databases and resources and a bit about them.

  • Google and Content Factories: Nowadays our first response when we want to know something is to ‘google’ it. But it is important to know how Google ranks results. They are not ranked by most useful or best researched, but by an algorithm that mostly takes into consideration web traffic (for example, the number of clicks on a page and the number of cross-links). Many companies sell search engine optimization services, where they try to get your page to the top of the list. Get to the top of the list, and you will get more clicks. Get more clicks, and you get more advertising revenue. So you see the problem here: just because it comes up on Google does not mean it is reliable or worthwhile (although sometimes it is). One sort of site that gets lots of clicks are content factory websites like ehow and (I am not giving links here as I do not want you to click them and give them more money!). Here is how they work: They pay writers to write articles in very short periods of time, gleaning what they can from other web sites. These writers get paid per article, so they try to write as many as they can an hour. So as you can see, they are not necessarily the best quality. In short, when researching you can usually do better than just googling a topic, and watch out for content factories. Never quote from a content factory website in an academic paper!
  • Wikipedia: Wikipedia is different from content factories. It was not created solely for profit. It was created by a community, and as such it has some good information, and some not-so-good information. Sometimes there are footnotes and links to scholarly work. Wikipedia is an absolutely fine place to start for something you do not know anything about. It can help give you an overview and help you generate some keywords. It is not, however, a scholarly source and should not be cited in a bibliography. When it conflicts with a scholarly source, lean towards trusting the scholarly source. Wikipedia articles vary in quality, but some do cite scholarly sources in their footnotes. If they do, explore those sources.
  • Library resources: Libraries are not just those big buildings on campus that you visit to find a quiet place to sleep. They actually have a lot of good information! Much of that information is in the physical books they hold, so go to the library! Every year I am surprised how many times I have to send people over to the library because they submit proposals without making the trip to flip through physical books. Most libraries also have extensive electronic resources that can be accessed from outside the library. Note that library search engines do not work like web searches. You need to choose the proper category to search, so do not search for a subject keyword when author is the selected search parameter. Here are a couple of key databases and resources you library likely has access to:

    • JSTOR: the biggest and best source for full text journal articles. Not all journals are listed here, but it is a great resource for journals articles in arts, humanities, and social sciences. The archives go back over a hundred years in many cases, but dont expect to find anything up here from the past five years.
    • RILM: if you are researching music, RILM is the largest database of abstracts of publications about music. You wont find full text here, so when you find a source you will have to check if the library has it. If not, order it as an interlibrary loan.
    • EBSCO host: very modest full text resources in the arts and humanities, but worth taking a look at anyways. A few academic journals in the arts do have full-text. Note that just because something shows up on EBSCO does not mean it is a top notch source. EBSCO also archives some newspapers, and these while interesting and potentially helpful are in most cases not academic primary sources.
    • E-books: many libraries now have access to a growing collection of books in electronic format. For many of them you can even download a few relevant pages in PDF format. One of the more helpful collections are the ‘Cambridge Companions’ (Quest has access to the Cambridge Companions to music).
    • Open access journal lists: More and more academic journals are launching as freely accessible to all (also called open access). The quality of open access journals is maintained by having a quality editorial board. Here is one example. Some are listed in library databases, and some are not.
    • Interlibrary Loan: For all those sources the library does not have, you can either drive to a library that does have it, buy it, or for a low cost and less effort order it through the library’s interlibrary loan. Note that it can takes a couple week to get your sources, so plan ahead.
    • Personal Websites: These days, most scholars have their own web pages. They will have a list of their own publications, and very often have links to copies of those publications (for example, see here and here).
    • Google Books/Scholar: These are tremendously helpful resources. Google books provides previews of many books. You can take a look at a few pages and then decide whether you should track down the book. Google scholar searches primarily for articles, and if you feed it enough keywords often comes back with helpful results. I think the most helpful element of this search is it locates sources that an author has been quoted in. (For example, here is a search for me and a couple other keywords).
    • Scribd: While more than a little suspect in the copyright department, many full text articles and books have found their way to

Finding sources for projects where the output is a creative medium: In many of my classes, I provide the option for the research output to be in an artistic medium (including music composition, visual piece, installation, etc.). Despite the popular notion that art simply comes from within (a holdover from the idea of genius for more on this see here), exploring new areas in art involves at least as much research as writing a paper. There are three different types of sources you will need to find:

  1. Sources on the idea you are exploring
    • Sources on the techniques required to create your piece
    • Sources about other artists who have explored similar topics or worked with similar ideas

Example: Here is an example of my own research in creating Ceremonial Cleanse. My idea was to create a sound sculpture exploring the ways that the sounds around us alter our interaction with the world, as well as ideas of ritual. For sources on ideas, I needed to explore ideas about acoustic ecology, including data from the World Health Organization, and ended up exploring the rituals in the Japanese tea ceremony. I had never built a sculpture before, so I needed to find several sources on what sort of building materials I needed to use. This research led me into some quite detailed physics of sound, as I needed to amplify the sound of a drop of water without electricity. I also looked at the work of many other people who created sound sculptures, and even travelled to Portland to talk to the curator of the Japanese gardens there to discuss the construction of their suikinkutsu (Japanese water harp).

Example: Here is an example of a process I went through with a student that uses several of the tools above. She was interested in the music and culture of fin-de-sicle Vienna, and wanted to explore the relation of culinary life and musical life in this time period. We started with our textbook, which referenced Carl Schorske. The bibliography lists the book referenced, which then could be looked up on google books. After reading a few pages, it might be worth buying the book. This source could then lead to some keywords, cross references, and many other sources.

Types of sources

There are some very common types of sources. Here are a few of them:

  • Primary sources: in the arts, this is often the artwork itself. Note that artworks still are created in dialogue with cultural movements and other artists/scholars.
  • Secondary sources: most generally, academic work that participates in a dialogue dealing with ideas in primary or secondary sources.
  • Peer reviewed academic journal articles: great sources because they are easy to access and shorter than books.
  • Monograph: an academic book written by a single author.
  • Multi-authored academic book: It is common that books are written by many authors on a particular subject. These can be very helpful, as they usually provide multiple perspectives on the same topic.
  • Trade book: a book from a non-academic source. It may contain interesting information, but is not considered an authoritative source (yes, Malcolm Gladwell fits here).
  • Academic book review: most academic journals contain a section of book reviews. These reviews are written by academics, and provide summary and evaluation of new academic texts. These are very helpful resources. As an example, here is a book review I wrote.

3) Sifting through research sources and creating a research database

  • Prioritizing sources: By now you may have amassed a wealth of sources. Likely you have more sources than you can possible read before your paper is due, so you need to prioritize your sources. Start with the most relevant sources and read them carefully. This should give you a good grasp on the subject matter and even generate more keywords for you to find more sources on. When reading, create some sort of system for how you annotate your sources. If you have a source you can write in (not a library book), then mark up what you have read. This will help you find information you need later. If you cannot write in the book, use sticky notes. I talk about my own system of annotation below.
  • Quick reads: There will likely be several sources that you can read quickly, searching for relevant information. Annotate these sources as well. Find relevant information quickly through using the index. If the source ends up being useful, read it more carefully.
  • Creating your research database: Whenever I read something, I work under the assumption that it might come in handy again, so I have a system. When I read, I do the following:

  • Underline sentences important to the argument
  • Place an arrow beside underlined sections key to my own work
  • Place a star beside the most important ideas
  • Write notes about my own reactions
  • Write numbers in the margins when the author is making a numbered list of points

After reading, I take all of the quotations with arrows and copy them out so I can easily drop them into my paper. I also try to write brief summaries of everything I read so I do not have to spend as much time re-reading later, as well as my own thoughts about the source. I find this process very helpful for comprehending and retaining information about sources and for mining quotations that will be helpful for writing. With so many electronic resources nowadays, this process has altered slightly, as now I do a lot of reading with my iPad either with the Kindle app or with the Goodreader app (More on this here). In both of these cases, the highlighted sections can still be extracted and added to my database.

There are a few different ways of keeping a database. The pre-computer way was to write quotations and sources out on pieces of paper or 3x5 cards and keep them in a file. When writing, you can easily pull out the cards you need and visually rearrange them. You can also just create a word document and type the information there. Since my research database is so large, I use the program Bookends to manage my 1000+ sources and quotes (more on my process here. Jabref is a free open source bibliography manager that also works very well. You can also use it to generate your bibliography in many different formats. Zotero is another good choice. I highly recommend using a reference database, especially since the sources you read now might be something you want to look at again years from now. I wish I had started a system like this in my undergraduate studies.

4) Writing a paper

Now that you have done some preliminary research and narrowed down a topic, its time to write your paper. Note that rarely is it a process of doing all the research and then doing all the writing. Often when writing you will find a hole in your research and need to consult another source. Below are comments on each stage of writing a paper.


In most of my classes, I have my students write a proposal/abstract. A proposal should be written part way through the research work. Even if you are writing a paper for a course that does not require a proposal, consider writing one for your own benefit. Here are some tips for writing a proposal, along with excerpts from proposals submitted to me over the past couple years (many of which turned into great papers):

  • Begin with a one sentence summary of your paper. This summary should articulate your argument and serve as or relate to your thesis statement. You now should have gone beyond the big exploratory question and chosen a specific argument/approach/lens to your topic.
  • Explain why this thesis is interesting. What is your motive for writing? Who will your paper benefit?
  • Then, explain how you will develop your thesis. What sort of evidence will you use to argue for your thesis?
  • Finish with a bit about your own evaluation of the topic based on the research you have done. Note that you do not need have the definitive answer to your research question. You just need to explore and evaluate.
  • Include a bibliography of sources, split into sources you have looked at so far and sources you hope to look at.

Most of the time, I respond to proposals with one or more of the following questions:

  • Can you narrow the topic or thesis? What are your really interested in? Often topics are far too broad and my comment is ‘well, this sounds like great series of books, but might be too much to handle in a short paper.
  • Have you considered this source/point of view/connection? At this stage it really helps to get some feedback into what you should look into further.
  • What is it you are interested in? What do you want to explore or argue? Proposals sometimes lean towards historical overview or a seemingly objective description. For the historical overview, I try and ask the student what he or she is interested in and then encourage more research in that direction. Other times there are good topics that will turn into great papers once they are approached in a way that interests the student.

  • Examples of good topics that need to be narrowed (by varying degrees):
    • The evolution of the relationship between language and music took a dramatic turn in the 20th century.
    • The music written by composers who did not survive the holocaust should not solely be used as a tool to educate people about the horrors of the war. To limit the function of this music to a mere cultural education tool does a great disservice not only to the music itself but also to its composer and original performers, many of whom did not survive the genocide.
    • The system of copyright that we know today, while initially a good business model, is in need of a vast overhaul in order to benefit the creators of the arts.
    • The topic I have picked for my paper is this: the history of music in theatre and its transition to music in film, and how it effects the mood of the film and how the audience reacts to it.

I usually accompany these questions with a face to face discussion about the proposal, and the discussion often leads the student to more thinking and research and a refinement of the proposal before moving on to the next stage.

  • Examples of interesting historical topic areas that require an approach articulated in the form of a thesis:
    • I want to research John Cage and how he was influenced by Henry Cowell in his composition style.
    • During the Baroque period, the Greek tragic operas of L’Orfeo by Claudio Monterverdi and Armide by John-Baptiste Lully use music, dance and drama to convey emotion.
    • The western concert flute is a versatile instrument, the potential of which has not been adequately explored until the 20th century.
  • Example of a good topic that still requires an approach/argument:
    • I would like to explore the idea of music being used in the late 20th century as a tool for bringing “peace” between ethnic groups. This paper will focus primarily on the vision of Daniel Barenboim and Edward Said’s orchestra project: the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra.
  • Examples of good proposal first sentences:
    • How did Charles Ives’ conception of masculinity frame his view of the ‘proper’ role of music in a man’s life? [this question needs to be followed by an answer to the question in the form of a thesis]
    • Our plan is to create an installation that uses multiple stimulants to encourage the participant/viewer to yawn.

As you have likely figured out by now, the process of moving to a good paper topic involves:

  • Having some general idea of what you would like to explore
  • Generating some keywords and beginning research on the general topic
  • Deciding on a good framing question/statement for a proposal
  • Doing more research to confirm that there are academic research sources on your topic
  • Creating a thesis

Paper Outline

Creating an outline is key to writing a paper. Break your topic into sections, and write a short paragraph about every section of your paper. Good writing:

  • has a clear thesis. Most often the thesis is arguable, but sometimes is thematic or exploratory. The thesis is returned to after each argument. It is very common in editing to add sentences at the beginning and ends of sections to tie back to the thesis.
  • relates the thesis to other research. A common approach is to build and argument by presenting the work of others and arguing the gaps or problems in this research that makes the thesis compelling. Once gaps are shown, then new ideas/evaluations/theses can be presented.
  • has evidence to support the thesis. In general, paragraphs or sections are unified through an idea that relates to the thesis. What is crucial is how paragraphs connect to maintain a coherent narrative.

Please note that the idea of a ‘five paragraph essay’ is a construct used in high school. Papers can take all sorts of formats.

Write your draft

Write the draft, and then leave it for a short period of time. If you have done your research, try to find a significant amount of uninterrupted time to do the bulk of your writing. Writing (at least for me) is something that needs a bit of time to get into the flow.

One thing that I often am asked by first year students is what voice to write in. You are writing the paper, so make it clear when you are saying something and when you are drawing from another source. Always cite your sources, and be clear when you are making an evaluation based upon your research. Do not try and overreach by making claims that cannot be sustained. Don’t be afraid to make big claims, but back them up if you do. The world is a complex place, and you will not solve all of its problems in one paper. You are able to enter into a larger scholarly dialogue through your paper. Use a citation anytime you draw information from a source or directly quote the source.

Revision and Editing

This is the most undervalued step in undergraduate writing, and will likely improve your mark by a letter grade. Revision (seeing your work again) could involve major changes, while editing usually focuses on smaller mechanical changes. Most students only edit, but good writers do significant revision. Re-read your draft and ask yourself:

  • Does it flow? How well do the sections transition? Does the argument flow logically? Could the argument be better structured?
    • Does the end of each paragraph or section summarize what was presented and relate it back to the overall argument? Adding transition and summary sentences can really improve a paper.
  • Could something be expressed more clearly?
    • If you find long or complex sentences, simplify them.
    • One thing that can increase clarity is make sure to be specific. Sentence that start with ‘This’ (eg ‘This means that…’) are often extremely vague. Specific the ‘this’ (eg. ‘This evidence of connection between Van Halen and Baroque music means that…’). Certain instanced of the word ‘it’ can also be made more clear.
  • Did I do what I set out to do?
    • If you are writing an argumentative paper, do you think your argument might convince a skeptical reader?
  • Did I acknowledge sources where appropriate? To avoid plagiarism and examine best practices for citations, please look at this source. Note that I do not have a preference for a particular citation style (MLA, Chicago, APA, etc), but it is important that you choose a style, include all of the information, and remain consistent. See this resource for guidance on citation styles.
  • Did I clarify what my own argument is? Good citation means clearly identifying what other people say about the topic (a common mistake is turning an argument from a research source as fact). In an essay, you also need identify your own argument. Here are some templates that are helpful for clearly identifying what your sources say and what you are saying.

Something else that is very helpful is reading your paper out loud. You are bound to find all sorts of mechanical errors that you would not find otherwise. It can also be helpful to find a peer to read your paper aloud to. They might have some feedback on whether your argument is clear and whether the structure works.


Consider writing your introduction last. Oftentimes, the best introductions are written last. I often write a ‘placeholder’ introduction first, and then go back and completely rewrite it at the end. You already have your abstract and outline to guide the writing of your paper, so by leaving your introduction to the end you can make sure that you properly introduce what you actually wrote about and not just what you thought you might write about. Remember, writing a paper is a creative process. Even with the best planning and outline, your paper might lead to unexpected territory. Writing your introduction first will not allow for this additional exploration.

An introduction needs to do a few things:

  • Communicate what the paper is about: what is the question you are exploring? Use the question you refined in your proposal.
  • Let the reader know what the paper is not about: determine the limits of what you can deal with in the paper. This will save you from comments such as: ‘why did you not deal with such-and-such an idea or source?’
  • Communicate how the paper will unfold. Academic papers need a narrative (they need to start somewhere and move somewhere else), and this is your chance to introduce the narrative to your readers.
  • At least hint at your own evaluation of the topic.

The research and writing process can be very enjoyable, so have fun!