Writing That Big Research Paper

Many homeschool diploma programs and English curriculae require a seven-to-ten-page research paper. This is often met by parents with a "You are going to do this whether you like it or not" attitude, and by students with thinly disguised fear and trepidation, often manifested by a whiny attitude. However, research papers can be fun as well as educational, if approached as something positive instead of negative, and if certain steps are taken to keep it from being a nightmare.

The Preparation

It is important to do some preparation before sitting down to actually write a research paper. The last thing you want to happen is to be a couple of weeks from the end of the school year, and realize your student doesn't have enough information, or has a poorly chosen topic, and that they are going to have to start all over again. Here are some tips to lay down a good foundation for the research paper.

  • Choose a topic that interests the student. Otherwise it is going to be torture to get them to do anything. Don't subject them to a "hot" topic that bores them, or force them to write on something because it's good for them. It won't be good for either of you. If they are fascinated by something, research will be fun.
  • Choose a topic that has lots of information available on it. A good rule of thumb is if you can find two good, well-written books and at least one other source on the subject, it's a good one. Otherwise, pick something else. Don't start researching until you have these resources picked out. Don't ever succumb to the temptation to write a one-source research paper. It has now become a book report.
  • Have the student read one book on the topic straight through, and take notes while writing. This will give them a good base-knowledge of the subject, and the notes will provide a good starting point for the paper. Be sure to have them note the page numbers that the notes came from.
  • Have the student focus their topic. This will limit the length of the paper and keep them from becoming overwhelmed. "World War II in Europe" is far too broad. "The Battle of the Bulge" is much more focused.
  • Try not to use too much information from the internet. Start with books and magazine articles Have three paper sources, then fill out the topic from reputable internet sources if needed.

Writing the Paper

Acutally writing the paper is probably the hardest part for many students. They may know their subject inside and out, but then experience writer's block. Here are some tips to keep them focused and make the writing process go smoother.

  • Make an outline. Start with a few points they want to cover, no more than four or five. Three is best. Then develop these points in outline form. Do this before they begin to write.
  • If they are having trouble beginning the paper, have the student start with the main body of the paper, then write the introduction.
  • Set goals, but be flexible. Shoot for a page a day when actually writing, but if the student is frustrated, let them stop. Things will go better if they aren't forced to write.
  • If the student wants to type the paper, let them, but have them double-space, and print a hard copy to edit. Make sure they understand that their first attempt is not a final draft, and involve them in the editing process. This is a learning experience.
  • Have somebody besides you, the parent, edit the paper. The student may take someone else's criticism better, especially if English is not your own strong point.

Remember, the last thing you want to happen in the writing process is to convince your child that they hate to write. If they like art, let them draw pictures to include in the paper. If you can take a field trip that has to do with the paper, do it. Encourage them to share their paper with other family members, and praise them for progress. Many people are very self-conscious about another person reading what they write, and it helps if they get positive feedback. Don't let the student get away with poor grammar or sloppy construction of a sentence or thought, but don't be overly critical either. Above all, be creative and keep the process fun.

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