At the very outset of working on your paper, before you do any in-depth research or writing, you should determine the point of view you're going to take.
As you move further into the paper, you may adjust and change this viewpoint. But without an initial angle or orientation, you'll be at a severe disadvantage in producing a good piece of work. With an inadequately-thought-out theme, efficiency and speed in researching and writing a paper decline dramatically. In fact, you may end up with a completely disorganized piece of writing.
Here are some guidelines that will help you establish an initial point of view. As you employ this approach, it's help ful to draw a slash recall pattern containing branches with each of these major headings. Then, using the pattern, you can begin to think on paper by jotting down additional notes and sub-branches.
Identify your general topic. To settle on a topic for your paper, consider some of the possibilities from your general reading in the course. For example, Beth knew that she wanted to write about the pre-Civil War South, because she had enjoyed that part of the assigned reading the most. So she began to focus her thinking and additional preliminary reading on what she knew about this historical period.
Define your specific theme. Obviously, Beth's general topic had to be defined and limited. A twenty-page paper about the entire history of the antebellum South would be superficial, and frustrating to write. Volumes have been written about this subject.
So Beth began to narrow her topic down to a specific concept that was more appropriate for a 5,000-word treatment. Her goal: to be able to state her specific theme in one short phrase or sentence.
After referring to a couple of encyclopedias in addition to her textbooks and class notes, she decided that she would like to focus on the reasons the South had moved toward the conflict. Obviously, this was still a meaty subject. But it seemed limited enough to give her plenty of latitude for an in-depth discussion in a twenty-page paper.
Note: This process of defining a specific, limited theme may be the most important element in the successful research and writing of a school paper. So it's wise to take some extra time at this point to find just the right approach.
If your topic is too broad, you're going to get anxious and confused in attempting to organize and present too much material. But with a well-thought-out, appropriately delineated theme, you'll automatically be able to discard irrelevant research material and focus on your topic.
Being able to focus consistently this way on one viewpoint —an orientation that can be stated in a phrase or short sentence—is an invaluable organizing tool as you research, outline and write your paper.
Anticipate the general research locations where you expect to gather facts. Now that Beth had limited her theme to factors that caused the South to go to war, she knew that she had to target her research to a relatively limited time in history. She expected that her main work would involve library books, journal articles and other historical sources that dealt with the twenty to thirty years before the Civil War broke out.
As a kind of action plan, she included some notes on her recall pattern to identify major information sources. These included "school library"; "local public library"; "Mr. Jones's private records" (Mr. Jones, a friend of her family, was a Civil War buff); and "Civil War archives" (there was a special library and archive on the Civil War period near her home).
At the outset, seek to develop your own opinions. Every good paper includes the author's opinions about the subject under discussion. At this point, Beth hadn't come to any final conclusions about the reasons why the South went to war. But she had developed a few preliminary opinions from her class reading and lecture notes, which she recorded on her recall pattern. For example, she believed that Southerners' philosophical commitment to slavery was less important than the economic pressures they feared if they lost a source of cheap labor.
As you can see, the first steps in writing a good paper are quite similar to the initial purpose-setting and overview phases of efficient study and reading. Having a clear-cut viewpoint in mind will always make the student's life easier —and usually produce significantly better grades.
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