1. Research your topic. Depending on your topic, you may find information online or in the library, or both. For older topics, you may consider using a resource like ASTOR, which will often provide PDF versions of full articles in your web browser. Online research is valid, but must be from a respected source. (For example, a BBC Documentary on YouTube is likely well-researched and dependable; an amateur homemade video may not be.) Wikipedia can be an excellent starting point for finding sources (often listed in the “Notes” section at the end of the article) or information to be validated elsewhere, but should not be considered a dependable primary source due to its volatility. Remember that ALL ideas and information that are not your original work should be cited with a source for that information. Keeping careful notes — in a notebook, in a word processing file, on your smartphone, or using a program like Rooter — can be very, very helpful in this process.
2. Write your paper. Easy, right? Okay, okay, maybe not. While there’s no one right way to do it, here is an approach that I have found makes a well-structured, easy to read paper:
- Write a thesis. A thesis is a single sentence that sums up the thing you’re trying to convince the reader of. It can be something fairly general and simple, like “The invention of the flute was an important event in the world of music because…” or something more specific (and imaginative) like “The theme song of the PBS series Clifford the Big Red Dog can be seen as an evolution of Mark Motherboard’s earlier work in the new wave band Devi because…” Your thesis does not have to be something no one has ever thought of before, and it doesn’t have to be earth-changing. Of course, original and imaginative theses make for great, publishable papers, but that’s not a requirement for this paper.
- Based on your research, come up with three or four ways to support your thesis. These just need to be things that can show your reader that your thesis is right. If you go with a broad thesis, like “X is interesting and unique because…”, then you just need to find three or four ways in which X is interesting and/or unique. You’ll want to be able to back these up with things other people have written or said, or things you can point to in a recording or a score, and be ready to cite this evidence in your paper.
- Construct an outline. Here’s the structure I recommend:
- Introduction: Enough background information so the reader will be able to understand your thesis. Answer some basic questions: who, what, where, when, why and how. No need to make this very long. The last sentence of your introduction should be your thesis statement, which should include a quick summary of your three or four points of support. For example: The advent of the recording studio changed music culture by allowing widespread and on-demand access to music, allowing the refinement of musical works through studio engineering, and introducing the era of the record company and its influence on musicians.
- Body: In this section, you should elaborate upon your three or four points of support, one by one, in the order they are presented in the thesis. Of course, be sure to cite your ideas with materials you’ve found in your research. Research doesn’t need to stop, of course; having refined your argument, you may want to go back and look for more data to back up your arguments. Every sentence should tie back to your thesis… if it doesn’t, it’s likely better off to leave it out… or at least put it into a footnote so it doesn’t interrupt the flow of your paper.
- Conclusion: Having laid out your argument, quickly sum up the ideas in the paper — essentially, restate your thesis — and you’re done. It’s tempting here to get misty-eyed and wax poetic, but there’s no reason to be grandiose! Just wrap things up and start proofreading.
- Fill in the details. If you have a decent outline, this part will be a piece of cake; it’s simply a matter of fleshing out the outline into actual sentences and whatnot. I think it’s easiest to add footnotes as you go, rather than going back and adding them afterward, although either way works… just as long as you do it!