20090925-writing

No matter where you are in your intellectual journey, the ability to assemble and analyze large amounts of complex information is a skill that can pay large dividends both in monetary terms and in terms of your overall satisfaction with life.  What follows is a very short guide and template for writing excellent research papers.

Re-Evaluating Road-Crossing: The Chicken Was Pushed

A Short Guide to Writing a Research Paper

Abstract

The Abstract is usually 100-150 words long.  The abstract tells the reader what you have done and why it is important.  Your abstract tells the reader what you do, how you do it, and what it implies. Here, you’re saying the chicken was pushed, that you demonstrate this statistically or anecdotally, and that it implies we have to re-evaluate our understanding of chicken road-crossings.

I. Introduction

The introduction sets the stage for your analysis. You tell the audience what you are doing and why it is important.  An introduction here would say that previous generations of scholars believed that the chicken crossed the road to get to the other side.  Your paper shows that the chicken was pushed.  In the introduction, you give a brief outline of the argument and the evidence used to support it.  As much fun as it is to write long, twisting narratives filled with subtlety and nuance, it is important to remember that a research paper on a technical topic is not a mystery novel.  Your readers are not reading for leisure.  They are reading because they think your ideas are worth considering and factoring into their own research and decisions.

II. Literature Review

The literature review places your research in context.  You aren’t the first person to ask why the chicken crossed the road.  What questions do previous researchers ask?  What questions remain unanswered?  How does your idea fit? In this case, previous scholars have also argued that the turtle crossed the road “to get to the Shell station.”  Is this relevant for your research?  Why or why not?  As tempting as it is, don’t include too much in the literature review.  The literature review is a place to highlight relevant contributions that address the question you are asking and to show how your contribution either fills gaps in our knowledge by answering questions we haven’t answered yet or creates gaps in our knowledge by showing that something we thought we knew is false.  What does the reader take from the literature review?  Is it a sense of the important questions that others have asked and how your research helps answer them?  Or does the reader just come away with the knowledge that you’ve read a lot of stuff?  Revise the latter until it becomes the former.

III. Theory

Your theory lays out the logical reasons for why we might believe your hypothesis to be true. It also explains why other hypotheses are unlikely to be true.  Road-crossing is dangerous, and people have never explained what was on the other side that would have made it more attractive to the chicken.  We can’t rule out the hypothesis that the chicken was pushed, and there are a lot of plausible conditions under which this might be the best explanation.

IV. Evidence

Here you report and explain the evidence you will use to verify that the chicken was pushed.  Evidence can be statistical, anecdotal, narrative, or descriptive.  Remember that not all good evidence is statistical, and not all statistical evidence is good. Perhaps you can show that chicken road-crossings are correlated with something, or maybe you find the chicken’s personal papers in which he, in a diary and a series of letters, accuses the cow of pushing him into the road.

V. Conclusion

The conclusion summarizes your results and lays out very carefully exactly what needs to be done next. It is likely that your conclusion will be tentative.  However, a well-written conclusion will elucidate the next steps that need to be taken before we can be absolutely certain as to whether the chicken crossed the road of his own volition or whether he was pushed.

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