This section is designed to help you get started on your paper - how to organize your research, time and thoughts into a usable outline that will form the structure of your paper. For a downloadable PDF of this material, click here.
Topics on this page
2. Get clarification on your assignment
3. Allocate your time wisely
4. Go to the library!
5. Start with the reference collection
6. Journals and monographs
7. Use the web... sparingly
8. Read in order to focus your research question
9. Identify primary and secondary sources
10. Be a critical reader
11. Ask good questions
12. Underline important info
13. Take good notes
15. Organize your notes
1. Get to know the Tyndale Library and its resources (including those accessible from off-campus).
b. Books (monographs)
c. Periodicals (journals and magazines) including e-journals;
d. 360 Search: This allows you to search the library databases and the OnTRAC catalogue all at once, delivering clustered results. It provides access to abstracts, periodicals, books, e-books, reference articles etc. You can search all resources or select the databases you wish to search).
2. Get clarification or explanation from your professor about what is expected in the assigned paper.
a. What type of paper is being expected?
b. What types of resources need to be consulted?
c. What kinds of primary sources are expected? A primary source is a text such as the Bible itself, the actual sermons by Charles Wesley, writings by Augustine, diaries, letters, manuscripts, and so on.
d. What kinds of secondary sources are expected? A secondary source is a text such as a commentary on the Bible, or Professor Shepherd’s article giving an interpretation of Wesley’s sermons. Secondary sources include specialized encyclopedia and dictionaries written by scholars in the field.
e. Be sure to do the assignment that is actually assigned (e.g., conform to length specifications, or if the paper calls for addressing strengths and weaknesses of a given position or approach, don’t neglect to cover both strengths and weaknesses).
f. Professors want to read good papers and want students to succeed, so look at them as your advocates rather than your adversaries!
3. Practical advice: Allocate your time wisely to allow adequate opportunity for research and writing.
a. Do not rush the research stage of your paper, since the qualities of your thinking in the research stage will determine the quality of your end product from the writing stage. A good paper needs to be well researched.
b. Research papers are not (1) “simply a compilation of quotations”; (2) “simply rewriting other people’s words and ideas”; and (3) “a sermon” (Vyhmeister, Quality Research Papers, p. 5). The goal is to digest the material at hand, analyze it, and make it your own, so that you can write a convincing paper that presents compelling evidence in support of a clearly-stated conclusion. This process of “digestion” takes time.
c. Do not rush the writing stage of your paper, since ideas “gel” when you put fingers to keyboard, and since the end-product is what the professor actually sees (and marks). A good paper needs to be well-written as well as well-researched.
d. It is absolutely essential to proofread your paper at least twice before you turn it in. If your many hours of work are presented in a careless manner (e.g., lots of spelling errors or missing pages), then you will not make a good impression. Spell checkers are very useful, but they will not detect errors such as “great/grate” or “too/to/two” (i.e., words spelled correctly but used incorrectly).
e. If you have not written many research papers in your academic career, leave yourself more time than you would ordinarily think, just to be safe.
f. With experience, the research and writing process gets more efficient.
4. Start your research in the Tyndale Library.
a. The Tyndale Library has been developed over many years by professional librarians and faculty so that the collection and electronic resources provide the resources needed to write excellent essays for Seminary classes.
b. The school’s first priority for acquisitions to the collection is materials needed to support our courses and your assignments.
c. Implication: think twice about starting your research on the Internet unless your professor has given you specific links to work with.
5. Begin with the reference collection.
a. Use our specialized encyclopedias and dictionaries to get an overview of the topic (e.g., for a topic in Biblical Studies, use the Anchor Bible Dictionary; see also the Religion volumes in the Gale Virtual Reference Library).
b. Your first goal in the research process is to become familiar with the subject matter, learn its important terms and ideas, and grasp the overall “shape” of the topic at hand.
c. Reference entries are written by recognized experts on the subject matter, and since they are carefully edited by scholars and publishers, they are generally highly credible and trustworthy (but not always perfect).
d. Specific entries normally include a bibliography of major monographs on the topic, and sometimes even seminal journal articles.
6. Move next to monographs and periodicals.
a. Reference work entries may lead you to major monographs. Be sure not to miss the most important books on the topic you are examining. Aim to get a handful of really good books which discuss the subject.
b. Practical tip: Ask your professor for advice about which books would be best to consult in preparation of your paper. Is there a “classic” treatment of your topic that you simply cannot miss? They may be able to point you to a valuable resource right away, which could save you lots of time.
c. Check the OnTRAC library catalogue for Tyndale’s monograph holdings by using subject headings.
d. Check on-line databases (try a 360 Search) for periodical articles dealing with the topic. Many full-text articles are available on-line, to supplement the library’s paper holdings. Be sure to use high-quality articles in recognized journals.
e. Normally it is best to pay special attention to the leading journals in the field rather than popular magazines. If you have questions about which are the better quality journals, ask your professor or the librarians.
f. Your chief task at this stage is to locate the most relevant, high-quality resources you can find on your topic.
7. Consult the Web only as needed to supplement your findings.
a. Beware the temptation to go to the Web too soon just because it is fast and easily accessible from your desk.
b. Warning! The Web is “unedited” and “unsupervised” territory, which can generate thousands of useless “hits” to your search, and waste lots of valuable time. Avoid older, lower-quality materials which are easily accessible on the Web simply because they are now in the Public Domain.
c. Critical scrutiny is essential—you need to use all your available knowledge and skills to figure out if the source and information is credible and trustworthy (e.g., someone with suitable credentials and genuine knowledge of the subject).
d. The Internet is best for finding primary sources (e.g., official documents by the Pope, or to look at the Dead Sea Scrolls) or locating information on current topics (e.g., how various leaders have responded to some contemporary issue). Full-text journal articles are also very useful.
e. Some on-line journals (i.e., those that exist only on the Web and not on paper) are peer-reviewed just like “paper journals”, but others are not (see our ejournal databases, esp. ATLA and ProQuest); another source is Google Scholar). Peer review is a process whereby scholars in a given field serve as editors who evaluate the articles before they are published, thereby assuring a high level of quality control for the material. If a source from the Web has not peer-reviewed, it still could contain accurate information, but you have less certainty about its quality.
f. Practical tip: Ask your professor for advice if they could recommend any good websites related to the topic (e.g., see Dr. Neufeldt-Fast’s Virtual Reading Rooms designed for Tyndale’s MTS Modular Program). For screen snapshots, bibliographic management and notetaking while reading the texts below, Zotero is highly recommended ("a free, easy-to-use Mozilla Firefox extension to help you collect, manage, and cite your research sources").
8. Begin to read the materials assembled in order to focus your topic on a specific,
relevant research question.
a. Your task at this stage is to find a topic that is workable—not too large, not too narrow. It must be capable of being researched with the materials available.
Example: “Is conversion important?” – much too vague and uninteresting!
Example: “What does the Bible say about conversion?” – still too broad.
Example: “How does Jonathan Edwards understand the process of conversion?” – still too big for a 15 page paper, but on the right track.
Example: “How does Jonathan Edwards understand the role of the Holy Spirit in the process of conversion?” – just right for a 15 page paper.
b. Read the materials through to get an overview of what is being said.
c. Aim to identify one clear, simple and relevant research question as the focus for your paper. Finding this research question is vitally important because it allows you to have a specific question that you seek to answer in your paper.
d. A specific, relevant research question allows you to sort the assembled research materials – only those that have a bearing on your question need be “kept on the front burner” of your research.
e. Practical tip: Once you have done of digging for relevant resources and are working to identify your research question, you could seek some guidance from your professor. Go to them, or send them an email, and ask, “I was thinking that X would be a good research question to address in my paper. Does that sound like a promising question?”
9. Identify important primary and secondary sources for your paper.
a. Normally, professors at Tyndale Seminary expect you to engage a primary source text. Fear not: as C.S. Lewis commented, reading Plato is much easier than understanding people who write about Plato.
b. Locate the secondary articles that help you answer your research question. Keep your focus—do not be distracted into interesting territory that is “off topic” for your purposes.
10. Be an active, critical reader.
a. Critical reading is an exercise in critical thinking (involving careful analysis).
b. Critical thinking is not being negative, harsh, nit-picking or fault-finding.
c. Critical thinking is a rational process of making analytical and evaluative judgments based on evidence and supported by reasons.
d. The goal of critical reading is “not only to understand what is being said explicitly but to see as well why it is being said” (James Sire, How to Read Slowly, my emphasis).
e. Work at discerning the author’s argument.
f. An argument in the academic sense is not something quarrelsome and contentious.
g. An argument is a series of statements giving reasons for belief: argument move from premises to conclusions (what is argued for).
11. Ask lots of good questions as you read:
Fifteen questions to assist critical reading (Ron Fry).
a. Is there a clear message communicated throughout?
b. Are the relationships between the points direct and clear?
c. Is there a relationship between your experience and the author’s?
d. Are the details factual?
e. Are the examples and evidence relevant?
f. Is there consistency of thought?
g. What is the author’s bias or slant?
h. What is the author’s motive?
i. What does the author want you to believe?
j. Does this correspond with your own beliefs or experiences?
k. Is the author rational or subjective?
l. Is there a confusion between facts and feelings?
m. Are the main points logically ordered?
n. Are the arguments and conclusions consistent?
o. Are the explanations clear?
12. Underline your copies of materials while reading—but never mark in a library book or journal!
a. Underlining also involves the kinesthetic sense and assists memory – get
b. Underline only the most important information (10% of text).
c. Write in the margins of your books to note items of interest to which you can
return later. Note key issues or ideas, with page numbers, on the back pages of
the book so you can find them again later.
d. Highlight the thesis statement of a paragraph or section.
e. Mark passages you don’t understand or statements that raise questions for you.
f. The task at this stage is to personalize the materials—you are working through
them, pen in hand, with an eye to a specific research question for your paper. The challenge of research is to make the materials “your own” and to allow them to stimulate your own thinking. An implication of this is that you could read and underline a given article or chapter for a paper on one topic, but go back to that same source a year or two later for research on a different topic – and when you go back to it, you might underline very different ideas or quotations, given the nature of the new topic being considered.
g. Develop your own system of markings and underlining – it needs to make
sense to you, but no one else!
h. Find a place and technique to note any important ideas, quotes or topics dealt
with in the book or article that are especially relevant to the paper you are writing.
13. Certain techniques can assist the research process as you take notes.
a. Make an outline of each of your sources as part of your notetaking. If a given text doesn’t include a natural outline, develop one in order to grasp its structure.
b. Maxim: “The more difficult the book, the more necessary the outline.” If you have a primary source that is quite challenging reading, but essential to your research, be sure to take the time to outline it as a way to gain deeper understanding of its arguments and supporting evidence.
c. Jot down terminology you don’t understand (e.g., inside a book’s back cover) to be looked up later. Be sure to get clarity about key words, archaic phrases and technical jargon being used by the author.
d. Write down memorable quotes you might want to use in an essay (maybe 3 X 5 card or on your computer) or use a note-taking tool like Zotero.
e. Sometimes it helps to write a one-paragraph summary of an entire chapter of a book you are using.
14. Plan to read your key materials at least three times in the research stage.
a. First reading: what is the author saying? Your task is to understand “what is said” and the conclusions being drawn. Reading for “what” should happen in the early stages of your research. This level of reading can be undertaken at a normal rate of reading speed and shows a familiarity with the literature on your topic.
b. Second reading: why is the author saying what she is saying? Your task is to understand “why this is being said” and the evidence being given in support of the conclusions. Reading for “why” should happen in the middle stage of your research. This level of reading should be undertaken by reading quite slowly and
builds an understanding of the literature on your topic.
c. Third reading: why does Smith say X and Jones say Y about my topic? Your task is to grasp similarities and differences between different interpreters of the topic. Reading for “comparisons” should happen in the latter stages of your research. Where and why do people agree or disagree about the answer to your
research question? This level of reading builds toward a mastery of the literature on your topic.
d. Practical tip: Get as much mileage as possible from your high-quality sources. There is more value in concentrating on fewer sources at greater depth than working with many sources at a superficial level.
15. Organize your notes on the research materials into an outline—a proposed method.
a. A key intermediate step before you write is to organize your notes from your reading into a usable outline of your findings. Don’t attempt to outline your paper right away—outline your research findings, then edit them into the paper outline.
b. Begin to list your main findings and key ideas in outline form (I, II, III, etc.).
c. Fill in supporting evidence for these ideas (A, B, C, etc.).
d. Insert quotations from sources in the outline (be sure not to lose the reference, since you will need it for a footnote or endnote).
e. Sit back and look at your research findings. What ideas are becoming well-developed with solid supporting evidence? What ideas are undeveloped and lacking in substantial support? (Drop them.)
f. Edit your outline of research findings into a shorter outline for your essay by deciding how many points have sufficient support to be included in the writing stage, and where more research is needed.
g. Some good ideas will not find their way into your final paper—in fact, a strong indicator that you have done your research well is when you have more good points in mind than you can actually use in your paper, given the assignment’s stipulations about length.
h. Keep expanding your essay outline by filling in more supporting evidence, more quotations from your research. Some writers simply continue expanding their outline until the paper is virtually complete, which means the writing stage can be focused primarily on actually writing the essay (e.g., providing transitions
between ideas, presenting the material with a readable flow of ideas) rather than assembling the materials to get ready to write.
Continue to tips on writing your paper.