Writing the Research Paper: A Series in Four Parts
Writing the Research Paper, Part III: Proving Your Point
by Susan Wise Bauer
Contrary to what most college freshmen think, you shouldn’t write a paper by sitting down at a blank computer screen and starting to type. The actual writing of the research paper belongs to the third and final stage of rhetoric, called elocutio (presenting the argument with style and clarity). Before writing, the high school student needs to master the first two stages of rhetoric — inventio and dispositio.
In Part II of this series, I suggested that the student spend several weeks in prereading before deciding on a topic and formulating a thesis statement. Once he’s got a thesis statement, he needs to be able to defend his thesis with logic, facts, and historical evidence. The process of arranging supporting information into the proper order for a persuasive argument is called dispositio.
Now it’s time for the student to decide on the major points of his argument and to make notes about the information he’ll need to support them. Note that the whole process of dispositio will fall to the ground unless he has a good thesis statement. A thesis is a proposition that must be defended, a statement that can be either proved or disproved, or an assertion that has to be supported by evidence. If the thesis is too vague, too obvious, or too broad, it’ll be impossible to prove through the use of evidence, and dispositio will become almost impossible.
By this point, the student should have done a fair amount of prereading. He should have a stack of books, full of strips of paper marking places he found interesting, and several sheets of paper covered with notes he jotted down during his reading (see Part II). He should now glance back over his notes and the marked places in his books. From this information, he should make an outline covering the main points of his argument. These are the facts his reader will have to believe in order to be convinced.
The outline should be very basic, only three or four points long, with each point assigned a Roman numeral. If, for example, the student began reading about the Seleucids, and eventually narrowed his subject down to the Seleucid ruler Antiochus, he might decide that the focus of his paper will be Antiochus’s desecration of the Temple. But “Antiochus desecrated the Temple” isn’t a thesis statement — it’s just a statement of fact. So he’ll need to ask, “Why?” or “What happened as a result?” Eventually, he should reach a thesis statement, such as “Antiochus’s religious delusions ruined his hold on his empire.” Now he can look back through his materials and decide how to support this thesis. For each part of the thesis statement, he needs, once again, to ask, “Why?” or “How do I know?”
His preliminary outline might look like this:
I. Antiochus suffered from religious delusions.
II. These delusions kept him from paying attention to political problems such as taxation.
III. These delusions caused him to treat his subjects with unnecessary cruelty.
IV. Loss of political power and loss of support from his subjects ruined his hold on his empire.
Each point in this outline should support the thesis. Before the student can prove that Antiochus’s religious delusions ruined his empire, he has to prove that these delusions existed. He also has to give specific ways in which the delusions damaged Antiochus’s ability as a ruler.
The points in the outline, like the thesis itself, should be statements that require proof. In our example, each point needs information attached to it in order to convince the reader. If Antiochus had religious delusions, what were they? What are a couple of events that demonstrate his inattention to political problems? When was he cruel, and why? These are “mini-theses,” statements which support the main thesis and themselves are supported by facts.
Once the student has formulated these major points, he should write each one at the top of a separate sheet of paper. Now he’s ready to collect the supporting facts he needs.
The classic way of collecting information for a research paper is to write down quote and general information on three by five cards, each card marked with the title of the book used and the author’s last name. The student should go back through the books he used for pre-reading. In each place where he put a marker, he should evaluate whether or not the information supports one of his main points. If so, he should jot down on the notecard either a paraphrase of the idea in the book, or an exact quote, along with the page number where the information is found. (Exact quotes should be enclosed in quotation marks; paraphrases shouldn’t be. But even a paraphrase, if it involves an idea which is original to the writer rather than “general information” about historical events, should be footnoted. And don’t forget those quotation marks. Recent examples of plagiarism in the work of noted historians shows how easy it is to copy down a quote and then, much later, mistake it for an original thought and use it in a paper without proper documentation.)
On each card, the student should put the Roman numeral of the outline where the information belongs. (If, for example, he writes down the details of a vision that Antiochus once had, he would write “I” at the top of the card.)
There’s no particular reason why the student shouldn’t do this on a computer. Notecards have traditionally been used because the student can shuffle them around as he works on the flow of his argument, but since the cut-and-paste function on a word processor has exactly the same effect, he can type up his quotes and paraphrases instead. But don’t forget those quotation marks — word processing makes it even simpler to plagiarize by accident.
Once the student has collected information (don’t overdo it — four to six sources are plenty for a ninth grade paper, six to eight for a tenth grade paper), he should put the cards for each Roman numeral into a pile (or cut and paste all of his information into the proper place beneath each point in the outline), and use this information to develop a more detailed outline.
I. Antiochus suffered from religious delusions.
A. He thought he was the god Zeus.
1. He retreated to his estate to practice being divine.
2. He demanded that his courtiers worship him.
Each of these points is based on a fact discovered in reading and jotted onto a card.
This process works equally well for papers not based on historical facts. The student writing a literature paper might select as a thesis, “Jane Austen’s novels are great because they highlight the triumph of character over circumstances.” An outline of major points might look like this:
I. In Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth’s honesty and lack of arrogance lead to a good marriage.
II. In Persuasion, Anne Elliot’s faithful service to her family over ten years finally results in her marriage to Captain Wentworth.
III. Jane Austen’s own circumstances were poor, so she felt the need to exalt character over circumstance.
Each one of these major points is connected to the thesis statement, because each one demonstrates a way in which character triumphs over circumstances. Each point also needs to be supported with examples. The student should now glance back through Pride and Prejudice, noting the places where Elizabeth demonstrates honesty and lack of arrogance. These should be written on 3×5 cards (or typed onto the computer) and marked with the Roman numeral I.
Once these cards are made up, the student should put them into order (all the I’s together, all the II’s, and all the III’s). He should then organize the gards in each section into a logical sequence. For a history research paper, this will generally be chronological; the student who collects examples of Antiochus’s bizarre behavior will probably want to put them into the order in which they occurred. For the Jane Austen paper, Elizabeth’s honest acts should all be placed together; her actions that show lack of arrogance should be placed in a separate pile.
Now the student has a thesis, a basic outline, and all the supporting information he’ll need to prove each point. He’s ready to write with grace and clarity — something we’ll discuss in the final section of this series.
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