Approaching Research: Initial Questions, Finding Sources, Developing an ArgumentWriter's Web
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Initial Questions

When preparing to perform research on a particular topic, the initial questions outlined in principle two of the seven principles previously outlined must be given special attention: who is involved, what is at stake, when did it occur, where did it take place, and why is it important?

These questions, and others associated with the seven principles, should be carefully considered as you are researching your topic. The question then becomes, what is the best manner of approaching research?

Considering Sources

Any historian would agree that the key to a well-balanced research paper is the utility of and effective synthesis of both primary sources and secondary sources, both of which can be found using the resources page that lies in this handbook. What distinguishes primary sources from secondary sources, and in what ways are they used most effectively?

The general uses of primary and secondary resources are captured well by the words of Dr. Yellin: "[student researchers] need to keep an eye on secondary sources so that they can understand the context of what they are researching. Students often get bogged down in one or the other kind of sources: they either read too much by other historians and can't form their own ideas, or they cherry-pick primary sources without appreciating their larger significance."

Primary sources are physical objects or documents that were created or written during the time period in which you are researching. Examples include, but are not limited to,

  • Diaries
  • Letters
  • Government Documents
  • Contemporary Journal Articles, Newspapers, and Magazine Articles
  • Artifacts
  • Photographs
  • Speeches
  • Works of art: music or visual art

Secondary sources come in the form of scholarship that interprets or analyzes primary sources. Examples include, but are not limited to,

  • Academic books
  • Essays
  • Scholarly articles
  • Dissertations and conference papers

What is the best way of searching for and acquiring such research materials? Although a much wider list of potential resources lies on the resource page, Dr. Treadway recommends a list of his five favorite sources that he feels students should first consider:

1. Boatwright Library Catalog and the Interlibrary Loan System
2. JSTOR.org
3. ArticleFirst
4. Historical Abstracts
5. Lexis-Nexis Academic

If you are having trouble finding sources, contact a librarian at Boatwright or make a research appointment.

Developing your Argument: Organization and Thesis

Once a variety of sources have been considered and you have taken the time to organize your thoughts via notetaking, the writing process should proceed by creating an outline of your ideas. As Anthony Brundage notes in his Going to the Sources: A Guide to Historical Research and Writing, "Although any outline you come up with at this point will necessarily be tentative and undeveloped, it will nonetheless launch you into the process of thinking structurally and help you to direct your research efficiently."

As Brundage attests, the outline will allow you to focus your argument and develop a powerful thesis. The thesis should consist of a central argument that binds the ideas of your paper together and professes a novel idea or approach to your subject. It should resemble a "road map to your paper" that tells your reader what you will be arguing and how you will be arguing it. Ask yourself, "What exactly do I mean to say in my paper, in one or two simple sentences?"

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