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Writing the Research Paper

Unit IV: Organizing your Research

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Unit IV: Organizing Your Research

Order and simplification are the first steps toward the mastery of a subject—the actual enemy is the unknown.

Thomas Mann, The Magic Mountain

Introductory Remarks

We now have either a great stack of note cards or a computer document filled with notes and keyword lines. The next step in our research is to identify the main areas on which we've been able to find information. These will, with some adjustment, become the main points of our research paper, and the detailed information will form the subpoints and text of the paper. We are not quite to the outline stage yet, but this is a step in that direction.

Points for this Unit

Classification and Organization

We have two tasks ahead of us: to organize the information and determine what goes into the actual paper. This involves three kinds of evaluation.

Part I. Classification

This activity can be rather quick and mechanical or it can be very difficult, depending on your topic and the information you've been able to identify. What we want to do here is look at the actual information itself, and see what you have to work with. If you've been fortunate, the information you have will fall into categories that you expect and most of the areas you anticipated will be covered.

  1. Go through your individual notes, and list all the keywords you used to describe or identify them.
  2. Now try and group the keywords together. This is the tricky part, because depending on how you think of your information, you may come up with more than one set of groupings that works. You will need to think about different approaches to the material. For example, if you have an historical subject, you will want to consider whether you should group events together chronologically, geographically, by the group or person involved, or perhaps by their effects on a particular aspect of society, such as the economy, scientific thought, the arts, demographics of people. Your choice of grouping will depend on the relationships you want to emphasize in answering your research question.
  3. Go through each group looking for terms that are closely related, and mark any pairs that are nearly identical. Unless your point turns on some subtle difference of the pair, reduce the number of categories by choosing the most representative one, and update all the cards or notes that used to others to use the preferred term.
  4. In each group, pick a term or phrase (or make one up) that includes or describes all the other terms in the group. These are your "category titles" and will eventually become the main points in your outline.
  5. Look at the category titles. Will the information you have address all the points you will need to make to answer your research question? Is information missing in any critical area? If so, another trip to the library (or the internet) is in order.

Part II. Hierarchy (the informal outline)

Now we want to try to see what relationships exist between the categories we've come up with.

  1. Look at the groups you created in part I. Do some groups fit within others or together within a new "supergroup"? Create the super group, but don't lose the headers of the subgroups.
  2. If you have more than four terms in any one group, see if you can come up with two subgroups that distinguish between the terms.
  3. Check your resulting groups and make sure that you are using a consistent method of group similar things. If you are grouping chronologically for economic effects of an event, but geographically for the impact on religion, consider choosing one method for both areas, and rearrange as necessary. Parallel groupings make it easier for you to organize your paper and much easier for your reader to follow any comparisons you want to make.
  4. You should now have several branching systems with a main group at the top splitting into more detailed groups below. They are not in any particular order, but you may want to see whether the top levels fall into a natural sequence. Is one more "introductory" or general? Do others identify specific examples you want to discuss? Number the top terms in the order in which you could logically discuss them in your paper, and write down the reason for your order.

Part III. Importance

There is often a temptation to confuse items on the bottom of your "hierarchy" with importance. Be careful to distinguish between the two kinds of criteria. In most research papers, the details wind up at the bottom of the hierarchy, but at least some of them are absolutely necessary to supporting your arguments properly.

As you go through your notes for the third time, read each one carefully, and decide which of the following levels of importance you attach to it. Using initials or color codes or some other method, mark each of your notes. with its "importance" grade.

Part IV: Completing the Research with Detailed Notes

By now, you may realize that you have some holes in your research. You should revisit your research sources, and if necessary, check new ones to fill in any missing details. For example, your research to this point may show that your historically important person was at Padua University in 1497, when he published a work following traditional perspectives on the role of mathematics in science, and then at Rome in 1518, when he published a completely new organization of the scientific disciplines with a radically new approach to the role of mathematics. You obviously need to look more closely at what happened in the interim.

As you work with sources, you have two options for including the information you find.

If in looking at your notes, you decide that you need an exact quotation but do not have a complete one, revisit your sources and get the quotation.

Assignment for this Unit

Read through the above discussion carefully and be sure that you understand it.


  1. Follow the steps above to classify your notes. List the resulting keyword groups and their category titles.
  2. Follow the steps above to put your keyword groups into a hierarchical order and create an informal outline in the following format:
    1. Title: keyword1, keyword2, keyword3
      1. Title: keyword1, keyword2, keyword3
      2. Title: keyword1, keyword2, keyword3
    2. Title: keyword1, keyword2, keyword3
  3. Assign each title and keyword an "importance" category.
  4. Identify any holes in your research and note where they should go; begin researching them and include them in your next unit's work.
  5. Your actual notes are associated with one or more keywords in the informal outline. For each note, identify the most appropriate title:keyword combination. Reorder your notes to fit the order of your informal outline. (Skip any notes that can be associated only with "ignored" titles or keywords).
  6. Double-check the notes you just skipped: are any crucial details left out by ignoring these notes? If so, adjust your informal outline to include them.
  7. For each note, determine whether you should summarize the information in it or quote it exactly.

Enter your response directly into the Scholars Online Writing the Research Paper Moodle forum for this unit. Review the submissions from your fellow students and offer constructive criticism to help them refine their ideas.