What a research paper should not be:
The first mistake a student often makes in approaching a research-based assignment is to assume that the task this time involves identifying an "issue," that is, one of those debate topics typical of TV talk shows: alcoholism, UFOs, abortion, the ozone layer, spotted owls, mainstreaming, date rape, and so on. Next, this student, a week before the paper's due date, looks through a recent edition of Readers' Guide to Periodical Literature and jots down references to the first few articles available in Time, Christianity Today, and Sports Illustrated. When writing the paper, this student offers a "thesis" paragraph that merely identifies the topic amid lots of filler, followed by summaries of the articles one by one with hefty and pointless quotation, and a tack-on conclusion usually to the tune of "[issue X] is a big problem in society today and something must be done." This student slides the paper under the instructor's door a few hours after it is due near the end of the semester, studies for that infinitely more important killer Chem final, revels in winter or summer break (woo), and totally can't believe a D in English when final grades arrive.
Facts do not "speak for themselves." The research paper is not a "report," nor is it an argumentative paper crammed with factoids. Like all writing, it is a way of communicating an idea, not just facts, from one person to another. A research paper is a special mode of this communication, a mode that requires that the writer take an authoritative stance and present both the factual information and an interpretation of those facts. Too often, "reporting" the information makes the paper boring, disabling that paper as a communicative tool. However, certain strategies for presenting information can help your writing avoid sounding like someone has haphazardly listed lots of facts and references.
How to start a research paper:
Start a research paper as you would start any other writing project. Discover what you are interested in writing about, within the guidelines of the assignment. Your writing is not going to be very good if you have no interest in the subject. When exploring your ideas, bombard the subject with questions of all sorts, narrowing down a possible thesis all the time. Jot down notes and thoughts, even words and phrases that come to mind regarding the subject. Consider what should be covered in a paper on the subject, what needs to be explained. After all this is done, and this is a significant part of the work on the project, begin to look for helpful information.
Realize that your paper should ultimately add a new idea to the wealth of printed material produced by our forebears. (If the paper were just a rehashing of other people's ideas, we'd read their writings instead.)
The purpose of supporting information:
We don't use facts to create a paper, we use them to support it. Supporting information is used to provide a writer with an authority that he or she may not have otherwise. Part of your job is to convince the reader that you know what you are talking about. Quoting other people's work on the subject shows the reader that your thoughts have validity and therefore your writing has validity. Think of the process this way: a conversation is going on about a particular subject (possibly within the framework if not directly on the topic itself). You listen in to gather what it is you need to understand about the state of that conversation, and seek to join in. It would make no sense to repeat what others have already said, nor do you just come out of left field with a blast of facts or of opinion. Instead, you want to acknowledge what has been said so far, but only in order to launch your own thoughts. This is what happens in the research writing process--the conversation simply takes place in print.
Supporting information is not the most important part of the paper! The most important part of the paper is your idea and the way that you express it. This is where so many papers that use supporting information go astray. When the writer finds his or her thoughts expressed elsewhere, he or she often lets them become the most important part of the paper. Don't let this happen to your writing.
How to gather useful sources:
Once you have a good idea of where your paper is going you can begin to look for support. Having a focused topic allows you to weed out a lot of superfluous information. Sessions in the library are valuable if you have a direction in mind, if you know the kinds of sources you'll need. Pay attention to what indexes cover your type of topic. Recognize the important difference between magazines and journals, and which would lend the most validity to your discussion.
Later, if you have a point that you feel is weak and needs some bolstering then research that point. Often, when you are already well into a paper, you may think of a point you want to make and find that you need to go do a bit more research. We're never finished researching; we just stop.
How to arrange all this information gathered:
This is entirely up to you. You need to find the best way to keep yourself and your information organized. Here are some suggestions:
After this, get it all together and start writing. One sure-fire way to convince readers that you have not thought through the subject is to summarize your sources one by one throughout the paper. So instead, organize the discussion of the subject yourself first; then draw from the sources only as they relate to the components of your discussion. Again, facts do not speak for themselves. It is the job of the paper to show how you are analyzing the facts, finding meaning and implications of the information. Remember that your voice should dominate the discussion. Therefore, do not end paragraphs with quotation; all final words (in paragraphs, and in the conclusion itself) should be yours!