Subject Guides – Writing and Grammar

Subject Guides – Writing and Grammar

What are you writing?

Research Essay

Steps to writing a good research paper

Understand the assignment

Identifying the amount and types of sources your assignment requires will help you choose the right online research tools.

Before you being searching the library catalogue and databases, you should clarify several things about the assignment:

  1. What type of assignment is it? (research paper, essay, opinion paper, review, or other?)
  2. How long does your paper need to be?
  3. How many sources do you need for your bibliography?
  4. What types of information do you need? (statistics, web pages, books, articles, images, audio/video clips, or other?)
  5. Do you need current or historical sources? Or both?

If you are unclear on any of the requirements, ASK YOUR PROFESSOR ASAP! Doing this early in the semester will save you stress later on and will show your professor that you are proactive.

Choose a topic & develop a thesis

How to choose a topic

Sometimes your topic is assigned by your professor. However, most of the time your professor will give you the freedom to choose your own research topic. Choosing a topic that is specific enough to be manageable without being too narrow can be difficult, but these steps can help.

First, think about what topics might be of interest to you. You can get ideas by skimming your textbook, reading news magazines like Time, or keeping an eye on the news.

Once you’ve identified a broad topic, looking at a few scholarly reference books (such as dictionaries and encyclopedias) can help you figure out which authors and sources are the most important to know about. Often a scholarly reference book will give you a short, authoritative overview of your topic and suggest additional sources for you to read. In essence, reading a reference article can save you time!

How to write a thesis statement

After you’ve identified and narrowed a research topic, you should re-state it in the form of a research question. Phrasing your topic in the form of a question helps to direct your research process.

Asking whether a fact or statistic directly answers your research question can help you find the most relevant information for your topic. A good research question also leads to a direct answer in the form of a thesis.

A sample research question might be: “What are some strategies for improving self-care among social workers?”

This question might lead to the following thesis in the final paper: “Recommended strategies for improving self-care among social workers include: flexible benefits and scheduling, caps on case load, and…”

Identify keywords

A good research question also helps you pull out the different concepts your research will cover. Our example, “What are some strategies for improving self-care among social workers?” has two distinct concepts:

  • Self-care
  • Social workers

These concepts will become the search keywords you will use in the library catalogue and online article databases. Keep in mind that not every author will use the same keywords to describe a topic: one author might write about “self-care,” and another might use the phrase “compassion fatigue”.

For this reason, you will want to identify some synonyms and related terms for each of your keywords before you start searching. For example:

  • Self-care – synonyms/related terms: burnout, compassion fatigue, mental health
  • Social workers – synonyms/related terms: social work, counselor, clinician, case worker
Develop a research strategy (Find and evaluate sources)

Once you’ve identified your search terms and synonyms, the final pre-search step is to combine those terms into search strings.

Online search tools like the library catalog and databases require a specific format for search statements, including hte use of words called Boolean operators. Boolean operators are hte words AND, OR, and NOT. Place these words between your search terms will help you find books and articles that are targeted to your research topic.


The Boolean operator AND gives you more targeted results by requiring that two or more terms all appear within the title, abstract, or table of contents of a book or article. Let’s imagine we are looking for information on self-care for social workers.

A keyword search in a database for “self-care” returns 1353 titles.

A keyword search for “self-care AND social work” returns only 148 titles, but those are much more relevant to our topic.


The Boolean operator OR is the opposite of AND. OR generally gives you more search results by requiring either one term or another to appear in a book or article. OR works best when you are looking for synonyms or related terms.

For example, here’s a comparison using our example above:

A keyword search for “self-care OR ‘compassion fatigue’” returns 1427 titles.

A keyword search for “self-care AND ‘compassion fatigue’” returns 34 titles.

A Full Search

A good multiple search for your topic would be (self-care OR “compassion fatigue”) AND “social work”

The brackets ( ) group your synonyms together and the quotation mark ” ” make sure that the words are searched as a phrase, not two separate words.

Trunctation: use a * to find similar words with different endings. e.g. educat* searches “education”, “educate”, “educational”, edc.

Choose the right database

There are 2 types of research sources that can be found through the Fairbank Library web site: books and articles. For most topics, both can be found by using our library catalogue.

If you are researching a topic on Religion, please use the set of resources found here.

Mark, save, email your results

Once you’ve started finding books and articles on your topic, be sure to save the information. This will save you time as you organize your notes and start preparing your bibliography.

In the Library Catalogue, you can download information about the books you find by adding them to your lists or clicking the cite icon in each record.

In online databases, look for ways to mark your articles or save them in a folder. Then look for print/email/save options; usually you can also choose to have a pre-formatted citation (in APA, MLA, or Chicago style) included in the email or saved file.

If the database you’re using does not have a full-text copy of the article you need, it will provide you with a link to an Interlibrary Loan Request form. Fill out the form, and we will get a copy of the article you need from another library. Note that some ILL requests could have a cost and can take 2-7 working days to fulfill.

Write the paper

By this point, you should have a pretty good idea of what your main points are. If you want some help with the writing process, you should schedule an appointment with the Academic Learning Centre (ALC). The writing tutors can give you tips, feedback, and suggestions that can help you write a great paper!

How to Avoid Plagiarism


Document/cite the sources
Annotated Bibliography

How to Prepare an Annotated Bibliography – Cornell University

Annotated Bibliographies – Purdue University

Critical Book Review
Literature Review

The Literature Review – University of Toronto

Write a Literature Review – University of California, Santa Cruz

Guides to Style, Grammar, & Writing

Writing – The Learning Centre, University of Manitoba – Provides numerous handouts on the writing process such as The Research Paper, The Thesis Statement, Sample Basic Essay Outline, Writing Summaries, A Self-Editing Guide, etc.

Purdue OWL (Purdue University) – Provides instructional handouts on a variety of topics such as professional writing, research papers, grammar, spelling, ESL.

Paradigm Online Writing Assistant – “This site contains sections on discovering what to write, organizing, revising and editing your writing, various types of essays, including thesis/support, argumentative, exploratory, and information and documenting sources.” The emphasis is on the writing process.

Online Resources for Writers (Amherst College) – Topics include the academic essay, finding a topic, thesis and argument, outlines, introductions and conclusions.

Online Reference Sources (Dictionaries, Thesauri, etc.)

Merriam-Webster Online – Online dictionary and thesaurus. Each word is accompanied by a definition, pronunciation, usage, grammatical function, and a brief etymology.

Dictionary.com – Easy to use dictionary. Includes links to various types of dictionaries, e.g. rhyming, foreign languages, symbols.

The Elements of Style – Online version of William Strunk’s The Elements of Style.

OneLook Dictionaries – Searching more than 1000 general and subject specialized dictionaries simultaneously.

Roget’s International Thesaurus – English language synonyms and antonyms.

The King’s English by H.W. Fowler