Chapter 34.1: Academic Research Papers

Part 6: Chapter 34.1

Academic papers have a variety of elements that make them stand out from other papers. The textbook Rhetoric and Composition explains that they carry three distinct characteristics. First, research will help you develop your ideas. The research contains various findings, such as facts, statistics, interviews, and quotes. Researching and gathering data must include understanding that information once it is compiled. The second characteristic is the amount of preparation it takes in gathering, compiling, analyzing, and sorting through everything in order to create a draft of your data. Finally, the third characteristic involves knowing the rules that must be followed when writing a specific term paper in the humanities discipline. These rules will generally be conveyed by your instructor, and the process of writing a research paper are covered more extensively in part six of this textbook.

Magnifying glass looking at tree
Photo by Bobby McKay, CC BY-ND 2.0

Writing the research paper involves a bit of detective work. While there is much reading to be done on the chosen topic, reading is not the only pathway to gain information. As a writer in the humanities, you can also conduct interviews, surveys, polls, and observation clinics. You should research and discover as much information as you can about the given topic so you can form a coherent and valid opinion. Students are often surprised that their initial perceptions on a topic change after completing research, so try to remain open minded as you work through the research tasks.

Elements of a Humanities Research Paper

Many styles of documentation are used when writing the humanities paper. Choosing the style depends on the subject being addressed in the paper and the style your instructor requests.

When it comes down to actually writing your paper, be sure to include the following elements: an introduction, a thesis statement, the body of the paper (which should include quotations, and, of course, the citations), and the conclusion.


Like most papers and essays, an introduction is absolutely necessary when writing in the humanities. There can be some confusion as to which should come first; the introduction or the thesis statement. This decision could probably be clarified by asking your instructor. Many writers include the thesis statement in their introduction. Generally speaking, however, the introduction usually comes before the thesis statement, and the thesis usually comes at the end of the first paragraph.

The introduction should grab your reader’s attention and interest them enough that they way to continue reading your paper. Ask a question, write something powerful, or introduce a controversial topic. Be specific, not vague. Create something interesting, not mundane. Relay something the reader may not know, not something that is public knowledge. The idea is to capture and keep the reader’s attention.

A good introduction may go something like this:


“Imagine yourself walking out of class feeling refreshed and relaxed because your day is almost done. You race down the stairs and out the doors just to take in the amazing scent of fresh outside air when suddenly you smell something completely wretched. You notice something that resembles a small grey cloud coming out of a fellow student’s mouth. Then your throat begins to feel clogged and just when you can’t take it any longer, your lungs give in and you feel as if you can no longer breathe. You think to yourself, ‘What’s happening to me? Am I dying?’ No, not exactly. Your lungs and the rest of your body have just been affected by what is commonly known as passive smoking, which is becoming one of the leading causes of death in the United States.”

Thesis Statement

After creating an enticing introduction, it is time to work on your paper’s thesis statement. The thesis statement should come at the beginning of the paper, and it will introduce the reader to the topic you intend to address, and gives them a hint of what to expect in the pages that follow. Thesis statements should avoid words and phrases such as, “In my opinion…” or “I think that…”

Start your thesis by taking a stand immediately; be firm in your statement, but not pushy.

You’ll either be given your topic for your paper or you will choose one yourself. In either case, after the topic is chosen, write a thesis statement that clearly outlines the argument you intend to address in the paper. The thesis statement will be the center of your paper; it should address one main issue. Throughout the paper, whatever you write will be focused on the thesis statement. As your paper develops, you may find you will want to, or need to, revise your thesis statement to better outline your paper so avoid becoming too attached to your original thesis. As your paper evolves, so should your thesis. In other words, when writing your thesis statement, keep your paper in mind, and when writing your paper, keep your thesis statement in mind. Your paper will defend your thesis, so write your paper accordingly.

For example, if the topic is “Analyzing Mark Twain’s ‘Huckleberry Finn,'” your thesis statement might address the social implications or meanings behind the characters chosen for the story. Keeping the thesis statement in mind, you would then write your paper about the characters in the story. Let’s say you are writing a philosophy paper. Your thesis statement might include two opposing arguments, with the hint that you intend to argue or prove one side of the argument. Many thesis statements are written in such a way as to try to prove an argument or point of view, but challenge yourself; consider making your thesis statement a statement of how you plan to disprove an argument. Maybe you want to attempt to show your readers why a specific point of view does not work.

Your thesis statement should address one main issue, take a stance on the topic, and include body paragraphs that develop the argument. If your thesis statement is too simple, obvious, or vague, then you need to work on strengthening it. You should try to write it in a way that will catch your reader’s attention, while also making it interesting and thought-provoking. Ideally, it should be specific in nature, and address the theme of the entire paper. The thesis statement may be written to try to convince the reader of a specific issue or point of view, and it may also address an issue to which there is no simple solution or easy answers; remember, make it thought-provoking. Some of the best thesis statements invite the reader to disagree.

Don’t be alarmed if you find yourself midway through your paper and want to change your thesis statement. This will happen. Sometimes a writer will start out thinking they know exactly the point they want to make in their paper, only to find halfway through that they’ve taken a slightly different direction.

Don’t be afraid to modify your thesis statement.

But a word of caution; if you modify your thesis statement, be sure to double check your body paragraphs to ensure that they are supporting the thesis. If you have changed your thesis statement, it would be wise, even advisable, to have a third party read your paper to be sure that the paper supports the thesis and the revised thesis describes the paper.

As you begin drafting the body of your paper, work to include evidence, analysis, and reasoning to support your thesis. Often the topic of the paper is divided into subtopics. Typically, each subtopic is discussed in a separate paragraph, but there is nothing wrong with continuing a subtopic throughout multiple paragraphs. It is good practice to begin each paragraph with a topic sentence that introduces the subject of the new paragraph and helps transition between paragraphs. A topic sentence will help keep you focused while writing the paragraph, and it will keep your reader focused while reading it.

The purpose of a conclusion is to wrap up the discussion of your paper and close with a strong stance. Especially if the paper is a long one, it is a good idea to re-cap the main ideas you present. If your paper is argumentative, you’d likely want to re-enforce the standpoint introduced in your thesis statement; however, rather than repeating your thesis, offer closing statements that make use of all the information you’ve presented to support your thesis. Try to “echo” your thesis so that your reader understands that you have fulfilled the “promise” a thesis statement implies, but give your reader a sense of closure rather than simply restating everything you said above just ending it.

Here are some strategies for closing your discussion:

After summing up your main points/thesis you might

  • Comment on the significance of the topic in general: why should your reader care?

  • Look to the future: Is there more work to be done on the topic? Are there predictions you can make about your topic?

  • Ask something of your reader: Is there something your reader can do? Should do?

Argumentative Research Papers

One of the main criteria that differentiates a college level research paper from research papers written before college is they are almost always argumentative; that is, they will be taking a stance. The research is then used to back up the argument of the writer, or to put their argument into context. Students new to college will often attempt to simply inform, but if a paper is only repackaging old information, why not just go back to the original source? Also, papers that just provide information risk unintentional plagiarism. If none of the information provided contains your own insights, then failing to cite everything means that it is plagiarized. Yet, most students are reluctant to cite the entirety of their paper.


Plagiarism is a serious occurrence in an academic setting and results from including non-trivial information (ideas, facts, etc) from another source without acknowledging its source. Plagiarism is one of the most serious offenses that can be committed in academia and it involves varying degrees. Plagiarism, at its most blatant definition, includes handing in an entire paper that is not one’s own; it can also include failing to document one’s sources. When writing a research paper, avoid unintentional plagiarism. Plagiarism can be grounds for failing a paper or the course as a whole. To learn more about CNM’s policy on academic dishonesty, visit the following link:

Resources To Use

Academic Resources

The best way to avoid plagiarism is to locate and clearly introduce your sources, and the humanities category offers many detailed sources from which to gather information. The internet is fast becoming an important source of information for humanities writing. There are many history sites, journalism and news sites, sites focusing on the history of film, sites dedicated to women’s issues, and so on. More traditional physical resources include dictionaries, encyclopedias, biographies, indexes, abstracts, and periodicals, and our old friend, the library. All of these sources are valuable and fairly easy to cite.

As you can see, there are many resources from which to choose when writing your paper. Start at the most basic level and progress from there. For example, if you are writing about a specific work of a famous author, the obvious place to begin is with a careful reading of the work in question. Once you are done, try to articulate what you know to be true, what you think is probably true, and what is open to question: that is, what you might need to find out. You may find it helpful to actually go through the physical process of writing out two or three key questions that you would like to focus on.

At that point, you may want begin your further research with a search through an encyclopedia, or do an online search for available resources, including interviews. After you have found the information you need there, you might then search through a catalog in a library for specific books, such as World Cat on the CNM Libraries website. You may find that while searching for one specific book you will stumble upon many other useful books on the same subject.

You can then begin to look through book reviews for information on your subject. Book reviews can be especially informative in that they will often will identify important themes, raise new questions, and broaden your sense of what is at stake in the text. Next, you may want to try searching for articles in periodicals, and even abstracts of articles, which will provide a summary of the content of the potential article. Read through chapter thirty-two of this textbook, entitled Evaluating Sources, to learn more about what criteria you should use to judge whether your outside sources are relevant and credible.

Adapted from “Chapter Five” of Rhetoric and Composition, 2013, used under creative commons CC BY-SA 3.0

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