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Focusing Your Research Paper

Want help in making sure your paper topic is something you are interested in and you can manage to write about? Follow this step-by-step guide to improve your results. Want help creating an outline for your paper or learning how to successfully write a 1

Questions, Claims, and Explorations

Now that you have your keywords and topic idea down on paper think about what questions you want to answer in your paper.  Can't think of what you want to answer?  Then invert the idea - if you were reading a 10 page paper on the topic of gender differences in eating disorders, what would you want to have answered for you when you finished reading the paper?

Actually, your thesis statement already contains at least two questions:

  • Should psychologists and counselors apply what they know about women and eating disorders to men?
  • Or is there a gender difference that requires the use of a different approach in men compared to women?

And each of these obvious questions contain at least one other implied question:

  • What do psychologists know about eating disorders in women?
  • Do they know anything about eating disorders in men?


  • How do I document any gender difference in eating disorders?
  • What different counseling or psychological approaches already exist for treating eating disorders?

So you have four to six of ten questions already.

Your next step is to write these questions down.  Open the document linked below and do that (and you might want to save this and your previous document in a folder for this paper).

Too Much or Not Enough?

Knowing how many questions or claims to make in a paper is always a bit tricky.  When you ask, you often get the reply "Enough to make your case convincing or to prove your point."  That's certainly true, but not always helpful.  Here are a couple of "rules of thumb" and explanations that might help you.

For shorter papers (10 - 12 pages) or papers in 1000 - 2000 level classes where you are just learning about the topic you'll want to have about 1 question per page of the paper to start with.

  1.  You won't answer all 10 questions, but until you do more research and reading, you won't know which of the questions are valid and which ones are dead ends, so having a few extra ones is good at this point  
  2. You'll eventually answer or address only 6 - 8 questions in the final paper - this leaves you room to discuss the pros and cons and come to some conclusion of your own on the debate  
  3. WHY?: each typed, double-spaced page has only about 250 words on it, so that's not really a lot of space to present the topic (your question or claim), introduce and do justice to the various sides of the argument, reach a conclusion, and transition to the next question or claim.  Sticking to one question per page keeps your thoughts focused yet allows you to develop your argument sufficiently.

For longer papers (15 - 30 pages) or most papers in a 3000 - 4000 level class you will want to have about 1 question or claim for every 3 pages.

  1. You are coming to the topic with some skills or knowledge already (from those 1000 - 2000 level classes) so the expectations have changed.
  2. You'll usually need to dig a little deeper into the scholarship and existing research on the topic (go further back to find older research, track down the development of a particular scholar's ideas on a topic, etc.).  This generally means gathering more information and incorporating it into your paper.  So, you'll need to demonstrate that work in your paper.
  3. For these longer papers, you will need to do a fair bit of reading before finalizing your thesis statement, so it really is good to start the work earlier than you would for a shorter paper.


Test for success

Make an appointment with your professor to review your questions or claims. This gives you a chance to see if you are headed in the right direction, and your professor can let you know early on if any of your questions or claims are too broad, too narrow, or just not feasible.

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