Research Writing Skills
I've been thinking for a while now about all the various skill sets required in order to write a good, source-driven research paper. When I hear the "Johnny can't write" laments, and when I hear teachers complain about their students' failure to meet their expectations, I think of the complexity of what we are asking them to do when we ask them to write research papers (a.k.a. source-based papers, research essays, etc.). In order to do this well, students must have at least these five abilities:
1. the ability to marshal evidence for a specific purpose, or to make a point. This is the highest-order concern: keeping students from turning in a data dump. Students need to know how to be in control of the source information and use it in the service of their own argument
and organizational logic.
2. the ability to find sources (in library databases, on the internet, in the stacks, etc.) and evaluate their credibility. Also, the critical reading ability involved in finding a variety of sources that express a range of viewpoints on an issue, so that the student has a balanced bibliography of sources.
3. the ability to translate or convert another author's style into the student's style, also known as paraphrasing -- never an easy skill to teach.
4. the ability to integrate quoted material smoothly into the student's prose, which includes the use of attributive tags ("Jones argues that..." "According to Jones...") and what some call the quotation cycle, or: setting up a quotation, giving the quotation, and then interpreting the quotation or connecting it to something else -- the whole "don't just stick quotations in and leave them hanging" principle. There's a whole book devoted to just this skill -- though skill #1 is part of that, for sure.
5. the ability to master a documentation style like MLA. "What goes in the parentheses? The author's name and page number? What if there aren't page numbers? What if there isn't an author's name?"
There are probably more; I haven't even touched on audience, context, and purpose of the assignment. My notes here aren't any great contribution, but I just want to get them out there.