Assuming you’ve been given a topic, or have narrowed it sufficiently down, your first task is to research this topic. You will not be able to write intelligently about a topic you know nothing about. To discover worthwhile insights, you’ll have to do some patient reading.
Read light sources, then thorough
When you conduct research, move from light to thorough resources to make sure you’re moving in the right direction. Begin by doing searches on the Internet about your topic to familiarize yourself with the basic issues; then move to more thorough research on the Academic Databases; finally, probe the depths of the issue by burying yourself in the library. Make sure that despite beginning on the Internet, you don’t simply end there. A research paper using only Internet sources is a weak paper, and puts you at a disadvantage for not utilizing better information from more academic sources.
Write down quotations
As you read about your topic, keep a piece of paper and pen handy to write down interesting quotations you find. Make sure you write down the source and transcribe quotations accurately. I recommend handwriting the quotations to ensure that you don’t overuse them, because if you have to handwrite the quotations, you’ll probably only use quotations sparingly, as you should. On the other hand, if you’re cruising through the net, you may just want to cut and paste snippets here and there along with their URLs into a Word file, and then later go back and sift the kernels from the chaff.
With print sources, you might put a checkmark beside interesting passages. Write questions or other thoughts in the margins as well. If it’s a library book, use post-it notes to avoid ruining the book. Whatever your system, be sure to annotate the text you read. If reading online, see if you can download the document, and then use Word’s Reviewing toolbar to add notes or the highlighter tool to highlight key passages.
Take a little from a lot
You’ll need to read widely in order to gather sources on your topic. As you integrate research, take a little from a lot — that is, quote briefly from a wide variety of sources. This is the best advice there is about researching. Too many quotations from one source, however reliable the source, will make your essay seem unoriginal and borrowed. Too few sources and you may come off sounding inexperienced. When you have a lot of small quotations from numerous sources, you will seem — if not be — well-read, knowledgeable, and credible as you write about your topic.