Research Tools: Google Scholar

(This article originally appeared as “The Research Paper” Sept. 2012)

Getting Started with Research

Your instructor has assigned a research paper which will require ten credible sources. You begin your search where everyone does – online. You Google your search term, “Lower Drinking Age,” to find over five million hits. You make it more specific: “Lower Drinking Age to 18,” and get 4 million hits. You pull out your assignment guidelines for some direction, and notice it states, “Ten credible sources, only 3 of which can be websites.”

You’re doomed.

You are at home or work and can’t get to the library. How can you ever find enough sources for your paper if you are not allowed to use all websites? And what does “credible” mean anyway?

Sound familiar?

Finding reliable sources is the single most time-consuming task of writing a research paper. It takes time and patience to locate effective sources that support your argument. So where to start?

Google Scholar

In the initial stages of gathering research, the internet can be a useful tool if used wisely. As you are just beginning to gather information, you want to cast a wide net to understand all the angles of your topic. One great online site to begin is Google Scholar.

Google Scholar can give you access to research across a wide range of disciplines. You’ll find all types of print and web sources: books, journal articles, court documents, dissertations, and even university websites, which are generally the most credible type of web-based source (should always be “edu”).

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If you search “Lower Drinking Age,” you’ll see a sidebar on the left that offers you a way to narrow the results by type, year, and relevance. On the right is a “My Citations,” link where you can track a researcher’s work (you have to have a Google account for this). The advantage of this tool is if you find a particular researcher who is publishing work in your topic of interest, you can find other relevant publications by the same author.

Once you find some intriguing articles, you can click on the link to read the abstract (description of the article). If you scan over to the right of the link, you may see links to the printed version in a PDF file with the full text. At the bottom of the annotated link, you’ll see a horizontal list of further help, including “Cited,” which shows many times the article has been cited; html, if this type of version is offered, other related articles (which is a good info to have for further research; other versions of the article (which may include more current research), and other types of information related to the article.

Advanced Search

Advanced Search

 

If you are on a campus computer, you may also see a link under the link that says, “find at MCC,” (or your local college or university). This means your campus will have that source in one of its libraries or have access to it.

 

 

Take some time in this stage to tweak your search terms and scan the research to find the perfect support for your paper. Take careful notes of the articles and authors you might to use, or if you are able, print out the full link so you’ll have it when you go back to read the full text later. Slowing down and taking these steps will save you time later.

 

 

 

Breaking Down the Narrative Essay Assignment

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One of the most common writing assignments in introductory English Composition classes is the narrative essay. Students are often very familiar with writing an academic essay, such as a classical argument, but when asked to compose a narrative story, many students are flummoxed. It’s true that narrative writing is a different kind of writing than academic prose, but it’s still writing. Once you understand the parts that make up the whole, composing a winning narrative will be a piece of cake. For our purposes, we’ll focus on a typical Comp I assignment for a short 4-6 page narrative essay.

The Event

Most writing assignments ask that you focus on a very small moment in time to make the essay manageable. Trying to write about your entire high school career, a four-year span of time, is too large to cover thoroughly in 4-6 pages. So pick a specific moment in time when something happened that affected you deeply or changed you in some way. As with any narrative, be it a book-length narrative or a short essay, the main character (in this case, you) should go through some kind of change or transformation. This should be a specific event that you can recall easily and describe effortlessly.

An example of a moment in time might be the championship football game when you missed the field goal in the final seconds. This remembered event might have taken a span of a just 2 or 3 hours, which is the time you would write about in your essay. Another moment in time might be related to family, such as the wedding of your sister when you realized she was leaving home, or when you realized you wanted to be a veterinarian after entering your pet rabbit in the fair, even though you didn’t win a blue ribbon.

Troubleshooting Topics

Many writing instructors try to steer students away from writing about births, deaths, or other very emotional experiences. These are often the first topics to come to mind, but they don’t always make the best narratives. Why? Because, one, we are often too emotionally close to the event to write about it objectively without getting overly sentimental, or to communicate anything other than joy or sorrow. And two, if your instructor requires peer reviews (your classmates will read your essay and offer constructive criticism), it may be extremely uncomfortable to hear feedback on your writing on a very emotional topic. When I teach the narrative essay, my guidelines actually say, please no births or deaths. Don’t judge me.

Also, don’t think the “event” has to be a big, grand experience. It can be something extremely simple, like the afternoon your grandma taught you how to make kolaches, or the year your family had Christmas dinner at a Chinese restaurant. Think small, but meaningful.

Figuring out the Main Purpose or Theme

Once you decide on a topic and before you begin writing, you’ll want to consider what the main purpose or theme of the essay is. Instructors often refer to this as the autobiographical significance.  Ask yourself, what is the point of this essay? What am I trying to say? If you are an ace with academic essays, think in terms of the thesis statement; what is the thesis of the narrative? (For more help with this, read this great essay from Brevity Magazine, “So What’s Your Point?”).

Figuring out your narrative’s purpose takes some thinking, and it’s not always so clear. Some writers believe you should first write the story, and the main purpose will organically come. Other writers feel they must have an idea what the main purpose is before they can even begin writing. Both are a means to the same end, and you’ll have to do what works best for you. Just note that instructors often ask that you know exactly what the main purpose or autobiographical significance is before you begin.

Introduction/Exposition

In the introduction, you’ll want to set up the story, and to do this, the reader will need to know the 5 Ws, or the Who? What? When? Where? Why? of the narrative.

Avoid the mistake of holding back essential info to surprise the reader. This isn’t a mystery; it’s a narrative essay, so the reader needs to know who the players are, where and when the setting takes place, what is happening, and why things are happening.

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The body, the majority of the narrative, will guide the reader through the event. This will include exposition or rising action when you are building tension in the story, or introducing a complication that sets you on a trajectory of sorts.


Climax

This is when the tension built in the exposition is at its height, when the conflict culminates in a peak of excitement, tragedy, or epiphany. This naturally leads to the resolution.

Resolution/Conclusion

In the conclusion, the reader should see the narrator has changed in some way. What lessons have you learned from this event? How has the event itself changed your way of thinking, or how you live your life? This is known as the autobiographical significance; the reader will come to understand the autobiographical significance. For specific ways to conclude, see our previous post on conclusions here.

Final Thoughts

Careful consideration of a manageable topic in the early stages is the first step in composing a winning narrative. Of course, you should always let your assignment directives guide you. And don’t think it’s going to be perfect in the first draft. Narrative essays take a few drafts to work out the kinks. Take your time and write on!

The Case of Capitalization

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Capitalization can be confounding to beginning writers. Some words are easy to remember, like proper names and places. But what about ages and time periods? Regions and geographical areas? And diseases – are all diseases capitalized, or just some, and what’s the difference?

The answer to some of these questions is it depends on the documentation style you are using. For our purposes here, we’ll refer to MLA style unless otherwise noted.

Titles in Names

When a proper name is preceded with a title, like judge or professor, the titles will be capitalized.

  • I took British Literature from Professor Kennedy.
  • We were married at the courthouse by Judge Baker.
  • Boys Town was started by Father Flanagan.

However, do not capitalize titles when they stand alone.

  • When I grow up, I hope to be a professor.
  • My uncle is a judge.

When referencing family names, only capitalize the relationship when they are part of the person’s title.

  • Her Aunt Cindy is a lawyer in New York.
  • Her aunt is an expert quilter.
  • My mother has a huge record collection.

 Time Periods

If the time period is referred to by a specific name, it is capitalized.

  • the Middle Ages
  • Paleozoic Era
  • the Dark Ages
  • Age of Enlightenment

When used as a descriptive, no capitalization is necessary.

  • The antebellum period
  • classical Greece
  • ancient Egypt

Locations

North, South, East, and West are capitalized when indicating geographical regions. Regions such as the Mid Atlantic, Silicon Valley, and Midwest are capitalized. Usually if “the” can go in front of the word, it is capitalized.

  • American West
  • Atlantic
  • The Northeast
  • The South

North, south, northwest, etc. are not capitalized when indicating a direction or used as an adjective.

  • The western United States
  • eastern Europe
  • southern France
  • She drove south through Atlanta.

Diseases

Diseases named after regions and people are capitalized. Ebola and West Nile are capitalized, as both are named from the regions where they originated (Ebola is a river in Zaire, and West Nile is a region in Uganda). Alzheimer’s disease, Asperger’s syndrome, and Down’s syndrome are named after the doctors who discovered the diseases. However, there are differences between style guides as to whether they are possessive. If in doubt, follow the style used in your field of study or your textbook.

Most disease names are not capitalized, as the names are derived from some hallmark of the condition, according to Grammar Girl. Diabetes, autism, lupus, and rheumatoid arthritis would not be capitalized.

Final Thoughts

This is only the tip of the capitalization iceberg. Always refer to the style guide in your specific field, as many vary on their formatting. For instance, according to the Grammar Girl, the directional terms that describe people differ, depending on the style book. Associated Press, used for magazines and newspapers, prefers “Southerner,” whereas Chicago Manual of Style prefers “southerner.”

It’s most important to stay consistent, regardless of the style you use.

For more help with capitalization questions, visit The Grammar Book or Grammar Girl.

Due-Day Polishing: 6 things to do before you hand over the final draft

(This post originally appeared here in Nov. 2011)
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You’ve worked hard all quarter getting your essay in top form. You’ve outlined. You’ve taken pages of notes. You’ve peer-workshopped. Your instructor has given you feedback – and at least 100 handouts. You revised. And revised. And revised. Today the final draft is due – but is it really done?

Don’t be too quick to hand your essay over just yet. Here are a few last-minute editing tips to get your essay as perfect as it can be.

1. Did you use spell-checker? Good. But don’t trust it. Spell-checker is great if you have misspelled a word or used incorrect punctuation (sometimes). But spell-checker doesn’t work if you’ve used defiantly instead of definitely, or their instead of there, or a semi-colon instead of a colon, or – you get the picture. One quick way to find these errors is to go to the toolbar under “Edit”; click “Find,” then type in the words you have difficulty with. It will highlight them so you can confirm you’ve used these words correctly.

2.  Read the first and last sentence of each paragraph. Does each paragraph focus on just one topic, or are you all over the place? See where you were beginning with the paragraph, and see where you ended up; if you went down one road and ended up on a multi-lane interstate, refocus your thoughts so the paragraph communicates one topic or point.

3.  How is your sentence variety? Do you vary the length and style to create a nice rhythm, or are sentences short and choppy? Can short sentences be combined? Do you say the same thing but in five different ways? Sometimes we spend so much time on research or MLA as we’re composing our essays that we overlook something as simple as sentence variety that can be the difference between blah and the best essay evah!

4.  Read your essay aloud to really hear the words. Reading your essay aloud is the most important thing you can do to find those difficult errors that spell-check or your peer group doesn’t catch. Read slow and deliberately. If you’ve read your essay so many times it’s too familiar, try reading your essay backward. This will slow you down and give you a different perspective on the sentences.

5.  Do you feel like you know your essay by heart? Time to take a step back. If time allows, put the essay away for a day or two. Getting some distance from your essay will give you the opportunity to read it with a fresh set of eyes.

6.  Finally, let it go. You’ve done the best you can and there comes a time when we have to let our writing go and move on. If you know you’ve done your best to make your writing all it can be, then a grade often becomes secondary to that sense of accomplishment you’ll feel when it’s complete.

What are your due-day rituals? Do you have any last-minute tips you’d like to share?

 

Quick Tips for Organizing your Research Paper

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If you’ve ever tried writing a research paper, you know that organizing the masses of information you’ve compiled can be a daunting task. If you’ve waited until the last minute to begin writing the paper (sound like you?) below are some quick tips on how you might put it all together.

Note that there is not one correct way to organize a research paper. The most important thing to consider is first your assignment guidelines. Does your instructor ask you to place your thesis at the conclusion of the introduction, or wait until you’ve set up your points of argument? Do the requirements call for a pro/con paper, a problem/solution, or another type of format? Is your audience hostile or sympathetic to your position? Although these are questions you might want to consider before you move forward, below is a basic formula for organizing the classical argument.

Title

Don’t discount the importance of a title. The title acts as an introduction to the introduction. It should reflect the content of the paper and can be a title-subtitle style, such as

Devastating Beauty: How Print Media Contributes to Negative Self Image of Teens

The title-subtitle format is effective if you want your audience to know exactly what the content of the paper will be about. In the previous example, the writer could also simply use the title Devastating Beauty, which piques the readers’ interest without giving it all away.

Introduction

The intro to your paper will offer background information about the topic, establishing common ground with the audience. Intros often contain emotional appeals to garner interest from the reader. You’ll want to introduce the problem before you state your thesis, which traditionally, comes at the end of the introduction. Hopefully you have your thesis, and it’s clear, concise, and proposes an argument.

Reason Paragraphs

Once you have your main argument or thesis claim, you must then explain the “why?” behind the argument. One easy way I teach my students to build their argument is with “because clauses.” A “because clause” answers “why?” as in the example below:

Thesis: The portrayal of young women in fashion magazines contribute to poor self-image of teens

Reason: because the images are unrealistic and unattainable.

This reason or “because” will be the basis for the first point of argument, so the next few paragraphs will contain research and support to prove this claim.

Most assignments will require at least 3 main points or reasons, but they will all follow the same pattern: expand the thesis with a reason or because clause. So a simple graphic outline of the body will look something like this:

Reason #1:   (thesis with because clause)

Research & statistics in support of reason #1


Reason #2:    (thesis with because clause)

Research & statistics in support of reason #2


Reason #3:    (thesis with because clause)

Research & statistics in support of reason #3

  

Opposition: The Counter-argument

Once you’ve laid the groundwork for the claim and reasons, you’ll now introduce the antithesis or opposition. For a fair and balanced argument, you must consider what the other side believes. An audience will give more credibility to writers who offer a fair treatment of both sides, not just his or her own side. The opposition may concede a point, showing sympathy and understanding. This doesn’t weaken your argument; it actually makes it stronger if you can offer an effective rebuttal. The rebuttal is your answer to the opposition’s objections.

Opposition 1:

Some people disagree, believing that the portrayal of young women in fashion magazines actually helps improve teens’ body image (insert explanation and  information explaining this point).

Rebuttal 1:

However, recent research has shown that exposing young women to images of thin, attractive models increases body dissatisfaction and other negative feelings (Rogers).

The opposition section may counter-argue one reason, all three reasons, or the overall argument. So it might, be outlined like this:

Opposition #1
Rebuttal #1

Opposition #2
Rebuttal #2

Opposition #3
Rebuttal #3

Conclusion

Now all you have to do is bring it all home. Close the argument in a memorable and satisfying way. reinforce your thesis, offer a call to action, a warning, or a solution. This is the last opportunity to get your message to your audience, to convince them of the importance of your argument.

 

Outline

 

An informal outline of the entire process would look something like this:

Introduction (background, history, problem; conclude with thesis statement)

Reason #1 (because why?)

Reason #2 (because why?)

Reason #3 (because why?)

Opposition #1 (counter-argument)

Rebuttal #1 (refute the counter)

Opposition #2 (counter-argument)

Rebuttal #2 (refute the counter)

Opposition #3 (counter-argument)

Rebuttal #3 (refute the counter)

Conclusion (reinforce thesis; call to action; warning)

This is only one way to organize a classical argument. Read your assignment directives and follow the guidelines carefully. Take care to develop each point fully, integrate your research carefully, and treat the opposition fairly, and you’ll find you’ll be on the way to a successful research paper.

 

Works Cited: The Basics

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If you’re writing a paper for a college English class, chances are you’ll be asked to use MLA documentation style. MLA, or Modern Language Association, is a style of documentation generally used in Humanity or Liberal Arts fields (though not always). Research sources for MLA use author-page number for in-text citations, as opposed to the year that APA (American Psychological Association) uses. The reason for this difference is that the currency of research is of greater importance in the sciences, which usually requires APA documentation.

For MLA, writers must compile a Works Cited page at the conclusion of their essay. A Works Cited is an alphabetical list of all the sources you used in your paper. Your instructor might ask for a Works Consulted page, which is all the sources you have read in preparation for your paper, not only the ones you have referenced in the text.

Basic Format

If your essay is 10 pages long, Works Cited will be page 11. Even if the essay only falls onto the first or second line of page 10, Works Cited must begin on the following page.

The title, Works Cited, should be centered on the page. It is not necessary to bold, italicize, or enlarge the font of the title. All lines will be double-spaced, including from the title to the first entry.

Hanging Indent

If the entry is long enough to run onto a second line, a hanging indent will be used. A hanging indent is exactly the opposite of a traditional indent; instead of indenting the first line, with all subsequent lines flush left, the first line of the entry will be flush left, with all subsequent lines indented, regardless of number. The reason for a hanging indent on a Works Cited page is so a reader can easily find the source’s name or title while scanning the Works Cited page. The page will look like this:

(ex. from Purdue Owl Online)

(ex. from Purdue Owl Online)

 

 

 

 

 

To easily format for a hanging indent in MS Word, under the “Home” tab, click on the “Paragraph” arrow to open; on the right of the box, you should see “Special” with “none” as the default. Click the arrow beside “none” and “Hanging” should be the last item. If you format the hanging indent before you enter your sources, it will automatically create a hanging indent for each entry.

Other Basics

 Titles of Works

Knowing when to italicize or put quotation marks around titles of works is tricky for beginning writers. If you can just remember that small works – for instance, chapter titles found in anthologies – are placed in quotation marks; larger works – like a book or journal – are italicized. So, for instance, the journal article, “Five Fallacies of Education,” will be in quotation marks, and the journal, Harvard Review will be in italics. A newspaper article will be in quotation marks, and the name of the newspaper italicized, like this:

“Iowa Passes Same-Sex Marriage Bill.” Des Moines Register.

It gets more complicated with websites, but just remember the smaller work is placed in quotations and the larger work in italics.

Multiple Works by Same Author

It’s actually quite common to find several different articles by the same expert, so you might cite more than one work by the same author. On your Works Cited, give the author’s name in the first entry only. Every entry after the first one with the full name, type three hyphens, which stand for the name in the preceding entry.  The three hyphens, like the name, will be followed by a period. Alphabetize all entries by title. It will look like this:

 

Knopp, Lisa. Field of Vision. Iowa City: U of Iowa P, 1996. Print.

—. The Nature of Home: A Lexicon and Essays. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 2002. Print.

(ex. from http://bcs.bedfordstmartins.com)

 

 

Final Thoughts

 

Students often find Works Cited pages to be a bit confusing to put together.  Always refer to your handbook or a respected website, such as Purdue Owl or Bedford St. Martin, both great resources to utilize as you work through the process of compiling your source page. Click the links below to go to their websites.

It’s always best to compile your Works Cited manually, meaning avoid the automatic citation help in MS Word and other computer-generated software, which may incorrectly format an entry if the writer fails to plug in the correct information.

For more questions about Works Cited or MLA, visit Purdue Owl or Bedford St. Martin’s.

 

Write-Speak: Correcting Faulty Sentence Constructions

 

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When I was an undergrad writing major, I was told “Write like you talk.” If I were writing a work of fiction that needed realistic dialogue, writing like I talked worked great. But in all other forms of writing, if I were to write like I talked, it would look something like this:

“It’s like where you go. . . I mean. . . it’s when you turn left. . . like. . . up in the house when the corner turns . . .”

Or

“I can’t believe my Royals. . . Like. . .Oh my gosh! They were all going crazy. . . like, when they won. . . I was where I couldn’t talk, I was so excited!”

If you listened to just about any casual conversation, you would hear patterns of inconsistency (and really bad grammar!). Many, if not most, of our spoken sentences would be fragments or incomplete sentence structures. We talk it bits and pieces, and mix sentence constructions without even knowing it. Many of us intersperse our spoken sentences with numerous “filler” words, such as “like” in the examples above. So you can see how difficult it becomes to maintain consistency in our writing. Recognizing these patterns of inconsistencies is the first step to editing these incomplete structures.

Inconsistent Subjects & Predicates

Identifying the subject and predicate can be the first step toward identifying sentence inconsistencies. In the examples below, the subject and predicate don’t fit together grammatically or just don’t make sense:

EX.
From all his hard work helped Karl graduate.

When you read the sentence, you might “hear” something is wrong, but might not be able to identify the problem. The sentence begins with the prepositional phrase, From all his hard work, which acts as the subject of the verb. This is not a grammatically correct construction.

Revised:

All his hard work helped Karl graduate.

That sounds better.
______________________________________________

Look at the following problem example, where you’ll see an issue with inconsistent subject/predicate:

EX.

A characteristic that I admire is a person who is generous.

The subject of the sentence is “characteristic.” The verb is “admire.” But “a person” is not a characteristic, so this statement isn’t logical.

Revised:

A characteristic that I admire is generosity a person who is generous.

“Generosity” is a characteristic that can be admired in a person.

 

See if you can catch the faulty predication in the following example:

EX.

A compromise between the mountains and the beach would be an ideal place to vacation.

If you said that the subject of the sentence – “compromise” – cannot be an “ideal place,” you would be correct. It isn’t logical.

Revised:

A place combining features of the mountains and the beach would be an ideal place to vacation.

OR

The ideal place to vacation would be a location combining features of the mountains and the beach.

___________________________________________________

Keep Consistent Grammatical Patterns

Mixed Structures

One of the most common inconsistencies is what is referred to as a mixed construction. In mixed constructions, the grammatical pattern used in the first part of a sentence is not carried through in other parts of the sentence, creating an illogical sentence. The speaker of the sentence sets out to say one thing and switches to something else, resulting in confusion:

EX.

The fact that I get up at 5:00 a.m., a wake-up time that explains why I’m always tired in the evening.

The subject of the sentence, The fact, is followed by a dependent clause, that I get up at 5:00 a.m.; a predicate (verb or verb phrase) is needed to complete the independent clause. However, the sentence is mixed with another dependent clause, a wake-up time that explains why I’m always tired in the evening, which creates a fragment.

Revised:

The fact that I get up at 5:00 a.m., explains a wake-up time that why I’m always tired in the evening.

OR

The fact that I get up at 5:00 a.m., a wake-up time that explains why I’m always tired in the evening.

Another mixed sentence can occur with is when and is where, as in the following examples:

An examination is when you are tested.

An examination is where you are tested.

Think about what the subject actually is in this sentence. Examination is a test. Examination is not a time or place. When should only be used when referring to time. Use where only when referring to a place.

Revised:

An examination is a test of what you know.
___________________________________________________________

The ability to identify subjects and predicates is helpful in avoiding faulty sentence constructions, but sometimes we just know something doesn’t sound right when we read it. Carefully reading through your sentences to see if they are logical is the first step to editing out sentence-level inconsistencies.

Examples from http://wps.ablongman.com and The Everyday Writer: A Brief Reference.