Skip to Main Content

Cushing Library is now permanently closed. It was a pleasure serving you!

Writing a Research Paper

The Topic Generation Cycle

As this video shows, it's easy to think of research as a linear process of thinking of a question, searching for some sources, and writing up the answer, but clearly, the process is a lot messier than that. Recognizing this ahead of time can save you from a lot of grief in the process of doing your research. Give yourself time to explore, to go down dead-ends, and discover aspects of your topic that'll surprise you. Above all, start early.

But how do you actually start? You may be answering a specific question or prompt, in which case aspects of your topic have already been chosen for you, or you may be coming up with a topic of your own. Either way, consider the following questions:

  • What about this topic do I find particularly interesting, inspiring, and/or maddening?
  • What about this topic do I find confusing and want to know more about?
  • What have I already read on this topic? What other media have I consumed on it?
  • What are the names of major figures and works on this topic that I already know about?

Free-write on these questions, and try to produce at least 250 words. Reflect on your free-writing as you go. What themes are emerging?

Coming Up with Keywords

After you free-write on your topic, you want to turn some of your ideas into keywords that'll help you search for sources. This video shows you one way of doing that:

Why do we need keywords? Google and other search engines often do an alright job of sifting through your search terms and finding relevant results. But the search capabilities of a lot of databases--on both the open web and on the library's website--aren't quite that sophisticated. However, those databases can provide you with access to all sorts of materials that Google doesn't, so figuring out how to use them well is definitely to your advantage.

The trick to doing that is to learn to think how the database "thinks." When you enter words into a database search bar, the database will use every term you put there to engage in its search (with the exception of words like "a" and "the"). So rather than cluttering up your search with words that aren't important to it, you use just the keywords of your idea, to allow the database to zero in on what you're looking for.

Of course, figuring out the "right" keywords can be a process in itself. When searching, try lots of combinations, and remember that there'll be dead ends.

Springboard Databases

Keywords won't do us much good if we don't have good databases to use them with. There are all sorts of databases available, through the library and on the open web. So how do we know which database could be the most useful? Annoyingly, and as always, it depends.

The databases in this section are great for exploring your topic and getting a sense of its shape. Some of them will also help you drill down and find very specialized sources on a topic or question. Looking for work in a specific field? Already narrowed your topic? Take a look at the databases highlighted in the Going Deeper tab.

Need help accessing databases off-campus? Click here for instructions.


Do you need some general background on a given topic, or to find a source for more keywords? Credo Reference is a great option if that's the case. It searches over 1,000 reference sources, both general and subject-specific, for overview articles on a variety of topics. Some of these articles will be a short, dictionary-style articles of 200-300 words, but others are a few thousand words long and provide bibliographies that can direct you to important sources.


Cushing Library's General Search (aka WorldCat Discovery) is the search box featured on the Cushing Library's homepage. This is the library's "database of databases." It will search HNU's full catalog of books and ebooks, a quarter of the databases the library subscribes to, and the catalogs of other libraries. When you're early in your research and casting a broad net in your exploration, it can be a fantastic way to get a sense of what's out there. And if you find something that the library doesn't have access to, you can always put in a request via Interlibrary Loan.

One major database not searched by WorldCat Discovery is Academic Search Premier. ASP is one of the library's major broad-based subject database, offering access to articles from newspapers, magazines, and scholarly journals. It won't provide you with broad overview articles in the way that Credo might, but it's great if you're looking for a multidisciplinary cross-section of work on your topic or as a first stop when once you've begun to narrow your focus.


Another unfairly maligned reference source is, yes, Wikipedia. Let's be clear: Wikipedia is a remarkably useful collective project. But let's also be clear: you SHOULD NOT CITE Wikipedia. Rightly or not, citing Wikipedia creates the impression that you're a lazy researcher, and more importantly, Wikipedia articles change often enough that you can't guarantee that what you're citing will be there in the same way if someone follows up on your references. However, like Credo, Wikipedia articles can provide excellent, detailed introductions to topics, and their bibliographies often point to important scholarly work on those topics.

Reading Techniques for Exploratory Research

As we saw in the "Bridezillas" video above, defining a topic is a cyclical process of research, reading, and using what you've read to direct reflection and further research. However, reading in the exploratory stage is somewhat different than the deeply immersive kind you may do for a class assignment or further along in your research.

As this video illustrates, exploratory reading involves a mix of skimming, close reading, and stepping away from your current text to explore cited sources and intriguing/confusing terms:

Tracking Your Sources with RefWorks


RefWorks is a web-based bibliography and database manager for your references. Primary benefits of using RefWorks include:

  • Keep track of your articles you want to use by importing the citation information into your RefWorks account. Your saved references will serve as its own database for when you write your paper.
  • The Write-N-Cite program inserts citations into your paper to create a bibliography list in ALA, MLA, Chicago or other formats. This time-saving tool will shed the hassle of having to write your bibliography list in the end.

An extensive RefWorks tutorial is available here. It is HIGHLY recommended. But the quick start guide below will get you set up.

How to start using the new ProQuest RefWorks:

  1. Access the ProQuest RefWorks website here.
  2. Click on Login to sign into your account or create an account. Please note that this is a new version of RefWorks, distinct from the Legacy service used prior to August 2017. 
  3. You MUST create an account using your "" email account. 
  4. You will receive a confirmation email to your "" to complete the setup process. Check your junk email folder if you do not see the email in your inbox. After creating your account on-campus, you will be able to access your account remotely with your log in/password from any location.