A Guide to the Research Paper: Primary Sources, Thesis Statements, and Mechanics

A Guide to the Research Paper: Primary Sources, Thesis Statements, and Mechanics

A Guide to the Research Paper: Primary Sources, Thesis Statements, and Mechanics

Primary Sources

These are what you will build your paper around. Primary sources are the building blocks of history, the items you examine and interpret to reach your own conclusions about a historical event. The objects of your research should be to come up with a few of these primary sources that will allow you to write intelligently on your proposed topic.

What is a primary source?

There are any number of examples of what a primary source could be. The main thing to keep in mind is that they are ideally created at the time of the event you are studying, or by participants in the event. Primary sources include:




Newspaper articles

Magazine articles

Court hearings

Police reports



Audio clips

Video clips


Thesis Statements

These are the key to a successful paper of any sort. Think of the thesis statement as the brain of the paper and the rest of it as the body. Without a brain, the body will not function. Your thesis should serve as a spinal cord, running throughout the paper, and all your paragraphs should relate to it.

You should be as clear as possible in your thesis statement. This not only lets the reader know what you are arguing, but it helps keep you on track and focused for 12 pages.

Good thesis statements are one sentence long. For example: If I am writing about the reaction of Japanese-Americans to internment during World War II, a thesis statement would look like this:

Diaries and memoirs of the internees show that Japanese-Americans resented being forced into camps, yet did not waver in their loyalty to the United States, and many were determined to prove their patriotism by not violently resisting internment and by serving in the military during the war.

Notice that this lays out not only the argument you are making, but how you plan to support that argument. If you were writing a paper with this thesis, your supporting paragraphs would examine how diaries and memoirs show that the internees resented internment, how they felt about loyalty to the U.S., and how they tried to prove that.

This would not be a good thesis:

This paper will examine Japanese-Americans’ reaction to wartime internment.

The reader does not know what your conclusions are, nor how you are going to support it. It is vague, and when you are writing your paper, you will run into writer’s block and confusion more often, because you will not have a good plan of how to write the paper.

Note: For the October 30 thesis and 1-page description, I am not looking for your thesis to be as well-formed as the first one I showed – but I do want it to be more substantial than the second one directly above. Your thesis will become more refined as you work on your paper, but for Oct. 30, you should at least have an idea of what it is that you intend to say about your topic.

Planning The Paper

Writing any research paper requires a lot of time and a lot of planning. For us graduate students, we take at least two quarters just to write a single paper of about 30 pages. Most of that time is spent researching and laying out the arguments – and then there is the days and weeks it takes to actually write it.

We are giving you 10 weeks to come up with, research, and write a paper. Actually, it’s less than that – your rough draft is due on November 23. So you will have about 8 weeks from the beginning of the course until you have to turn in a paper.

Mechanics of a Good Paper

There are several things to keep in mind as your write your essay. This list does not cover all of them – but it covers most of them.

  1. Do not write “I think…” Just argue the point.

The entire paper is what you think about the topic. The reader knows this, and it looks better if you present your arguments as factually and directly as possible. An example of what not to do:

I think that this diary entry shows how Monica Sone felt that she had done nothing wrong and saw herself as a loyal American, not as a disloyal “Jap”.

A better way to write this would be:

This diary entry shows how Monica Sone felt that…

  1. Start each paragraph with a topic sentence, and back it up with primary sources in the body of the paragraph.

This will help keep your paper well-structured and readable. The topic sentence should introduce the issues you will discuss in the sentences to follow. A good example is:

Most Japanese Americans did not violently resist their internment, preferring to show their patriotism and loyalty by complying with the government’s orders.

You would then want to introduce primary-source evidence that backs up that point in the remainder of that paragraph.

  1. Use a spellchecker, but use it carefully, and proofread your paper once you print it out!

Once upon a time, people used typewriters to write papers, and did not have the luxury of a word-processing program that would check spelling for them. Thankfully we have progressed beyond such dark ages, but a spellchecker is NOT perfect, and will not catch everything, particularly incorrect word usage.

This means that even after you run a spellcheck and print your paper, you will want too read over the hard copy and catch mistakes. Believe me, a paper reads very differently in print than on a screen, and many simple mistakes sometimes go unnoticed.

Did you catch the ‘too’ in the paragraph above? (Look in the second line). The spellchecker did not put the red squiggly line underneath it, so I just kept right on going. If had not pointed that out, you would think your TA is an idiot. You would not want me to think the same of you – even though you are all intelligent students, you would come off as less than that if you used the wrong word. Examples to watch for:

Japanese-Americans felt that they’re loyalty had been called into question.

“They’re” is short for “they are”. What you want to put here instead is “their”.

White Americans were afraid that they would loose the war if Japanese-Americans remained in their homes in West Coast cities.

“Loose” is what your shoelaces are. The word that should go here is “lose”.

  1. Do not use font and margin tricks to make your paper longer.

Do not use font and margin tricks to make your paper longer.

Notice the difference. The first line is in Times New Roman, 12-point, and the second is in Courier New, 12-point. If you are having trouble making your paper 12 pages long, resist the temptation to artificially stretch out the length. I will notice, and wonder what is wrong with your paper that made you do that instead of looking for what is good in your paper (which is what I would like to do).

Basic formatting rules for the paper:

Use a normal font (preferably Times New Roman)

12-point font size

One-inch margins (MS Word usually sets the left and right margins to 1.25” and that’s OK)

Double-spaced lines

  1. Do I need to have a title page?

No, I do not really see the point to those. All I need is a heading at the top of your paper that gives me your name, your section, and the date, such as:

Robert Cruickshank

Section AA

October 30, 2004

And then the title.

  1. Do I have to use footnotes?

Yes! ALL your sources MUST be cited. Anything you use from a source must be put in quotes, and footnoted. An example, with the citation at the bottom of this page: