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Jessie Ball duPont Library

Research Writing

A beginner's guide to creating a research strategy for all of your papers.


What is Narration?

The technique of making a point by telling a story is called narration. Narration is not simply listing a series of events – “this happened, then that happened.” Narration shapes and interprets events to make a point. Notice the difference between the two paragraphs below.

Paragraph 1: Series of Events

Last Sunday we visited the National Zoo in Washington, D.C. As we entered, we decided to see the panda bear, the elephants, and the giraffes. All were outside enjoying the springlike weather. Then we visited the bat cave. I was amazed at how closely bats pack together in a small space. Finally, we went into the monkey house. There we spent time watching the giant apes watch us.

Paragraph 2: Narrative

Last Sunday’s visit to the National Zoo in Washington, D.C., was a lesson to me about animals in captivity. First we visited the panda, the elephants, and the giraffes. All seemed slow moving and locked into a dull routine – pacing around their yards. Then we watched the seals. Their trainer had them perform stunts for their food; they would never do these stunts in the wild. Finally, we stopped at the monkey house, where sad, old apes stared at us and watched kids point at them. The animals did not seem happy or content with their lives. 


The first paragraph retells events in the order in which they happened, but with no shaping of the story. The second paragraph, a narrative, also presents events in the order in which they happened, but uses these events to make a point: animals kept in captivity are unhappy. Thus, all the details and events work together to support that point. Notice the highlighted topic sentence. Your topic sentences (and thesis statement) should inform the reader about your point, but they should not be a direct announcement like “Now, I’m going to tell you about my visit to the zoo…” 


What is Definition?

A definition is an explanation of what something is. It has three essential parts:

  1. The term being defined.
  2. The group, or category, to which the term belongs.
  3. Its distinguishing characteristics.

Suppose you had to define the term cheetah. If you said it was a cat, then you would be stating the group to which it belongs. Group means the general category of which something is a part. If you said a cheetah lives in Africa and southwest Asia, has black-spotted fur, is long-legged, and is the fastest animal on land, you would be giving some of its distinguishing characteristics. Distinguishing characteristics are those details that allow you to tell an item apart from others in its same group. The details about the cheetah’s fur, long legs, and spend enable a reader to distinguish it from other large cats in Africa and southwest Asia.

Here is a sample definition paragraph.

Sushi is a Japanese food consisting of small cakes of cooked rice wrapped in seaweed. While it is commonly thought of as raw fish on rice, it is actually any preparation of vinegared rice. Sushi can also take the form of conical hand rolls and the more popular sushi roll. The roll is topped or stuffed with slices of raw or cooked fish, egg, or vegetables. Slices of raw fish served by themselves are commonly mistaken for sushi but are properly referred to as sashimi.


In the paragraph above, the term being defined is sushi. Its group is Japanese food, and its distinguishing characteristics are detailed. Also, notice that the topic sentence, which is highlighted, also functions as a short definition for what is being considered. 


What is Description?

Descriptive writing uses words and phrases that appeal to the senses – taste, touch, smell, sight, and hearing. Descriptive writing helps your reader imagine an object, person, place, or experience. The details you use should also leave your reader with an overall impression of what you are describing. Here is a sample descriptive paragraph. Notice how he makes you feel as if you are in the kitchen with him as he prepares chili.


My favorite chili recipe requires a trip to the grocery store and a day to hang around the kitchen stirring, but it is well worth the expense and time. Canned, shiny red kidney beans and fat, great white northern beans simmer in the big pot, while ground beef and kielbasa sizzle and spit in a cast-iron skillet. Raw white onions bring tears to one’s eyes, and they are quickly chopped. Plump yellow and orange peppers are chopped to add fiber and flavor, while six cloves of garlic, smashed, make simmering all day a necessity. When it cooks, this chili makes the whole house smell mouthwateringly good. When eaten, chunks of kielbasa stand out in a spicy, garlicky sauce with small nuggets of ground beef.


Hungry yet?

Notice that this paragraph describes tastes, smells, sounds, and colors. You even learn how it feels to chop an onion. Notice, too, that all of the details directly support an overall impression that is expressed in the first sentence (i.e., the topic sentence). 


What is Example?

An example is a specific instance or situation that explains a general idea or statement. Apples and grapes are examples of fruit. Martin Luther King Day and Thanksgiving Day are examples of national holidays. Here are a few sample general statements along with specific examples to illustrate them:

General Statement:

I had an exciting day.


a. My sister had her first baby.

b. I got a bonus check at work.

c. I reached my goal of twenty laps in the pool.

General Statement:

Joe has annoying habits.


a. He interrupts me when I am talking.

b. He is often late and makes no apologies.

c. He talks with his mouth full.


Here is a sample paragraph that uses examples to explain the general idea of superstitious beliefs (Note the highlighted topic sentence):

Superstition affects many people on a daily basis. For example, some people think it is very unlucky if a black cat crosses their path, so they go to great lengths to avoid one. Also, according to another superstitious belief, walking under a ladder brings bad luck. Putting shoes on a bed is thought to be a sign that a death will occur in the family. People tend either to take superstitions very seriously or to reject them out of hand as fanciful imagination; regardless, they play an important part in our culture.


Notice that the paragraph gives three examples of superstitions along with a concluding sentence that ties these examples back to the topic sentence.



What is Comparison/Contrast?

Comparison and contrast are two ways of organizing information about two or more subjects. Comparison focuses on similarities; contrast focuses on differences. When writing paragraphs, it is often best to focus either on similarities or differences, instead of trying to cover both in a short piece of writing. Essay-length pieces can focus on both similarities and differences, but it is often easier to concentrate on one or the other. Here is a sample contrast paragraph:

Every time I go out for Mexican food, I have to choose between tacos de carne asada and tacos al pastor – they are tasty, but different. The tacos de carne asada are three tortillas stuffed with chopped steak, served with a dish each of cilantro, onion, tomato, and fiery salsa. The tacos al pastor are similar, but chorizo is added to the chopped steak. While the tacos al pastor are a little greasier, they also have more spice and heat. Tacos de carne asada are drier with less flavor, but there’s more room to add the vegetables, and that often makes for more dynamic flavor possibilities.


In this paragraph, the author discusses the differences between two types of tacos. He examines their ingredients, their spiciness, and their overall flavor. 


What is Classification?

Classification explains a subject by identifying and describing its types or categories. For instance, a good way to discuss medical personnel is to arrange them into categories: doctors, nurse practitioners, physician’s assistants, nurses, technicians, and nurse’s aides. If you wanted to explain who makes up your college faculty, you could classify the faculty members by the disciplines they teach (or, alternatively, by age, level of skill, race, or some other factor). Here is a sample classification paragraph:

If you are interested in entering your pedigreed pet in the upcoming cat show, make sure you check with the Cat Fancier’s Association first. The CFA, sponsor of the show, has strict rules regarding eligibility. You must enter your cat in the right category. Only cats in the Championship Class, the Provisional Class, or the Miscellaneous Class will be allowed to participate. The first category in every cat show is the Championship Class. There are 37 pedigreed breeds eligible for showing in this class, some of which may sound familiar, such as the Abyssinian, the Maine Coon, the Siamese, and the Russian Blue. The Provisional Class allows only three breeds; the American Bobtail, a breed that looks like a wildcat but acts like a pussycat; the LaPerm, a curly-haired cutie that’s descended from early American barn cats; and the semi-longhaired Siberian, a breed that was first imported from Russia in 1990. The Miscellaneous Class allows only one breed – the Ragamuffin with its silky, rabbitlike coat. So, before you rush out and pay the entry fee, make sure you have something fancy enough for the Cat Fanciers’ Association. 


This paragraph explains the eligibility for a cat show by describing the three categories of cats allowed to enter the show. 


What is Process?

A process is a series of steps or actions that one follows in a particular order to accomplish something. When you assemble a toy, bake a cake, rebuild an engine, or put up a tent, you do things in a specific order. A process essay explains the steps to follow in completing a process. The steps are given in the order in which they are done. Here is a sample process paragraph. In it, the writer explains how copyediting is done at his college’s student newspaper.

The Fourth Estate’s copyediting process is not very complicated. First, articles are submitted in electronic format and are read by Merren, the copy editor. Next, she makes changes and ensures all the articles are in their proper place. Then, section editors have a day to read the stories for their sections and make changes. Finally, all articles, photographs, cartoons, and anything else to be included in the upcoming issue is read and fact-checked by the editor-in-chief.

In this paragraph the writer identifies four steps. Notice that they are presented in the order in which they happen. You can visualize a process paragraph or essay as follows. There are two types of process paragraphs/essays – a “how-to” paragraph/essay and a “how-it-works” paragraph/essay:

  1. A “how-to” essay explains how something is done. For example, it may explain how to change a flat tire, aid a choking victim, or locate a reference source in the library.
  2. A “how-it-works” essay explains how something operates or happens. For example, it may explain the operation of a pump, how the human body regulates temperature, or how children acquire speech.


Cause and Effect

What is Cause and Effect?

Causes are explanations of why things happen. Effects are explanations of what happens as a result of an action or event. Each day we face situations that require cause-and-effect analysis. Some are daily events; others mark important life decisions. Why won’t my car start? Why didn’t I get my student loan check? What will happen if I skip class today? How will my family react if I decide to get married? Here is a sample cause-and-effect paragraph. The writer discusses what can go wrong when preparing guacamole.

Adding too many ingredients to guacamole will ruin the delicate flavor created by the interplay between the fatty avocado, spicy peppers, and sweet tomatoes. Adding yogurt, for example, dilutes the dip to an almost soup-like consistency and ruins the flavor. Dumping in salsa overpowers the delicate avocado so that you don’t know what you are eating. Another common error, adding too much salt, masks the luxurious flavor of the avocado found in the best guacamole.

In this paragraph, the student writer identifies three causes and three effects. 

Distinguishing between Cause and Effect:


What is Argument?

An argument is a line of reasoning intended to persuade the reader or listener to agree with a particular viewpoint or to take a particular action. With respect to writing, argument does not refer to any heated exchange or hostile conversation. An argument presents reasons and evidence for accepting a belief or position or for taking a specific action. For example, you might argue that testing cosmetic products on animals is wrong, or that a traffic signal should be installed at the end of your street. An argument has three essential parts:

  • An issue – This is the problem or controversy that the argument addresses. It is also the topic of an argument essay. Gun control legislation is an example of an issue.
  • A position – A position is the particular point of view a writer has on an issue. There are always at least two points of view on an issue – pro and con (and there are often many mediating positions). For example, you may be for or against gun control. You may favor or oppose lowing the legal drinking age.
  • Support – Support consists of the details that demonstrate your position is correct and should be accepted. There are three types of support: reasons, evidence, and emotional appeals (although an argument that is based solely on emotional appeals would be a very weak argument).

Here is a sample argument paragraph:

I strongly urge residents to vote “NO” on a referendum to withdraw funding for the proposed renovation of the Potwine town soccer fields. The town’s other available fields are at capacity, and the number of children trying out for soccer is still growing. There are now more than 2,000 children between the ages of 6 and 13 playing recreational and travel soccer teams. Meanwhile, the number of fields the college is willing to let us use has been reduced from 19 to 2. We are now having to rent fields in neighboring towns to accommodate all of the teams playing on Saturday afternoons! Opponents of the renovation always cite money as an obstacle. In fact, the money to fix the fields has been sitting in a Community Preservation Act fund for more than 15 years. Let the upcoming election be the final one, and make it one for the children – our own and the generations to come. Vote NO.


In this paragraph, the issue is the renovation of soccer fields. The writer’s claim is that the renovation is necessary. The paragraph then offers reasons for the renovation.