We, librarians, are fortunate that we get to meet a lot of incoming Hopkins students. We often request that they give us their “burning questions” — about Baltimore, Hopkins, the library, life and love, etc. We’ve curated some of their questions and their answers into a series of blog posts that we hope will address some “burning questions” of your own.

Q: “What’s the best way to approach a research paper when you don’t know where to start?”

A: You find yourself staring at the blank page. The cursor is blinking with expectation, adding to the pressure of getting started on your research paper but your mind is as blank as the page. Where do you begin?

We’ve all been there! Starting your research can be daunting! Luckily, you’ve got the library (and the librarians) waiting in the wings, ready to help! There are a few basic steps that can get you started.

1 – A Topic: Even if you’ve got a topic in mind, it’s worth interrogating it and making sure that you’re able to write something interesting about it.

  • Do I know this topic/field well enough to contribute to the academic conversation?
  • Is your topic specific enough? If it’s not you’ll have an impossible time describing the phenomenon you are hoping to address. If it is too specific, you may struggle to find resources that address your subject.
  • Do you have access to what you’ll need to conduct your research? This is where you can depend on the library! If you are looking for a resource, let us know and we can help you find it. If we don’t have it, we can get it!

2 – Preliminary Research: Do a quick survey of what resources are out there that address your subject. Reviewing the literature on your topic will give you an idea of where you can look for more information and what angle you can take in your paper. Ask yourself who, what, where, and when you need to know to address your subject. You can use the information you find in this stage to construct a research strategy to make life easier for yourself. Pull keywords, key figures, dates, places, events, etc., from your preliminary research and let it inform your search going forward. This is the perfect stage to check out the library’s Research Guides. These guides act as signposts that can direct you toward where you can look for books, articles, datasets, and other resources about your topic.

3 – Create a Rough Outline: Ask yourself what you are trying to say with your research. Once you know that, create an outline of the arguments you intend to make that will bring the reader from Point A to Point Z. Start fleshing out your outline with your ideas, thoughts, and preliminary research. Make sure that your points flow together, following a logical order so that the reader can understand your thinking.

4 – Conduct further research: Now that you have your outline you can ask yourself “What am I trying to say in this portion of my research?” Then hit the library to find the resources you need to support the point you are making. Can’t find what you’re after? Getting frustrated? Reach out to your librarian. We can talk through your ideas, help you organize, and help you to find resources that may be eluding you.

5 – Write! Remember that writing and research is an iterative process. As you write, don’t be surprised to find yourself coming back to the library to find additional resources. Keep track of your research using a citation manager. Edit, rewrite, and get feedback!

Don’t let the blank page intimidate you. You’ve got things to say and ideas to contribute! We can’t wait to see what you do!