A good researcher is sort of like an archaeologist — you know, a person who digs ancient stuff up to learn more about the past. An archaeologist would never step foot in an Egyptian tomb to unlock the secrets of the mummies without the proper tools. So you shouldn't dig into your research without these essentials:
Spiral-bound, legal pad, college-ruled paper, red cover . . . whatever style suits you best, grab a notebook with plenty of blank pages or bring your laptop along. Some students simply record research in the same notebook used for regular class notes. Don't do it! Keep this kind of assignment separate. It's less confusing that way. Plus, you won't forget it in your locker when you go to the library.
- Pens, pencils, highlighters . . . writing utensils that make distinctive marks on paper
How can you take notes if you don't have anything to write with? Pens are great because you can switch colors (from black to blue) if you want to distinguish certain sections of your notes. For example, if you find facts that would be great in your introduction, write them down in blue rather than black. Save the neon highlighters for really important notes. That way those will jump off the page when you're searching for them.
- Money, money, money, money
Keep some spare change in your pocket. You may need coins for a number of things, but most importantly you'll need them to make photocopies of documents that can't be checked out from the library. It's also nice to have quarters handy if you need to make a call from the pay phone or if your library has a vending machine for brain-fueling snacks.
You'll need something to lug books to and from the library, along with your notes and writing utensils. Additional materials might include a camera for snapping photographs of something that fits in with your topic, the phone number of the person you're interviewing, or a folder for photocopies.
- Index cards
These compact tools are the perfect size for keeping your research organized and writing down resource information. Whether you're at the library combing the aisles for books or at home on the Internet, keep a pile of index cards with you.
When you find a good source, jot down on one side:
- the author, title, type of publication (book, magazine, newspaper article, Web site, encyclopedia entry).
- where you found it (library section 400, Mom's collection of National Geographic, in the attic, on microfilm, a specific Web site).
On the other side, write down:
- a few details about why you think this works for your research paper.
- how it relates to your topic.
- what the resource will support in your paper.
- where in the paper you would cite the material (introduction, body, or conclusion).
Basic reference books
Whether you're in the middle of doing the research or settling into paper-writing mode, it doesn't hurt to have some reference books with you. Carrying a pocket dictionary makes life easier when you stumble upon a word that you don't know.
A thesaurus is an excellent tool for enlivening a dull paper. It helps you find synonyms — or different ways to say the same thing — for words you tend to use over and over again. Check to make sure the word is appropriate in context by double-checking its definition in your dictionary.
This article, for example, gets stuck using the word "research" every few sentences, but sometimes it's necessary because its synonyms — explore, investigate, study, seek, examine — don't really apply.
When you're stuck at the beginning of research and need some factual information to jump-start you in the right direction, grab an encyclopedia. Though you shouldn't totally depend on this reference tool, it's a good place to get the basics on just about any topic. Just one sentence in an encyclopedia entry could inspire you to take your topic in a definitive direction.
This may draw a big "duh!" out of you, but sometimes the excitement about your own ideas for a report can make you forget exactly what your teacher has assigned. Keep a copy of the assignment with you at all times while researching. That way you can periodically check in and make sure you're right on track.
After all, no matter how hard you work on an expansive examination on the life of John F. Kennedy, your teacher will not be impressed if she specifically wanted a biographical report on a present day political figure.
A library card
You've found the perfect book on killer whales that has just the information you need to complete your report — but you forgot your library card. When you come back to the library someone else checked out the book, and you're not sure if it'll be returned before your assignment is due.
Don't let that happen to you. Even if you'd rather make photocopies than check out a book, make sure you have your library card with you whenever you visit the library, just in case.
You're not going to get too much done if you don't know what you're researching. Before you get started, have a broad topic picked out so you don't fall off the research wagon and into random-facts oblivion.
Once you start researching a particular subject, you may find an aspect that interests you even more than the one you set for yourself. That's perfectly fine — don't worry about changing your focus once you get started. The main idea is to have a clear-cut direction of research, and then allow the amazing facts you find to gradually shape your project.