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Step 2: Types of Research Papers and Identifying Audiences

During the course of your college career, you will likely be assigned to write a research paper. In terms of its academic scope, the assignment will be far more complex and demanding than a typical essay, summary or book report. Consequently, some students feel out of their depth when contemplating the intellectual demands of a research paper; this, in turn, leads to procrastination when the time comes for such an undertaking. Therefore, it is important to approach a research papers not as some extremely complicated assignment, but as a learning process that involves plenty of in depth research. 

From that angle, the first research paper you write could serve as a skill-builder for the various research projects that you will likely find yourself involved in throughout your post-college career. After all, few students have an inborn gift for tackling research assignments; even the most esteemed researchers have had to go through a learning curve, regardless of their field. By combining various other skills that you have already had to draw upon during your time as a student—self discipline, studiousness, organization, critical thinking, intellectual curiosity—you too can achieve wonders through the fine art of writing research papers.

What is a Research Paper?

A research paper is the finished result of a complex process that starts with the gathering and evaluation of info from primary and secondary sources. Often functioning as grey literature, a research paper could serve as a work of study among future researchers of the topic in question. Based on fresh evidence and insights, a well-written research paper could sway viewpoints, advance arguments and ultimately serve as a game changer in a given field. As an academic work, a research paper marks a writer’s rise from student to master in an area of study.

Operating at a whole different level than essays or book reports, a research paper embodies far more than just a summary of information. The process of compiling a research paper involves a lot more than the paraphrasing of preexisting knowledge; it also involves investigation and analysis on the part of the writer. In the end, the goal is not to summarize conventional wisdom on a given issue, but to integrate various sources and ultimately draw a unique conclusion. 

Three Steps to Writing a Research Paper

1. Recognizing the Genre

2. Selecting a Topic

3. Identifying the Audience


Before you begin work on a research paper, it is best to understand the following three steps:

Recognizing the Genre

Research papers typically fall into one of two categories, which differ in terms of their approach to the topics in question.

Selecting a Topic

Unless your professor assigns a specific topic or range of topics to choose from, the process of topic selection could involve some brainstorming on your part.

Identifying the audience

One of the key things to understand as you set about on your research is the kind of people you hope to communicate with through your writing.

Recognizing the Genre

Research papers generally fall into one of the two following categories:

The Argumentative Research Paper: With an argumentative research paper, the writer will introduce a controversial topic and then state his or her position on the matter; that position will invariably be identified as the paper’s thesis. One of the primary objectives here is to sway readers to a certain side of a heated or debatable subject.

The Analytical Research Paper: In an analytical research paper, the writer will pose a question on which he or she has not taken a position. As such, the paper invites readers to join along with the writer in a journey of intellectual discovery.

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Selecting a Topic

If you are assigned to do a research paper, your professor will likely give you a range of topics from which to choose. In most cases, the options will consist of topics that the professor considers most relevant and challenging from an educational standpoint. As a newcomer to this process, you may or may not appreciate that the options of your research have been preselected for you. If you have other ideas, it would be worth presenting them to your professor to see whether any of them could become alternative options. In the event that your professor vetoes your proposal, bear in mind that he or she has given out these assignments many times before and has likely drawn the guidelines in the best interest of first-time researchers. 

There could also be situations where your professor might hand out a guideline that details the parameter of a research paper assignment, but allows you to choose your own topic. Of course, the topic you choose will need to be germane to the class itself. In any case, do not worry about any lack of topical authority or researching experience on your part, because these are skills that you will gain as you go through the process of compiling your first research paper. But when you first begin a course that mentions a research paper in the syllabus, you should immediately start brainstorming for ideas to ensure that you will have a suitable topic ready when it is time to begin working on the assignment. In order to avoid any time-wasting cul-de-sacs, you will also need to fully understand your assignment and get any confusion worked out with your professor before you begin working.

Tip: Try to choose the topic that interests you the most-- an involved writers makes for a better paper.


If you are initially daunted by the whole undertaking, the most effective method in your arsenal could be to brainstorm, where you make a list of ideas for the topic of your paper. Seeing these ideas in writing is likely to motivate you further along in the process of research. Brainstorming can also be useful if you are having trouble choosing one topic from a range of options. Once you have your ideas written down, you might find that one stands out from all the others, in which case you will have likely found your best possible option. A further thing to consider is the fluidity of research and how it can change your preconceptions about a given topic over time. Simply put, the topic of your finished paper could end up being different than the one you had planned when first embarking on the assignment.

Identifying the Audience

For most beginning researchers, an audience can be a difficult thing to grasp from a conceptual standpoint. Exactly who is the audience? Is it your professor and maybe some of your classmates—an admittedly narrow scope—or does it extend far beyond the course itself to the greater academic community? Truth is, your paper should address itself to an audience somewhere in the middle of those two extremes. In this sense, the process of compiling a research paper is akin to composing an oral presentation, since both could be of interest to a sizable group of people who are bound by a common intellectual pursuit.

While it is important to pick your target audience, you should have a general understanding of which groups of people are unlikely to fall within that audience. For example, if you were writing about the possible impacts of climate change over the next 100 years, would you write your paper with today’s senior citizens in mind? Preferably, you would gear that paper towards a mix of scientists, environmentalists and concerned younger folks intent on raising families over the next several decades. 

Once you have identified your audience, you will also need to walk a fine line between speaking in their jargon and making things palatable to a general readership. While it is fair to assume that your overall audience will be well educated, it would be unfair to bog sentence after sentence down with slang from a particular industry, especially without defining any of the esoteric language.

In order to gain a clearer grasp of your potential audience, you should consider the following questions:

  • What type of audience are you looking to reach?
  • Which groups of people are likeliest to find your research interesting?
  • Which aspects of your topic would be the most interesting to that audience?
  • If the topic itself is unlikely to arouse much curiosity, what particular angle could make it more interesting?
  • Will your arguments and conclusions be popular or controversial among your audience?
  • If any of your points spark controversy, what counter arguments would you make towards detractors in your audience?

The key thing to understand here is that these assignments are designed to further discussions on particular topics, and your paper will serve as your initiation into a select academic community. The more you become involved with that community, the more you will grow to understand the expectations of your audience.

Composing a Research Paper

There are no universal patterns or expressways for composing a research paper; mastery of the process is only borne out of practice, which all commences once a student has grasped the assignment in question.

You might even find yourself composing two or three research papers in the same quarter, all of which could have different lengths and objectives. With each of these assignments, you will gain further mastery of topic selection and audience identification. Furthermore, these assignments will serve as skill-builders in the six stages of composing research papers: research, outlining, drafting, revising, editing and proofreading.

Composing a research paper could prove to be one of the most challenging but ultimately fulfilling undertakings of your college career. Through the process of research and writing, you will attain a new level of authority on a topic which could in turn lead to recognition and prestige within the academic area in question. Whether or not you know anything about your topic going into the assignment—be it science, politics, culture, art or one of many other things—you will conclude your research paper with a unique and perhaps unanticipated perspective, as well as a level of understanding and knowledge that few others possess on the topic. 

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