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College Writing: Official Guide

Selecting a Topic

To begin your research process, you have to select a topic. You should select a topic that interests you, since you will be working on it for about half of the semester. Your research topic might logically flow from your College Writing readings, class discussions, or something else that has sparked your interest.

The basis of your research paper is going to be a primary source.

First, ask yourself - what do I want to learn more about?

First, determine what you want to know from working with a primary source.
For example: I'm interested in examining how feminism is portrayed in popular culture.

Consider various types of primary sources

Think about different performances, movies, interviews or other things you've seen, listened to, or experienced. 

For example: Beyonce's Formation Video; Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's Ted Talk; Amanda Gorman reading poem at Inauguration

What other primary source types could you consult?

The information primary sources contain is original and has not been rewritten or reinterpreted by someone else. 

Original documents: records, files, reports, maps, first-hand accounts of events, interviews, letters, personal journals, diaries, videos/sound recordings, original research including scientific data, opinion polls, government documents, social media posts

Creative worksmemoirs, photos, films, poetry, drama, novels, art work, gardens, code, advertisements, GIFs

Relics, artifacts: jewelry, pottery, furniture, clothing, tools, architecture/buildings

Explore Primary Sources - Go To Next Tab

On the next tab, there are various primary sources that you can explore to assist you with selecting a topic.

The WashU Libraries offers many databases that include primary sources, many of which are digitized collections of papers, diaries, images, and interviews.

The WashU Libraries also has primary sources which include statistical data and polling data.

Further, Special Collections is a great place to find primary resources.

Need More Ideas??

If you are still not sure what you want to research, you can use secondary sources to help you find primary sources.

What are secondary sources?

Often produced sometime after an event has occurred, interpret, analyze, and comment on primary sources.

  • Books

  • Interpretive articles from journals, magazines, and newspapers

  • Reviews

Brainstorm Ideas from Secondary Sources
Review articles or books you have read recently that analyze primary source materials.
For example: This Harper's Bazaar list describes "feminist moments" in pop culture in 2020.

Look at articles in the New York Times for inspiration. Try the National Public Radio (NPR) website for articles and podcasts.

Can a source be both a primary or secondary source?

A source can be primary or secondary depending on how it is being used. Often newspapers are considered secondary sources as journalists report, analyze, and interpret events and the experience of others. Newspapers can also be used as primary sources. If you are researching how American attitudes on welfare spending have changed during the past twenty years, newspaper editorials can serve as primary sources of public opinion.

Librarians and your instructor can help you identify primary and secondary sources for your projects.

You are a Researcher!

You are already an experienced researcher! We find information everyday using Google (or other search engines), crowd sourcing our friends, or catching up on news on social media. It's easy to make the the jump to use these and other tools to search for information for a research assignment. Understanding where to start, what the tool is searching, and what it will find is an important skill you'll hone for your assignment.