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Writing support for your research: Stages of planning a scholarly paper

This guide is intended to help AgriScience students with academic writing

Stage 1: Getting to a topic

First rule: get the help of peers and your supervisor to clarify your topic

How to narrow a topic down

A research question doesn't have to be a question. It can also be a statement, a proposition or a hypothesis.

Research question Research statement Research proposition / hypothesis
Can pine trees cause a biodiversity loss amongst fynbos in a mountain area? Pine trees cause a biodiversity loss amongst fynbos in a mountain area in Stellenbosch. Effective management of invasive pine tree species can prevent biodiversity loss of fynbos.


Stage 2: proposal stage

A research proposal is a working document that acts as a blueprint.

The format is dependent on the intention of your paper but the following elements need to be in a research proposal:

  1. Descriptive title (can be a working title)
  2. Reasons for choosing the subject: indicate the reasons (academic / practical / other) for undertaking the research
  3. Outline of the problem / thesis: make your claim upfront - can be stated as a problem / proposition. Then outline the problems and questions that you will be examining to support your claim. Show how they are linked and how they sustain your proposition (this is about validating your argument).
  4. Major sources: refer to the major sources you will be using. Make sure you have located the major works in the field and express your views on them.
  5. Method: You will need to set out your experiments, and the methods you are following..
  6. Structure: Give a rough outline of the divisions / sections in your paper and describe briefly what each section will deal with.
  7. Provisional / Running bibliography: this must be included and be kept up to date.

Format of the proposal:

The research proposal only needs to be 1-2 pages (between 500-1000 words) and should address the following questions:

The WHY - why this research: public interest, personal reasons

The WHAT - the specifics of the paper: problem statement including goals and purpose

The HOW - research methodology

Stage 3: Writing the scholarly paper

Three phases are involved in writing an academic paper:

Phase 1: Pre-writing

Writing for yourself and exploring concepts / experimenting with ideas.

Be creative - freewrite; keep a research and reading journal - recording articles that you read and your thoughts, 'notes to self', etc

Construct a mindmap or 'table of contents'

Phase 2: Drafting and re-writing / revising       

Start expanding on your ideas - start to write for others

Develop your thread, argument, coherence of structure and ask:

  • How will the reader receive this?
  • Do I have enough authority for the claims I make?
Phase 3: Editing

Polishing stage - grammar and punctuation and 'elegance' of writing style

Check also the correctness of references


Stage 4: Elements of a good scholarly paper

The following are typically present in a good scholarly paper:

  • A 'golden thread' - an overall line of argument - running through the paper, holding it together
  • 'Sign-posts' - crisp titles, sub-titles and headings that identify the direction being followed
  • 'Authority' - good engagement with existing literature and a comprehensive bibliography - the bibliography is the window to the paper and its author

Things to avoid:

  • Avoid long quotations - rather paraphrase or break up the quote with your own commentary
  • Avoid sloppy and inaccurate presentation and ensure that your references are correct

Stage 5: Choosing the title of your paper

Your title should contain the following functions:

  • conveying the content of your paper
  • catching the readers' attention
  • differentiating your paper from similar papers

They should be brief and descriptive and indicate the following:

  1. what the paper is about
  2. any methods / techniques used
  3. who or what was studied
  4. the nature of the results