A guide to planning research projects based on L. Faigley’s Brief Penguin Handbook
edited by Seth Ward


The following guide to planning research projects is based very closely on Section 5, chapters 16-20, of Lester Faigley, The Brief Penguin Handbook, New York: Longman, 2003. These chapters rely to a great extent on students having read his earlier chapters—some of the material about analyzing readings, constructing a thesis and so on, is only described in detail earlier in the book.   The language here is generally taken directly from the Handbook: the words are usually his, not mine, except for what is in italics.  I have edited, excerpted, condensed and adapted Faigley’s material to reflect my experience and predilections, and the specific context of my courses. The Chapters indicated here are those of Faigley.  Please note my comments at the end about documentation.

Seth Ward

Chapter 16

Analyze the task. Which of these tasks are involved?

Analysis or Examination: Look at an issue in detail, explaining how it has evolved, who or what it affects, and what is at stake.

Review of scholarship.

Survey of opinions.

Evaluation: make critical judgments

Argument: assemble evidence supporting a claim you make.


Identify potential readers.

How familiar are they with your subject? What are they likely to know about the subject? What aspects will interest them? What Background info do you need to supply? What opinions or beliefs are your readers likely to have? Do you want to inform your readers or persuade them to change their beliefs or take some action?


Assess project length and scope

What kind of research? How long is the paper? How many sources will you need? What steps are required?


Set a schedule

Find a topic

Ask a question and draft a working thesis

Define the kind of research you need to do

Begin research

Start working bibliography

Read and evaluate sources

Summarize and paraphrase your sources

Review your goals and thesis

Plan your organization

Decide what material from your sources to include

Write the first draft

Review your draft

Revise your draft

Edit and check formatting of your revised draft

Submit final draft.


Develop a broad context before you narrow your focus

Use subject dictionaries and encyclopedias on line, use your textbooks. Use the University Library: both books in the stacks and references the University Library makes available on line.


Ask a Question and Draft a Working Thesis

Consider a broad context, but then determine a well-defined topic within that context. Then write a “Research Question” and a “Working Thesis” that defines an initial response to the question. The Working Thesis is a single sentence, although it might reach 25-35 words long.  Faigley does not give much further guidance about how to do this in this chapter—he did that back in Chapter 3. He concludes this section by stating “…The key to writing an effective thesis is finding a topic that is neither too vast nor too narrow, and one that is not obvious. You may have to adjust your working thesis more than once as you plan and begin drafting.” (34) His examples illustrate that the working thesis is not necessarily limited to the narrow response to the Research Question. The Working Thesis often also lays out the likely significance of the research findings. One of Faigley’s examples here gives no answer to the question at all; it suggests that there is no single answer but offers a typology of answers.


Full Paragraph

The Working Thesis will be much more valuable if you write a full paragraph following the Working Thesis. This paragraph will give a fuller sense of the primary and secondary sources, the contents and issues of the paper, and the potential significance of the findings.


Decide what kind of research

Primary and secondary research

Your paper should have primary sources as well as secondary research. Undergraduates are not usually required to use never-before examined literary finds, historical documents or artifacts in the original language, but should view critical reading of reasonably accessible primary sources already used by scholars as a necessary component of the research paper. The accessible primary sources may shape the kind of research you can do.


Plan your field research

For the most part, this section will not be relevant for this course. Certain types of field research require a written release from persons interviewed.



(Chapter 17) Finding Sources

Library, Web, Books, Keywords, Articles, Lexis/Nexis etc.

Faigley gives a lot of attention to this. And so should we. A classroom exercise may help students to identify primary and secondary sources. Reference librarians can help you access databases in the university library.


A Working Bibliography


Bibliographic references need “4 fields:” Author, Title, Publication info (including date), and Location. 


This is applied in different ways to: Books, individual chapters in multi-authored books, journal articles, webpages, etc. Some types of sources get special treatment: you should let readers know what Bible you have in front of you if this is relevant, but you need to cite it as book, chapter and verse—not as edition and page.


Take some notes on each source, and make sure to distinguish direct quotes, paraphrases, and your own evaluation of the source. Describe briefly the most important ways the source relates to the research question or working thesis. Use web and published sources, general or reference works and books or articles which relate specifically to your research. It will be helpful to draw up an annotated bibliography of primary and secondary sources, with one to three sentences about a number of these sources. A “literature review” essay of similar length can eventually be part of your paper.


Chapter 18 Evaluating Sources


Criteria for evaluation: Source--Organization--Author—Timeliness—Evidence—Biases—Advertising.  These criteria may be used in evaluating websites as well as published books and articles. Faigley uses these criteria well to assess the credibility of websites.  Anyone can, and does, put up a website and while they are highly useful and readily “Googled,” care should be used in determining the source, reliability and biases of the information, judgments and opinions they contain.


Chapter 19 Avoiding Plagiarism

Quoting-Summarizing-Paraphrasing-Citing ideas. Plagiarism or “assembling” of papers from other sources can be a serious academic offence. Please take special care to uphold the standards of academic integrity in your writing.


Chapter 20 Writing the Research Project.


Review goals and thesis

Purpose (analysis, review, survey, evaluation, argument),


Your Stance on subject.
Length and Scope of paper.

Working Thesis.

Sources: Located, read, evaluated and taken notes.



Plan your organization

How will you group your ideas? Decide what your major points will be and how these points support your thesis? Group your research findings so that they support your major points.


Incorporate quotations, summaries and paraphrases effectively

Faigley identifies overuse of quotations as the “worst mistake” of student papers next to plagiarism. “The purpose of using sources is to support what you have to say, not to say it for you…. [Stringing] together a series of long quotations…leaves your readers wondering whether you have anything to say.” (224) 


Introduce your sources correctly and don’t overdo them.


Write your draft

Announce your thesis in your introductory section, and include a conclusion which reviews the paper and tells readers what is significant about it.


Review your draft

Faigley suggests a peer review.


Revise, Edit, and Check Formatting.




Allow me a final note about documentation styles: In Section 6, Chapters 21-25, Faigley presents a very good review of different systems of documentation: footnotes, endnotes, in-text citations, and other modes of reference documentation. Although some instructors insist on adopting an arbitrary method—MLA or Chicago Manual of Style for example—in fact each book or journal has its own variations in reference style. Many authors use both footnotes and in-text references, and many types of sources require individualized usages. Sometimes, technical requirements of one or another style do not correspond with the assumptions made by your computer (my word processor does not like one of the MLA style rules and throws annoying green lines on the screen when I use it properly). Most important, getting the technical format of the reference notes to correspond exactly with an arbitrary system down to its minute points is less important than knowing about the content, usage, and need for references and documentation. Accuracy is important for references as well as writing. Effort applied to style should be focused on clarity and recoverability. Adopt a system for your references, and use it reasonably. Reasonable consistency is important, although foolish consistency is a waste of time. (Remember to ignore this advice if and when absolute consistency to a prescribed style is required by instructor, context, editor, publisher or employer).