On writing a research paper or report for SCA competition

By Maîtresse Marcele de Montsegur

There has been a lot of discussion about writing documentation for SCA competition, and more than a few excellent webbed articles on the topic. Writing pure research for SCA competition, however, tends to be under-taught and misunderstood. So, how do you write a research paper or report? The safest answer is to write it to the standard of an academic research paper in college. If you’re not sure what that means, read on.

This article hopes to demystify the process of writing research papers on historically-based subjects and show how it is different from standard “documentation” for A&S competition entries.

Persuasion or analysis?
Answer the following question: Do I want to a) put forth an argument and back it up with logical analysis from historical sources or do I want to b) provide my own analysis and interpretation of a set of historical sources on a particular topic (regardless of whether they all agree with each other)?

The type of paper described in A is called an “argumentative” or “persuasive” paper. The type described in B is called an “analytical” paper. When it comes to research that goes beyond the simplest high school “report”, you will need to do one or the other (or perhaps both).

Structuring your paper
This can be the biggest challenge, aside from actually ingesting all the research material and coming up with something useful to report. Let’s take a look at the two types of papers I mention above: argumentative and analytical. They each have their own structures. Both types of papers have an introduction, a body, and a conclusion, but the material within each section is different.

In an analytical paper:
In a persuasive paper:
For much more information about “research questions”, “thesis statements” and the various traditional sections of a research paper, please see the links I provide at the end of this article.

Choosing your level of focus
When you have decided which type of paper you want to write, next make sure your topic is specific enough for the length format you intend to use. Here in the East Kingdom, competitions traditionally break down the research categories into “reports” (under eight pages) and “papers” (eight pages or more). If entering a report, keep in mind that your topic should be specific, or else you may not be able to do the job in less than eight pages. If entering a paper, make sure your topic is not too narrow, as you may find yourself exhausting useful material in less than eight pages. On the other side of the range, try not to make your topic too broad, as it may become unrealistic to do the large amount of research and writing required to truly get to the meat of your topic in the time allotted before the deadline for submission. A topic like “Food in Europe between 600 and 1600”, for example, is rather huge and better suited to the production of multi-volume encyclopedias than a research paper.

Once you have narrowed your topic down, you are ready to gather your sources, make notes about them, internalize them, and begin writing your paper’s content.

Organization of data
One of the most challenging parts of writing a research paper is figuring out in what order to report your data. Many scholars have different systems for helping with this, but one of the easiest and cheapest is to buy a large pack of index cards (4” x 6” or 5” x 7” work well) and record each useful data point on a card. Later, after you have finished gathering knowledge from your various sources, you can read your cards, lay them out, shuffle them around, and get an idea for what order the data points should take in order to make the most sense to a reader and either answer your research question or prove your thesis statement. Setting up each card with a consistent labeling system also makes it much easier to complete your citations as you write the paper. Here’s an example of one system:

Upper left corner: last name of author of source
Upper right corner: page number(s)
Center of card: summary of data point.

If you have thoughts entirely of your own to include, you might choose to put “me” in the upper left corner, so you will know at a glance that some of your cards are not other people’s ideas or discoveries – and are, therefore, not requiring citation.

Citation is the concise and complete notation of all sources used in your research paper. It is *extremely* important, and yet it is often overlooked or incomplete in research reports and papers entered in SCA competitions. This article hopes to draw awareness to this basic requirement of good research writing so that future entries in SCA competition may stand on their own in an academic setting, not only in an SCA setting.

As you decide which sources have value for your paper, you will end up entering them in a bibliography at the end of the paper as well as making notes in reference to them throughout the paper.

Citation means:
  1. Making notes of the sources for all specific data mentioned throughout the paper,
  2. Creating a bibliography for every work cited or consulted during the writing of the paper. Some people like to create two bibliographies: a “works cited” list, as well as a “works consulted” list, the latter being useful sources that may not have directly contributed to the paper’s content but that helped inform the writer on the topic under discussion or related topics.
Citation notes have a number of accepted formats in historical research writing, but one of easiest methods is called “parenthetical” notation. When you summarize a fact, idea, or opinion that comes from a source other than you, at the end of the sentence (or group of sentences) you can place a parenthetical note that looks like this: (Author’s Last Name, #), where “#” stands for the page number(s). To borrow an example, I’m going to include a sentence that I am paraphrasing from another source, and parenthetically note it:

“The Duke of Burgundy challenged the Duke of Gloucester to a personal combat in 1425 in order to end a dispute over the land of Holland. He expressed a desire to spare his countrymen the cost of bloodshed by taking up the combat by himself to settle the matter. (Huizinga, 85)”

The bibliographical reference at the end of the paper would look like this:

Huizinga, Johan. The Waning of the Middle Ages. New York:
    St. Martin’s Press, 1929.

The two together complete the citation. Having one without the other is not that useful. The parenthetical citation lets the reader know whose work you used and exactly what area of the text you consulted, while the bibliography provides all information necessary to track that source down, should the reader want to do so.

If you wish to directly quote a source, the general rule is that four typed lines or less may be kept in-line with the text with quotation marks around the quoted section and a citation note following it. If the direct quote is longer than that, you will need to set it apart by indenting it about five to ten spaces from the left margins and start and end the quote on their own lines. For instance:

“Joseph Strayer, in his book The Albigensian Crusades, explains the origin of Satan as the overseer of physical existence in the Cathar belief system:
Satan or Lucifer, the highest of the angels, perhaps even a son of God, led by pride and ambition, departed from the realm of pure spirit and created the material world. He made man and woman from clay, but these miserable beings had no soul. According to one version, God took pity on these victims of Satan and gave them souls; another source says that Satan used the souls of the angels who fell with him.” (28)”
The number 28 above is a parenthetical note for the page from the book by Strayer that I have cited. Because I mentioned the author’s name and book title already, all that is left to note is the page number. The bibliographic reference will be:

Strayer, Joseph. The Albigensian Crusades. Ann Arbor:
    University of Michigan Press, 1992.

There are a number of different and consistent methods for citing, and many different rules for citing a variety of source types. Citing a website is done differently than citing text from a book, or a journal article, or a single image. It is up to you as the researcher to decide on and fully understand the method you choose.

Style Manuals
I would recommend one of the following three styles manuals, which is the term used by editors and writers for the different methods of formatting your writing: Chicago (created and maintained by the University of Chicago Press), MLA (which stands for Modern Language Association), or Turabian (which was written by Kate Turabian and is popular in many colleges; it is considered a condensed version of Chicago). All three can be tracked down via the web, or you can find them in book form. Pick one, get to know it, and use it consistently.

To give you a glimpse of the differences between the three style manuals I’ve recommended, here is how a one-author book would be cited in the bibliography using all three styles. Please note that Chicago and Turabian are identical in this instance:

Strayer, Joseph R. The Albigensian Crusades.
    Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1992.

Strayer, Joseph R. The Albigensian Crusades.
    Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1992.

Strayer, Joseph. The Albigensian Crusades.
    Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1992.

A note about citing photographs and images in general
In the SCA, we tend to use a lot of photographs of objects or works of art to bolster our historical arguments. It is important that you cite not only the source for that image (i.e. the book, journal, or website from which you gleaned it), but also the location of whatever is in the image, if it is an object of some kind. For instance, let’s say you want to include a photo of a famous painting which you came across in a book you happen to own. Regardless of whether you include your figures in-line with the text or at the end of the paper in one grouping together, make sure each figure is numbered clearly, titled clearly (object or work of art plus creator’s name, if known) and if at all possible, include the location and/or ownership of the item. This information goes in the caption, which is usually printed below or next to the image.

When you mention an image in your text, make sure you include a consistent labeling system, such as “(Figure X)” or “Fig. Y”. Your style manual should have a standard that it recommends. Do not reproduce the same image more than once. If necessary, simply refer back to it by its figure number already assigned. As long as your images are shown and referred to in a chronological order, you won’t have a problem if you need to re-mention one again later on. The reader will know where to find it easily enough.

Here is a visual example of an in-text image, its caption, and its bibliographic reference.


Figure 1. Long, flowing sleeves from the last decade of the 14th century. Bulla Aurea Caroli IV Regis MS. Fol.33, dated from 1390–1400, originally in the library of Wenceslas IV of Bohemia. Now in the State Library of Vienna as Cod. 338. (Sronkova, 161)

Bibliographic reference:
Sronkova, Olga. Gothic Fashions in Women’s Dress. Prague: Artia, 1954.

Recap of image citation:
  1. Images should be placed consistently: either in-line with the text or all together at the end.
  2. Images should be shown once each, and each one named in chronological order, such as Fig. 1, Fig. 2, etc.
  3. The caption that accompanies the image should include a short description or the name of the object in the image, the creator’s name, the location/ownership of the image, and the source from which you gleaned the image. If you don’t have all this information, do the best that you can with the information you do have. Err on the side of completeness; do not assume readers won’t be interested in as much information as possible.
  4. The source for that image should be cited in the bibliography at the end of the paper.
Language usage in research papers
In the SCA we often write our documentation as steps we took to achieve our goal. We use the word “I” a lot. In the typical research paper, the writer is somewhat invisible, because he or she is presenting facts and deductions that do not require the reader to identify with the person writing the words. The reader wants the facts in an orderly presentation and does not want to think about what the author has done behind the scenes. In other words, the author is an omniscient narrator, unfolding and displaying an area of knowledge for the reader. He or she is not the center of attention – the facts are.

If you wish to turn your documentation for a process into a research paper, there are a number of ways to do this effectively without describing your own actions. Where you might have said, “I mixed the pigments and created a light yellow paint”, you may instead say, “Mixing X and W materials in this amount creates a light yellow pigment that matches the tones seen in the Q manuscript illuminations.” Another example is as follows: Instead of saying, “I took a close look at X artifact at Y museum and discovered that the gold-colored metal inlay is not gold, but a form of latten most probably created from nickel and copper,” you could write, “Scholar Q reports that X artifact at Y museum has gold inlay but close inspection reveals that it is in fact made of a copper-nickel alloy, commonly called “latten” during the time period of this object’s construction.”

Formatting your paper
In the SCA we do not tend to have a strict system of visual presentation. This is part of the creative charm of our arts and sciences: people have a lot of leeway for presenting their work, whether it takes the form of a science-fair-style poster-board or a tableau of “real life”, or simply a county fair display. With research papers, however, there are good reasons for sticking with time-tested methods of presentation and those are: clarity and ease-of-reading.

I shall borrow an example from the world of fiction editing. The average editor at a fiction magazine or publishing house receives many, many submissions. The editor will look for any excuse to put something aside. It had better be pretty perfect, or the editor will stop reading, put it in the rejection pile, and move on to the next submission. If your paper is written in a hard-to-read font, or the size of the words is too small or two close together, you are giving an editor an excuse to put your paper aside and move on to the next one.

Granted, in an SCA competition your judges will not do that, but please, on behalf of judges and editors everywhere, do not make their job any harder by submitting a paper that is hard on the eye. Use only black ink, a simple font like Times New Roman or better yet, Courier New; set your size to 12 point, and double-space your lines. This is easier to read than single-space, and allows the judge to make notes on the page much easier too.

Getting outside input
Finally, after you have written your first draft, given it a good look-over to check for grammar, spelling, and punctuation. When you have decided it is as good as you can make it on your own, do not be afraid to ask a friend to read it to check for things you might have missed. Your helper should NOT help you rewrite your paper, but should make suggestions like, “this area is confusing; I don’t understand the point you are making,” or “you misspelled “extant” throughout,” (which is a common mistake; spellcheckers don’t catch it when you type “extent” instead!). Use or discard their suggestions as you see fit, but always keep an open mind about your own writing. No-one creates perfect writing all of the time, not even the best of the best with decades of experience. Everyone needs fresh eyes on their work sometimes.

Further reading before you start
In conclusion, I’m going to suggest a number of easy-to-find websites that will walk you through the research paper process. Take your time, be patient, and read them. Make sure you understand them. Go find a copy of one of the style manuals I mentioned above (Chicago, MLA, or Turabian), and read it. Many of the basic citation rules for these three style manuals are available online. In addition, I have heard good things about Mary Lynn Rampolla’s A Pocket Manual to Writing in History though I have not read it yet myself. And remember, Google is your friend. This takes time and effort, but it will absolutely make a huge difference in your final paper and will serve you well for years to come. There is no reason you should stop at only one paper if you end up enjoying the process. You may find yourself in love with a new way of learning. We are not limited to making objects in the SCA. Research writing is an under-explored and much-needed portion of our educational mission. Now go contribute!


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