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Click on any  part or section below:

Part I. Basics/Process

  A. Chapters 1-6: Start

  B. Ch. 7-13: Organize

  C. Ch. 14-20: Revise/Edit

Part II. College Writing

   D. Ch. 21-23: What Is It?

   E. Ch. 24-30: Write on Rdgs.

   F. Ch.31-35: Arguments

  G. Ch. 36-42: Research

  H. Ch. 43-48: Literature

   I.  Ch. 49-58: Majors & Work

Part III. Grammar

 Study Questions




by Suzanne Drapeau Morley, Oakland University

What is the overall process for writing a research paper?

Note: This chapter also appeared in a Prentice Hall guide to researching in college, from which it is taken by permission of the author and the publisher.


Starting Your Assignment

Finding a Topic

Finding Sources

Drafting Your Paper

Developing a Thesis Statement

Synthesizing Information

Citing & Documenting

Revising Your Paper

Editing Your Paper



As a college student, you will be asked to write research papers in many of your classes.  It is important that you grow as a scholar and become comfortable with and adept at creating scholarly texts.  This competence comes through practice; study of the writing process, rhetorical strategies, reader expectations, and disciplinary conventions; and reflection on the success of the writing strategies you apply and the quality and success of your texts.  This chapter introduces you to these research processes.

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Starting Your Research Assignment

Instructors design research paper assignments to meet specific learning objectives, and these objectives will vary depending on the instructors’ training and experience, the structure and requirements of the course, and the individual assignment.  However, three objectives are present, to some degree, in all forms of research writing: first, instructors want you to develop skills in research and documentation; second, instructors want to challenge your reading skills by requiring you to summarize, analyze, and evaluate scholarly texts; third, instructors want you to become part of the scholarly conversation through your research writing.

When you receive a research assignment, your first task is to be clear on the parameters of the paper and the expectations of your instructor.  Ask questions in class and during office hours to be sure you understand the learning objectives of the paper as well as the specific requirements for the assignment.  In order to start your research project, you need to be able to answer the following bulleted questions.

  • What is the minimum length for the paper? 
    The instructor will usually have clear expectations on the minimum length of your paper.  Take this requirement seriously.  If you find you need more space to complete your writing task, then you should discuss this with your instructor.

  • How many and what kinds of sources should be included in the body of the paper?  What are the source requirements for the works cited?
    The length of the paper is directly connected to the number of required sources.  A common rule is to have two (2) citations (references to authoritative texts) per double-spaced page of text (250 words).  For example, if you are asked to write a paper of 2500 words, approximately 10 pages, you will need roughly 20 in-text citations from a variety of sources including articles from scholarly journals, government documents, field research, etc.  This is a general statement, so you will need to verify specifics with your instructor.  Be clear on what the writing situation requires.

  • What citation format should you follow?
    The answer to this question depends on the discipline you are writing for:  Modern Language Association (MLA) format is used in the humanities and in this text; American Psychological Association (APA) format is used in the social sciences; Council of Science Editors (CSE) format is used in mathematics, physical sciences, and life sciences.  Always confirm the documentation style with your instructor.

  • What is the purpose of the paper?
    The specific purpose of your individual paper will be determined as you research, read, prewrite, and draft, but your instructor may prescribe a general purpose: to inform or to persuade.  An informative structure allows you to educate readers and present information in an objective manner.  A persuasive structure allows you the opportunity to arrange evidence in such a way that your readers agree with (or at least accept) your position on your topic.  Put another way, your persuasive paper should seek to engage an audience that disagrees with your claim (debatable thesis); at a minimum, readers should identify with your argument, and accept your position on the topic, but ideally, readers will agree with your position and change their thinking, behavior, or attitude.  Ultimately, whether your paper is informative or persuasive, your goal should be for your readers to gain something out of your writing.  If you only think about grades and getting done, you still need to develop this important characteristic of an essay because most instructors look for a strong sense of purpose when evaluating.

  • Is there an assigned topic?
    Sometimes an instructor has specific content he or she wants you to learn, or maybe the class is studying an umbrella theme, so you may have an assigned topic.  Occasionally, you may even be asked to write a research paper based on an assigned thesis statement—for the purpose of in-class debate or the like.  If you have an umbrella theme or assigned topic, do not feel as though you are limited in your study or approach.  You have a great deal of freedom to focus the topic in a way and area that interests you.


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Finding a Research Topic

If you need to choose the topic, consider the assignment criteria as you decide.  Certain topics are not compatible with certain requirements.  For example, if you are to write an argumentative paper, finding a debatable claim is critical.  While experienced rhetoricians may find an argument in just about any topic, undergraduate writers may find it difficult to find an argument in topics such as the history of Social Justice Theory, the food pyramid, or deciduous forests.  So the purpose and length should be considerations as you think, discuss, and prewrite about your possible topic.

Try brainstorming in each of these topic categories: hobbies, your personal academic interests, your major, or current social or political events.  Write for a limited time to create four lists, 5-10 minutes per category.  Here’s an example of brainstorming.

Brainstorming Example



Vintage clothing









Academic Interests



Chinese culture

“How people learn”



Sudan ’s Civil War

Your Major

Education--public funding

History--Interpretation of

     an event





Current Events


United Nations

International Relations




Social Justice

Pop culture


Perhaps you could inform others about a hobby.  Maybe you have a personal interest in stages and theories of child development because you have a new niece or nephew.  Or your major or current events offer a controversy that you can develop into a researched argument.  Be sure the topic you choose can be narrowed to fit the assigned length of the paper as well as fit an assigned purpose.

Once you have a general topic, whether chosen or assigned, you are ready to begin your focusing activities.  Questions are among the best ways to focus.  You can create your own questions specific to your topic(s) or try some of these.  You might write down your responses, simply think about the questions, or discuss them with a friend, classmate, tutor, or teacher.  Keep in mind that writing leaves you with a record of ideas for future drafting or to share with your teacher.  Sometimes you cannot choose a topic and will need to show your instructor that you have been trying, and how you have approached the exploration of topics.


Freewrite for 5 minutes without regard for grammar, correctness, or audience.

  • Why do I care about this topic?

  • What do I know about my topic?

  • What do I believe about my topic?

  • What is a possible conflict?*

  • What would I like to learn about my topic?

  • Have I read anything recent about my topic?

  • What questions would my reader have?

  • Where can I find information on my topic?

  • Does my school have a department or major in this topic area?

  • Where might I find an expert on my topic?

  • How does this topic affect my community?

  • How does this topic impact me personally?

*useful for argumentative assignments

You may want to complete this exercise for more than one topic if you cannot choose yet.  When you have found a topic(s), and written about that topic(s), and tried to focus, consider taking a break.  Put the assignment and your prewriting aside and do something else.  Depending on your due date, a brief walk in the fresh air may be all you can schedule.  If you have more time, then take a full day.  By putting the ideas aside, you come back refreshed and able to see the possibilities more clearly.  (Caution:  This part of the writing process is important; however, taking a break can easily become a procrastination technique.  Guard against procrastination.)

You have thought, written, rested, and now it is time to make some decisions.  You need to confirm your topic and consider possible approaches to that topic.  At this time you are ready to create a tentative thesis.  This is not the same as the thesis that will govern the paper.  This tentative thesis is only a guiding idea that will allow you to structure your research.  This is not a committed relationship.  If a silly metaphor will work, consider your tentative thesis to be a blind date.  Things might work out, you might suddenly get ill and need to leave, or you might even meet someone else.  Regardless, you have begun your paper.

[For more details about beginning to write, see the "Starting" section of this Web site.]     


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Finding Sources   

Planning your research will save you time and result in more and better information.  How much time will you allow for researching?  Where will you do your research?  What kinds of sources will you look for?  What search terms will you use?  Be prepared for each research session by writing a brief or detailed plan of what you will accomplish and how long you will take to accomplish it.

A good place to begin your research is with general sources like dictionaries, encyclopedias, general readership publications, and Internet searches.  These resources will give you a background in your topic and offer feedback on the relative success of your search terms.  You may even be fortunate in finding a bibliography or two in encyclopedia entries or Internet sites.  Follow up on the leads these references offer.

You will certainly find some quality information on-line, but do not rely on the web for all of your research as there is a lot of trash out there.  To begin evaluating the credibility of an Internet site, look at the domain of the URL (universal resource locator).  This means the suffix of the web address: .gov, .edu, .org, .com.  Each kind of website has a some kind of bias or agenda.  For example, is a government site, the Library of Congress; is a state university in Michigan, Oakland University ; is a nonprofit site, a place to learn about community service and a book by Paul Rogat Loeb; and is a commercial site, a place to engage in e-commerce.  Consider the goals and objectives of each site you find, and analyze the sites use of rhetorical strategies.  Is the site successful in accomplishing its purpose?  What kinds of sites will offer the most suitable information for your paper?

After browsing the Internet and broad-readership publications, you need to pursue articles in scholarly journals.  A scholarly journal is defined by three characteristics: 1.  the journal is peer-edited, reviewed by experts in the field; 2. each article includes in-text citations and a works cited or bibliography; and 3. there are no advertisements in the publication.  Authoritative, well-researched information is present in articles from these academic journals, and you can find them in your campus library, electronic databases such as research navigator, and, occasionally, on-line.  Your scholarly research, and even your web browsing, will be most efficient at the library.  All resources housed physically or electronically have been analyzed and evaluated by a professional librarian which means the quality of the text has been determined for you.  This means less time evaluating sources for reliability and more efficient searches.

Government documents are materials produced by the United States Government Printing Office (GPO).  Your campus library may be a full or partial government documents depository library, so you will have access to materials on topics as varied as “aluminum” and “zebras.”  Government websites are also available to you.  Most research papers will benefit by including Census data; Congressional hearings, bills, or reports; or decisions handed down by the judiciary.

Finally, many instructors request or require field research.  This means gathering your own evidence through an interview, survey, experiment, or observation.  You will contribute to the scholarly dialog by adding new data, not just synthesizing existing data.  Consider interviewing one or more authorities on your topic.  Start early in order to schedule a meeting that allows you to meet your writing deadlines.  Prepare your questions in advance; dress professionally and be on time for your appointment; and send a thank you note after the interview.  A survey is also a good way to gather data about trends and beliefs.  Even running an experiment or attending an event will offer readers new information.  See your instructor for assistance in designing and executing your field work.

You will likely be surprised by some of what you find in your research, or at least you can hope you will.  A research project that does not reveal new information becomes very boring.  A research paper of any length will require you to read many more texts than you will include in the actual paper.  Anything and everything you learn about your topic, even things you do not cite in the paper, will be indirectly present in your writing because of your confidence and competence.  The more you know, the higher-level your thinking will be.  Read.  Take notes.  Summarize.  Read some more.  Read until you are no longer surprised by what you find.  The drafting and revising of your paper becomes much easier if you commit adequate time and care to the discovery of ideas.


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Drafting Your Research Paper

The word draft can be used as a noun or a verb.  As a noun, draft means the earliest version(s) of your paper; you have sentences and paragraphs.  As a verb, draft means performing the actions, steps, or strategies a writer uses when creating a full version of his or her text.  While you may draft at any point in the writing process, most drafting occurs after a writer has completed substantial research, reading, and prewriting. 

Begin drafting someplace, any place (the middle, beginning, or end).  The important thing is to put pen to paper, or fingers to keyboard, and write.  Contrary to popular belief, if it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing badly several times.  No one begins and ends with their first draft, not even the most gifted scholar and writer. 

As you draft, give yourself permission to write badly.  Your draft is an opportunity to explore structure and organization and figure out what you think about what you have learned.  Try calling your first draft your “icky draft.”  Writer’s block is not an issue if you just write.  Write anything.  Answer questions.  Write in crayon.  Write on a brown paper grocery bag.  Choose the strategies that work best for you, but remain aware of other strategies as you may need them at a different time or with a different assignment. 

Strategies for Drafting

The following is a list of suggested strategies.  Which ones might help you draft your paper? 

  • Be sure you are in a comfortable setting and have all of your supplies and research with you.

  • Allow yourself to make mistakes.

  • Carry blank pages with you wherever you go, so you can jot down a paragraph when it comes to you.  

  • Don’t write yourself into a corner.  Leave a place to begin—like half of a sentence for the next time you sit down to write. 

  • Draw a picture.

  • Go on tangents.  You never know where fabulous ideas may emerge.

  • Write a letter or e-mail to a friend or someone else who would be interested in your topic.  Talking to a specific audience in an informal note allows you to express yourself without thinking about what your teacher will think

  • Write a letter or e-mail to someone who is an authority on your topic.  Send your letter.

  • Start in the middle, as the introduction can be a hard place to start.

  • Start with an introduction you know you will cut, just to get writing.  Once you reach the conclusion, you can go back and completely rewrite the introduction to suit the paper you actually write.

  • Write from a position that conflicts with your thesis.

  • Allow yourself adequate time to consider the draft and think about where to go with your ideas.  This means allow for breaks.    

  • Write/type several main points you want to cover, kind of an informal outline, and move around the document, jotting sentences under each heading as ideas come to you.

  • Put aside everything you have written.  Then write everything you can remember about your topic.  This allows you to focus on what is most compelling.  Sometimes a fresh start is easier than trying to fix a weak draft.  

After a draft or two, your paper will have a shape, albeit an awkward one in some cases.  With your draft, you can move to detailed questions of tone, audience, specific purpose, and specific thesis.

You need to recognize the tone of your essay in order to control it.  How would you describe the mood you wish to convey?  Neutral?  Frustrated?  Pleased?  How might your tone shift throughout the paper?  What tone does your reader expect?  The attached sample student paper by Alex Hollier provides a good example of the importance of tone.  Throughout his research, Alex was turned off by the biased tone he found; in fact, the tone of many authors damaged or destroyed the validity and credibility of their work.  Even when authors argued for his beliefs, Alex often found the overly passionate tone to be a problem.  In his paper, he sought to present a neutral tone, and he was concerned this neutral tone might lead his readers to believe he did not care about the topic or paper.  He monitored, discussed, and revised tone throughout the writing process.

Be familiar with your specific audience in order to anticipate questions, conflicts, and confusion.  Who is your specific audience?  In what magazine or journal might you publish your essay?  What do they know about your topic?  What are their beliefs about your topic?  What reasons do they cite?  What does demographic data reveal about your audience?  Knowing this information allows you to choose appropriate levels of detail, diction, and style.  If you audience does not know anything about violent behavior in relationship to playing violent video games, then you need to explain the issue.

You may have been assigned a general informative or argumentative purpose, but now it is time to get specific about the purpose of your paper.  What do you wish to accomplish with this text?  (And assume that passing the class is not what your instructor is looking for here.)  Would you like to see a change in readers’ actions?  Do you seek a change in thought?  Do you simply wish to call attention to an issue and leave the solutions to be discussed in other essays?  What do you want readers to think, believe, change, or do after reading your paper?

Remember, all writing is of value, even if it seems unsuccessful.  Each time you explore a piece of your writing, you learn something about language and your topic.

[For more details about beginning to write, see the "Starting" section of this Web site.]     


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Developing a Thesis Statement

            Along with the development of tone, audience, and purpose, you need to focus attention on your thesis; your guiding idea--tentative thesis—needs to become a concrete statement.  Your thesis statement, which is a sentence or two placed early in your paper, must tell readers your topic and your position on your topic.  Here are some examples.

1. Current welfare reform policy in the United States is not reducing the number of families living in poverty. 

(Topic:  Welfare reform.  Position:  It is not reducing poverty.)

2. Research demonstrates that smaller public school classes will increase student learning.

(Topic:  Student learning.  Position:  Smaller classes will improve it.)

3. There are three learning styles—visual, auditory, and kinesthetic. 

(Topic: Learning styles.  Position: There are three.)

You may also choose to include main points in your thesis:  This works well in guiding readers through longer papers. 

1. Current welfare reform policy in the United States is not reducing the number of families living in poverty because it does not adequately address problems of affordable housing, education and training, and employment opportunities.

2. Research demonstrates that smaller public school classes will increase student learning by increasing individual instruction, assessment, and feedback.

3. There are three learning styles—visual, auditory, and kinesthetic.  Surveys and tests can identify the primary learning style of an individual.

The main points should be in the same order as they appear in the body of the paper.

Developing your thesis requires special attention to diction and order.  You want the words to communicate your exact plan, and you want the structure to mirror the body of the text. 


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Synthesizing Information

Quality research and your own experiences and observations are necessary to a high quality research paper, but you need to step further into the intellectual process than simply juxtaposing secondary and personal data/ideas.  You need to make connections, create insights that could not exist without your creative and critical thinking.  A cliché works well here: You want your whole paper to be greater than the sum of its parts.  This is an ambitious but achievable goal.

Take what you have learned from you research, and look at it beside what you have experienced and observed in your own life.  How do things connect?  What contradictions are present?  How can you reconcile contradictions?  What common ground exists?

[For more details about arguing or about responding to a specific reading, see the "Arguing" or "Responding to Readings" section of this Web site.]     


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Citing & Documenting (Using Quotations, Paraphrases, & Bibliographies)        

Using Sources in Your Paper

The purpose of using outside sources in your paper is to develop the content and credibility of your writing.  You want the evidence you use to be reliable, verifiable, sufficient, and ethical.  Ethical references do not take author(s) out of context, manipulate statistics, or otherwise present evidence in a manner not intended by the original author.

There are three main ways to incorporate secondary sources in your writing.  Each type of evidence requires an in-text citation.  

Direct quotation is when you borrow exact words from a text and put those words in quotation marks.  This is a good way add authority, content, and specific diction to your paper.  When quoting, use only parts of sentences in order to communicate the essential meaning of the passage but to maintain the flow of your paper.  Including too many long quotes makes the paper look like a patchwork quilt of other voices.  Be sure your voice has primacy.   

Paraphrase is putting short passages of a source into your own words.  This is a good way to weave ideas into your paper while maintaining your voice and flow.  Be sure to use your own words and not the author’s exact words.

[For more details see this section's chapter on "Quoting & Paraphrasing."]

Summary refers to using your own words to reduce a text to its essential ideas: thesis, main points, and conclusions.  Summary presents a large body of information in a condensed form while maintaining your voice, tone, and flow.  [For more information, see the "Writing a Summary" chapter.]

Documenting Your Sources

The purpose of documenting sources is to give credit to others for their work, whether direct quote, paraphrase, summary, fact, visual, or other evidence.  Proper MLA documentation [the system used in most English and composition courses] in your research paper means you incorporate in-text citations (sometimes called parenthetical citations) and a works cited page (a list of all sources referenced in the paper).  The information in the parenthesis tells readers exactly which author you are borrowing from.  The works cited list then tells your reader the publication details of the source and how he or she can retrieve the same source.  

[For more details about MLA and other citation and documentation formats, see the's "Chapter 17.Citation & Documentation."]

Underlying the importance of correctness in documentation is the absolute necessity to avoid plagiarism.  Plagiarism is the use of another’s words or ideas without giving credit to the author.  Incorrect and omitted documentation are plagiarism.  Error in documentation, even if unintentional, may not seem as bad to you as deliberately cutting and pasting entire paragraphs or buying a paper, but error or malice in academic behavior are both problematic.  Unintentional errors and oversights indicate that a student has not achieved mastery in the conventions of research writing; deliberate cheating and stealing indicate that a student has not accepted responsibility for his or her academic and ethical behavior.  Regardless of form,  plagiarism indicates a need for corrective action, either at the classroom or administrative level.  Familiarize yourself with the academic conduct policy at your school.  

[For more details about plagiarism, see "Avoiding Plagiarism" in the "Quoting & Paraphrasing" chapter.]


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Revising Your Paper

Revision is the art of rewriting or rethinking a piece of writing.  Once you have a draft, a shape for your paper, you will want to address the quality of your presentation.  You want to convey both your ideas and your credibility, so you need to revise for global—essay level—issues of unity, organization, transition, coherence, and flow.  While these rhetorical issues can be addressed during drafting, most writers include them in the revision stage.  Unity, which is desirable, is demonstrated when all main points, details, and evidence are directly connected to the thesis/claim.  While creating a sense of organization is a large part of drafting, polishing that organization is important in the revision stage.  Look for connections and natural transitions between and within your paragraphs. 


  1. planned repetition of language

  2. transitional words or expressions

  3. parallelism

  4. repeated image or idea

  5. logical connection between two images or ideas

  6. theme or symbol

  7. summary of the preceding paragraph

You may need to move paragraphs to improve the organization.  Internal transitions, connections within paragraphs, should be clear to readers.  To strengthen coherence, check the logic of sentence order and look for ways to use transitional words or phrases.

Since you want your paper to read smoothly and logically, you will have to analyze carefully your writing.  What works?  What doesn’t work?  What do you need to do to improve the quality of the text?  Revision is your opportunity to make sure your paper communicates what you want to your audience. 

Strategies for Revising

Here are some strategies for revising your paper:

  • Read the paper to someone else.  Note places where you stumble.

  • Have someone else read the paper to you.  Where does the text sound vague?

  • Outline the paper, looking for gaps in information and research as well as organization.

  • Seek feedback from others.

  • Print the most recent version of the paper, cut the paragraphs apart, and move the pieces of paper around looking for patterns and possibilities, not just concerns.

  • Get some distance; then look at your paper with “fresh eyes.”

[For more details about revising, see the "Revising" section of this Web site.]     


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Editing Your Paper   

Editing means taking time to address local—sentence level—issues such as correctness of punctuation and mechanics, diction, and sentence variety.  Try editing backwards.  To do this, isolate and check the last sentence, then the second to last sentence, then the third to last sentence.  Doing this takes the ideas out of context, so you can focus on sentence structure.  Do the backwards process at least three times.  Each time, look for different issues.  If you know you struggle with commas, look closely at commas.  If you struggle with apostrophes, look closely at apostrophes.  If you frequently use the wrong word, look closely at usage.  Finally, edit for wordiness, which can be a problem for students trying to meet length requirements.  Add more ideas and support for your thesis/claim.  Cut all unnecessary or repeated words and ideas.

      Spend some time focusing on, even pondering, diction—language usage—during your editing.  Be aware of denotative (dictionary) and connotative (implied or associated) meanings, so each word does its job and no word is distracting to readers.  An additional consideration when choosing or polishing diction is analyzing the sound and tone of each word.  Does the word have hard sounds?  soft sounds?  Which kind of sound fits the sentence and paragraph best?

      Combine sentence structures using subordination and coordination to show relationships between ideas.  Deliberate attention to sentence patterns can improve rhythm, flow, and readability.  However, the primary job of sentence variety is to demonstrate relationships between ideas.  Consider using compound sentences, which show equal relationships between two or more ideas; complex sentences, which show unequal relationships between two or more ideas; and compound-complex sentences, which show complicated relationships between several ideas. Even though simple sentences work to create emphasis and state facts clearly, too many simple sentences can become boring, so be sure to consider the overall balance of your sentences.

[For more details about editing, see the "Editing" section of this Web site.]     



Ultimately, whatever steps you take when writing—for there is not a single process—your goal is to hand in research papers with confidence, which necessitates successful selection and application of rhetorical strategies. 


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 36. What Is "Research"?

 37. Research Process

 38. Choosing Resources

 39. Developing the Paper

 40. Quoting/Paraphrasing

 41. Avoiding Plagiarism

 42. Critical Thinking



MLA Ppr. Examples:
   Dialogic Args.
   Thesis Args.

APA Ppr. Examples:
   Case Studies
   Mag. Article


 Related Links in

  Examples of Several
  Bibliography Styles

  12. Types of Papers


  14. Online Readings

  16. Research Writing

  17. Citation & Documentation

  18. References & Resources

  19. Visual/Multimodal Design

  20. Major/Work Writing


Updated 1 Aug. 2013

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1st through 5th Editions:: Writing for School & Work, 1984-1998;, 1998-2012.
6th Edition: 8-1-12, rev. 8-1-13.  Text, design, and photos copyright 2002-12 by R. Jewell or as noted.
Permission is hereby granted for nonprofit educational copying and use without a written request.
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Click here to contact the author: Richard Jewell.  Questions and suggestions are welcome.