Any writing assignment requires you to gather information. You may often do some reading for non-research essays to help you develop your thinking, hone your ideas, or find an appropriate quotation, fact, or background information. A research paper on the other hand, requires more directed information gathering then an essay assignment, which includes looking for sources online and in the library that will support your thesis and include taking notes, gathering quotations and paraphrasing information.
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All of these activities will help you to see how much you know about the topic. Remember, though, that after you record your information you should set it aside, and come back and look at it later. This way you may be able to see places where you left information out, or where you need to include even more. After you attempt some of these activities, you will have a better sense of what you as a writer know about your topic, and how you want to shape your information.