How I Write Research Papers

Co-authored by Renae Hintze


It’s a beautiful sunny day, you had a big delicious breakfast, and you show up bright-eyed and bushy-tailed for your first class of the day. Just as you’re getting comfortable in your chair, your teacher hits you with it:

A 5-page, size 12 font research paper… due in 2 weeks. 

The sky goes black, your breakfast turns to a brick in your stomach. A research paper? FIVE pages long? Why???

Maybe I’m being a little over-dramatic here. But not all of us are born gifted writers. In fact, I think it’s safe to say that most of us struggle a little or a lot with writing a research paper.

But fear not!! I can help you through it. If you follow these 11 steps I promise you will write a better essay, faster.

1. Start early

We all do it. We wait until the LAST day to start an assignment, and then something goes wrong at the LAST minute, and Woops! We get a bad grade. 

ALWAYS start your essays early. This is what I recommend. Especially since writing a research paper requires more effort than a regular paper might.

I have a 3-week timeline you can follow when writing a research paper. YES, 3 weeks!! It may sound like waaay too early to start, but it gives you enough time to:

  1. Outline and write your paper
  2. Check for errors
  3. Get pointers from your teacher on what to improve 

All of this = a better grade on your assignment. You’re already going through all the effort — why not be positive that you’ll get the best results??

2. Read the Guidelines

Ever taken a shirt out of the dryer to find it has shrunk 10 sizes too small? 

It’s because the shirt probably wasn’t meant to go in the dryer, and if you had read the tag, you’d have saved yourself one whole article of clothing!

Before you even START on writing a research paper, READ THE GUIDELINES.

  • What is your teacher looking for in your essay? 
  • Are there any specific things you need to include? 

This way, you don’t have to finish your essay only to find that it needs to be re-done!

3. Brainstorm research paper topics

Sometimes we’re assigned essays where we know exactly what we want to write about before we start.

Write an essay on my favorite place to travel?? I know where I’M going to choose!

But there are probably more times where we DON’T know exactly what we want to write about, and we may even experience writer’s block.

To overcome that writer’s block, or simply avoid it happening in the first place, we can use a skill called mind-mapping (or brainstorming) to come up with a topic that is relevant and that we’re interested in writing about!

Here’s an example of a mind-map I just did for Influential People!

By writing whatever came to my mind and connecting those thoughts, I was able to come up with quite a few influential people to write about — I could come up with EVEN MORE if I kept writing!!

See here I can choose to write about Hillary Clinton and how she may have an influence on women and women’s rights in society.

Following this method, you can determine your own research paper topics to write about in a way that’s quick and painless.

4. Write out your questions

To get the BEST research, you have to ask questions. Questions on questions on questions. The idea is that you get to the root of whatever you are talking about so you can write a quality essay on it.

Let’s say you have the question: “How do I write a research paper?” 

Can you answer this without more information?

Not so easy, right? That’s because when you “write a research paper”, you do a lot of smaller things that ADD UP to “writing a research paper”.

Break your questions down. Ask until you can’t ask anymore, or until it’s no longer relevant to your topic. This is how you can achieve quality research.

5. Do the research

It IS a research paper, after all. But you don’t want to just type all your questions into Google and pick the first source you see. Not every piece of information on the internet is true, or accurate. 

Here’s a way you can easily check your sources for credibility: Look for the who, what, and when.

WHO

  • Who is the author of the source? 
  • What are they known for? 
  • Do they have a background in the subject they wrote about? 
  • Does the author reference other sources?
  • Are those sources credible too?

WHAT

  • What does the “Main” or “Home” page of a website look like?
  • Is it professional looking? 
  • Is there an organization sponsoring the information, and do they seem legitimate
  • Do they specialize in the subject? 

WHEN

  • When was the source generated — today, last week, a month, a year ago?
  • Has there been new or additional information provided since this information was published?

Double-check all your sources this way. Because this is a research paper, your writing is meaningless without other sources to back it up.

Keep track of your credible sources!

When you find useful information from a credible source, DON’T LET IT GO. You need to save the original place you found that information from so that you can cite it in your essay, and later on in the bibliography.

You don’t want to have to go back later and dig up the information a second time just to list the source you got it from!

To help with this, you may be familiar with the option to “Bookmark” your pages online — do this for online sources.

There IS another tool you can use to keep track of your sources. It’s called Diigo, and it’s what we use at Student-Tutor to build an online database of valuable educational resources!

You can create a Diigo account and one free group for your links. Check out this video on how to use Diigo to save all your sources in one convenient location.

Now, of course there are other ways besides the Internet to get information, and there’s nothing wrong with cracking open a well-written book to enrich your essay’s content!

Ways to get information when writing a research paper

  • The Internet
  • Books
  • Newspapers
  • Magazines
  • Journals
  • Interviews

6. Create a Thesis Statement

How to write a thesis statement is something that a lot of people overlook. That’s a mistake.

The thesis statement is part of your research paper outline but deserves its own step. That’s because the thesis statement is SUPER important! It is what sets the stage for the entire essay. 

How do you write a thesis statement? 

Here’s a color-coded example: 

7. Create an outline

Once you have constructed your thesis, the rest of the outline is pretty simple. It should mimic the structure of your thesis!

Here’s a color-coded research paper outline you can follow:

8. Write your research paper

Here it is — the dreaded writing. But see how far we’ve already come? 

We already know what we’re going to write about, and where we’re going to write it. That’s a lot easier than taking a pen straight to your paper and hoping for some magical, monk-like inspiration to come, am I right?

As you write, be sure to pin-point the places where you are inserting sources. I’ll talk about in-text citations in just a moment!

Here are some basic tips for writing your essay from International Student:

  • Generally, don’t use “I/My” unless it’s a personal narrative
  • Use specific examples to support your statements
  • Vary your language — don’t use the same adjective 5 times in a row

9. Cite your sources

This goes along with the second step — make sure to check your essay guidelines and find out BEFOREHAND what kind of citation style your teacher wants you to use.

Like I promised earlier, Purdue University has a great article that provides instructions on and examples on how to cite different types of sources WITHIN your text. Reference this when you’re not sure what to do.

As a general rule of thumb, in-text citations usually go AFTER the sentence drawing from the source, but BEFORE the period of that sentence, in parentheses. If more than one sentence is referencing the same source, try to place it at the last of those sentences.

However, no matter what you cite INSIDE your writing, all the sources you use for the paper need to be included in your bibliography.

This goes on a separate page, after your main essay and may be titled “Works Cited” or “Bibliography”. (Make sure to check the guidelines, and ask your teacher!)

For this, I’m going to introduce you to an awesome, totally free citation tool called EasyBib.

Important Tip: Make sure that when you use EasyBib, you are filling in a template provided by EasyBib and NOT asking EasyBib to pull information directly from the source. EasyBib can’t always find information that is there, and your citation will be incomplete without it!

By selecting “Manual Cite”, EasyBib will provide you with a template for filling in the necessary information to create your citation.

You can then ask EasyBib to generate the source in the citation format you’ve selected. Copy and paste that source into your bibliography — easy!

10. Read your essay

Why do I need to read my essay if I wrote it? 

You’d be surprised what you’ll catch the second, third, and bazillionth time around reading your own writing! Not that you have to read THIS a bazillion times… just once or twice over will do.

I recommend that you read your essay once-through, and the second time read it aloud. Reading your essay aloud reinforces your words and makes it easier to recognize when something is phrased strangely, or if you are using a word too often.

11. Have someone else read your essay

Lastly it is always important that someone else besides you read your essay before you submit it.

Find a professional who can give you constructive feedback on how to improve your essay — this may be a tutor or a teacher. It can also be someone who specializes in the subject you are writing about.

The absolute BEST person to review your essay would be the teacher that assigned it to you.

And yes, many teachers WILL read the essay they assigned before it is due and give you pointers on how to make it better. They want you to succeed and they’re the ones grading it — I think it’s safe to say they know what they’re talking about!

Conclusion

For most of us, writing a research paper is no walk in the park. Unfortunately, it’s important that you know how to do it!

Let’s review the steps to make this process as PAINLESS as possible:

  1. Start early — 3 weeks in advance!
  2. Read the guidelines
  3. Mind map/Brainstorm research paper topics
  4. Write out your questions
  5. Do the research (Remember to keep track of your sources!)
  6. Create a Thesis Statement
  7. Create an outline
  8. Write your essay
  9. Cite your sources (In-text and in your bibliography)
  10. Read your essay (twice and once aloud!)
  11. Have someone ELSE read your essay — try your teacher first.

Do you have experience writing a research paper? What process did you use, and was it effective? Tell us about it in the comments below!

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Hello! My name is Todd. I help students eliminate academic stress, boost confidence, and reach their wildest dreams through college tips and digital age knowledge they are not teaching in school. I am a former tutor for seven years, $85,000 scholarship recipient, Huffington Post contributor, lead SAT & ACT course developer, and have worked with thousands of students and parents to ensure a brighter future for the next generation. Currently, I am traveling across America delivering presentations, rock climbing, adventuring, and helping inspire the leaders of tomorrow. Let's become friends! Follow my journey via my YouTube Vlog for inspirational value added tips!

  • 1

    Annotate your research. Once you’ve gathered all your research, print it out (if it is an online source) and gather post-its or anything you need to mark notes in the books/magazines you are using. This step is very important: read through your research, take notes on what you think is important, and highlight key facts and phrases. Write directly on copies you’ve made, or use slips of paper tucked into pages to mark places of importance.[3]
    • Do a thorough job annotating to make your outlining and paper-writing easier in the end. Make marks on anything that you think might be remotely important or that could be put to use in your paper.
    • As you mark off important pieces in the research, add your own commentary and notes explaining to yourself where you might use it in your paper. Writing down your ideas as you have them will make writing your paper much easier and give you something to refer back to.
  • 2

    Organize your notes. Annotating your research can take quite a bit of time, but needs to be taken one step further in order to add a bit more clarity for the outlining process. Organize your notes by collecting all of your highlighted phrases and ideas into categories based on topic. For example, if you are writing a paper analyzing a famous work of literature, you could organize your research into a list of notes on the characters, a list of references to certain points in the plot, a list of symbols the author presents, et cetera.
    • Try writing each quote or item that you marked onto an individual note card. That way, you can rearrange and lay out your cards however you would like.
    • Color code your notes to make it easier. Write down a list of all the notes you are using from each individual resource, and then highlight each category of information in a different color. For example, write everything from a particular book or journal on a single sheet of paper in order to consolidate the notes, and then everything that is related to characters highlight in green, everything related to the plot mark in orange, et cetera.
  • 3

    Construct a preliminary bibliography/references page. As you go through your notes, mark down the author, page number, title, and publishing information for each resource. This will come in handy when you craft your bibliography or works cited page later in the game.

  • 4

    Identify the goal of the paper. Generally, speaking, there are two types of research paper: an argumentative research paper or an analytic research paper. Each requires a slightly different focus and writing style which should be identified prior to starting a rough draft.
    • An argumentative research paper takes a position on a contentious issue and argues for one point of view. The issue should be debatable with a logical counter argument.
    • An analytic research paper offers a fresh look at an important issue. The subject may not be controversial, but you must attempt to persuade your audience that your ideas have merit. This is not simply a regurgitation of ideas from your research, but an offering of your own unique ideas based on what you have learned through research.
  • 5

    Determine your audience. Who would be reading this paper, should it be published? Although you want to write for your professor or other superior, it is important that the tone and focus of your paper reflect the audience who will be reading it. If you’re writing for academic peers, then the information you include should reflect the information you already know; you don’t need to explain basic ideas or theories. On the other hand, if you are writing for an audience who doesn’t know much about your subject, it will be important to include explanations and examples of more fundamental ideas and theories related to your research.[4]

  • 6

    Develop your thesis. The thesis statement is a 1-2 sentence statement at the beginning of your paper that states the main goal or argument of your paper. Although you can alter the wording of your thesis statement for the final draft later, coming up with the main goal of your essay must be done in the beginning. All of your body paragraphs and information will revolve around your thesis, so make sure that you are clear on what your thesis is.[5]
    • An easy way to develop your thesis is to make it into a question that your essay will answer. What is the primary question or hypothesis that you are going to go about proving in your paper? For example, your thesis question might be “how does cultural acceptance change the success of treatment for mental illness?” This can then determine what your thesis is - whatever your answer to the question is, is your thesis statement.
    • Your thesis should express the main idea of your paper without listing all of your reasons or outline your entire paper. It should be a simple statement, rather than a list of support; that’s what the rest of your paper is for!
  • 7

    Determine your main points. The body of your essay will revolve around the ideas that you judge to be most important. Go through your research and annotations to determine what points are the most pivotal in your argument or presentation of information. What ideas can you write whole paragraphs about? Which ideas to you have plenty of firm facts and research to back with evidence? Write your main points down on paper, and then organize the related research under each.
    • When you outline your main ideas, putting them in a specific order is important. Place your strongest points at the beginning and end of your essay, with more mediocre points placed in the middle or near the end of your essay.
    • A single main point doesn’t have to be kept to a single paragraph, especially if you are writing a relatively long research paper. Main ideas can be spread out over as many paragraphs as you deem necessary.
  • 8

    Consider formatting guidelines. Depending on your paper rubric, class guidelines, or formatting guidelines, you may have to organize your paper in a specific way. For example, when writing in APA format you must organize your paper by headings including the introduction, methods, results, and discussion. These guidelines will alter the way you craft your outline and final paper.[6]

  • 9

    Finalize your outline. With the aforementioned tips taken into consideration, organize your entire outline. Justify main points to the left, and indent subsections and notes from your research below each. The outline should be an overview of your entire paper in bullet points. Make sure to include in-text citations at the end of each point, so that you don’t have to constantly refer back to your research when writing your final paper.

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