When studying at higher levels of school and throughout college, you will likely be asked to prepare research papers. A research paper can be used for exploring and identifying scientific, technical and social science issues. If it's your first time writing a research paper, it may seem daunting. However, with good organization and clarity of focus, you can make the process easier on yourself. It won't write itself, but you can plan and prepare well so that the writing falls into place.
Choosing Your Topic
Ask yourself important questions. Although you may be limited by specific classroom or work related guidelines, choosing your topic is the first and most important step in your research paper project. Regardless of whether your topic can be anything you want or has a more rigid rubric, it is important to keep a few questions in mind: is there enough research available on this topic? Is the topic new and unique enough that I can offer fresh opinions? Is it pertinent to my class/occupation?
Pick something you love.
Whenever possible, choose a topic that you feel passionate about. Writing about something you enjoy certainly shows in the final product, making it more likely that you will be successful writing a paper about something you enjoy.
Stay original.If you are writing a research paper for a class, consider the other students. Is it likely that they will also be writing about your topic? How can you keep your paper unique and interesting if everyone is writing about the same thing?
Get advice. If you are struggling to come up with a topic that feels “just right,” ask your professor or coworkers/classmates for advice. They will likely have great ideas that, even if they aren’t options for you to choose, can inspire you with new ideas. Asking a professor for help may seem frightening, but they want you to be successful with your work, and will do what they can to make that happen.
Don’t be afraid to change your topic. If you choose a topic, begin researching, and realize that it isn’t the right decision for you for some reason, don’t fret! Although it requires a bit more time, you have the ability to change your topic even after you begin researching others.
Begin your research. With a topic selected, the next step is to begin research. Research comes in numerous forms including web pages, journal articles, books, encyclopedias, interviews, and blog posts, among others. Take time to look for professional resources who offer valid research and insight into your topic. Try to use a minimum of five sources to vary your information; never rely on only 1-2 sources
Look for empirical research. Whenever possible, look for peer reviewed empirical research. These are articles or books written by experts in your field of interest, whose work has been read and vouched for by other experts in the same field. These can be found in scientific journals or via an online search.
Visit the library. Take a trip to your local library or university library. Although it may seem old fashioned, libraries are chock full of helpful research materials from books to newspapers and magazines to journals.. Don’t be afraid to ask the librarian for help either - they are trained in research and know where everything about your topic is located.
Look online. Using a search engine and picking the top three results isn’t necessarily the best method of researching; use critical thinking to thoroughly read every source and determine if it is legitimate. Websites, blogs, and forums online aren’t required to publish facts only, so make sure that the information you find is trustworthy.
· Typically, websites that end with .edu, .gov, or .org contain information that is safe to use. That is because these websites belong to schools, the government, or organizations dealing with your topic.
· Try changing your search query often to find different search results for your topic. If nothing seems to be coming up, it could just be that your search query isn’t matched well with the titles of most articles dealing with your subject.
Use academic databases. There are special search engines and academic databases available that search through thousands of peer-reviewed or scientifically published journals, magazines, and books. Although many of these require a paid membership to use, if you are a current student in college you have free access through your university’s membership.
· Look for databases that cover your subject only. For example, PschInfo is an academic database that holds nothing but works done by authors in the field of psychology and sociology. This will help you to get a more tailored results than a very general search would.
· Most academic databases give you the ability to ask for very specific information by presenting multiple search query boxes as well as archives containing only a single type of resource (such as only journal articles or only newspapers). Take advantage of this ability to ask for specific information by using as many of the query boxes as you can.
· Visit your school library and ask the librarian for a full list of the academic databases they subscribe to, as well as the passwords for each.
Get creative with your research. If you find one really awesome book or journal that fits your topic perfectly, try looking in the works cited/bibliography/reference list at the end of it. This should contain many more books and journals that are about your topic as well.
Making an Outline
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.
· 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.
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. For example, 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.
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.
Identify the goal of the paper. Generally, speaking, there are two types of research paper: an argumentative research paper or an analytical 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 analytical 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 off of what you have learned through research.
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.
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.
· 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 outlining 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!
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.
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.
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.
Writing Your Paper
Write your body paragraphs. Although it may seem counterintuitive, writing your introduction first may be more difficult to accomplish than starting with the meat of your paper. Starting by writing the main points (focusing on supporting your thesis) allows you to slightly change and manipulate your ideas and commentary.
· Support every statement you make with evidence. Because this is a research paper, there shouldn’t be any remarks that you make that cannot be supported by facts directly from your research.
· Supply ample explanations for your research. The opposite of stating opinions without facts, is stating facts with no commentary. Although you certainly want to present plenty of evidence, make sure that your paper is uniquely your own by adding commentary in whenever possible.
· Avoid using many long, direct quotes. Although your paper is based on research, the point is for you to present your own ideas. Unless the quote you intend on using is absolutely necessary, try paraphrasing and analyzing it in your own words instead.
· Use clear segues into adjacent points in your paper. Your essay should flow well, rather than stopping and starting in a blunt fashion. Make sure that each of your body paragraphs flows nicely into the one after it.
Write the conclusion. Now that you have carefully worked through your evidence, write a conclusion that briefly summarizes your findings for the reader and provides a sense of closure. Start by briefly restating the thesis statement, then remind the reader of the points you covered over the course of the paper. Slowly zoom out of the topic as you write, ending on a broad note by emphasizing the larger implication of your findings.
· The goal of the conclusion, in very simplified terms, is to answer the question, “So what?” Make sure the reader feels like (s)he’s come away with something.
· It’s a good idea to write the conclusion before the introduction for several reasons. First of all, the conclusion is easier to write when the evidence is still fresh in your mind. On top of that, it’s recommended that you use up your most choice language in the conclusion and then reword these ideas less strongly in the introduction, not the other way around; this will leave a more lasting impression on the reader.
Write the introduction. The introduction is, in many respects, the conclusion written in reverse: start by generally introducing the larger topic, then orient the reader in the area you’ve focused on, and finally, supply the thesis statement. Avoid repeating exact phrases that you already used in the conclusion.
Document your paper. All research essays must be documented in certain ways in order to avoid plagiarism. Depending on the topic of your research and your field of study, you will have to use different styles of formatting. MLA, APA, and Chicago are the three most common citation formats and determine the way in-text citations or footnotes should be used, as well as the order of information in your paper.
· MLA format is typically used for literary research papers and uses a ‘works cited’ page at the end. This format requires in-text citations.
· APA format is used by researchers in the social sciences field, and requires in-text citations as well. It ends the paper with a “references” page, and may also have section headers between body paragraphs.
· Chicago formatting is used mainly for historical research papers and uses footnotes at the bottom of each page rather than in-text citations and a works cited or references page.
Edit your rough draft. Although it is tempting to simply read over your essay and use the spell-check tool, editing your paper should be a bit more in-depth. Have at least one, but preferably two or more, person/people look over your essay. Have them edit for basic grammatical and spelling errors as well as the persuasiveness of your essay and the flow and form of your paper.
· If you edit your own paper, wait at least three days before returning to it. Studies show that your writing is still fresh in your mind for 2-3 days after finishing, and so you are more likely to skim over basic mistakes that you would otherwise catch.
· Don’t ignore edits by others just because they require a bit more work. If they suggest that you rewrite a section of your paper, there is probably a valid reason for their request. Take the time to edit your paper thoroughly.
Create the final draft. When you have edited and re-edited your paper, formatted your work according to the subject matter, and finalized all the main points, you are ready to create the final draft. Go through your paper and fix all mistakes, rearranging information if necessary. Adjust the font, line spacing, and margins to meet the requirements set by your professor or profession. If necessary, create an introduction page and a works cited or references page to bookend your paper. The completion of these tasks finalizes your paper! Make sure to save the paper (in multiple places, for extra security) and print out your final draft.