What Is A Research Paper And How To Write It

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!

There is no magic formula for writing a successful research paper. It is basically a question of learning to organize your time and materials effectively. The steps outlined below can help serve as a general guide for writing your next paper. For more detailed information on researching and writing term papers or essays, consult the Books on researching and writing term papers section that appears below. Individualized writing assistance is offered by the Student Success Centre's Learning Support.

Start early

Begin working on your research paper as soon in the semester as possible. Take advantage of the time at your disposal to do your research and writing in order to meet the assignment due date. If you wait until the last minute, you may have difficulty finding the best materials, particularly if other students are researching the same topic, and you may also feel pressured by other assignment deadlines.

Selecting the topic

Keeping in mind the guidelines your instructor has set down for the assignment in terms of length, subject matter, types of sources, etc. If possible, try to select a topic that is of interest to you, even if it may appear to be the most difficult one. Avoid broad topics for research papers. Try to narrow your topic to one particular aspect that you will be able to investigate thoroughly within the prescribed limits of your paper.

Background reading

If the topic is unfamiliar to you, consider doing some background reading to help you to develop your understanding. Subject encyclopedias and handbooks provide concise, scholarly overviews and they often refer you to major writings on the topic. Consult the appropriate Subject or course guide for the encyclopedias and handbooks in your area of research or simply ask a librarian.

Researching the topic

Your next step is to verify that there are sufficient and relevant sources and that they meet the requirements of the assignment (e.g. scholarly journal articles). This will require using Library resources, the tools for locating books and journal articles. There are subject librarians to assist you with finding the best sources for your specific topic.

Preparing an outline

Map out your approach by composing a detailed sentence outline. First, compose a thesis statement. This one sentence statement is the most important one of your entire research paper so be sure to phrase it carefully. A thesis statement clearly communicates the subject of your paper and the approach you are going to take. It is the controlling factor to which all information that follows must relate. Secondly, group and regroup your notes according to the various aspects of your topic until you find a sequence that seems logical. This can serve as the basis for your outline.

Writing and revising a rough draft

In writing a rough draft you are striving for a flow of ideas. Write using your final outline and organized notes as guides. Do not worry about correct spelling or punctuation at this stage. Remember that the purpose of a rough draft is to see if you have a logical progression of arguments and sufficient supporting material.

Make the necessary adjustments until you are satisfied your statements flow logically and your ideas have been fully presented in clear, concise prose. You may need to review your documentation if some sections of your text need further development.

Writing the bibliography (list of sources used)

Be sure you have all of the publication information (author, title, date, pages, etc.) appropriate for each source that you consulted. This information will then be compiled in a bibliography. A bibliography is a listing of all the sources you consulted in writing your research paper. You must closely follow the specific rules for writing bibliographies that are provided in style manuals, the most common ones being APA, MLA, and Chicago. These style manuals will also guide you on the correct way of citing (attributing) each of your sources in the content of your paper (see the Plagiarism section below). Concordia University provides a Web-based tool, RefWorks , that helps organize the references you find, incorporates citations into the content of your paper, and automatically prepares a bibliography in the style appropriate for the particular assignment.

Proofreading

You are now ready to focus primarily on the style of your paper rather than the content. Make use of:

  • a dictionary or spellcheck for correct spelling
  • a thesaurus for synonyms
  • a grammar book

Plagiarism

Representing another person's ideas as your own within the context of your term paper is plagiarism. Serious penalties can be exercised against students who plagiarize, not the least of which can include failure of the course for which the paper was submitted. Please consult Concordia University's position on plagiarism.

Play it safe - acknowledge any use of another person's ideas, whether the information is quoted directly, paraphrased, or summarized. The correct procedures for citing (attributing) sources is described in the style manual guides.

Selected books on researching and writing term papers

Bailey, S. (2015). Academic writing: A handbook for international students.

Buckley, J. (2013). Fit to print: The Canadian student's guide to essay writing

Hunt, A. (2005). Your research project: How to manage it. (e-book)

Lester, J.D., & Lester, J. (2015). Writing research papers: A complete guide.

Northey, M., & McKibbin, J. (2010). Making sense: A student's guide to research and writing

Making sense books on specific subject areas from the same author:

For more information, ask a librarian.

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