Step By Step Research Paper Writing Guide

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!

Why Did We Write This Guide?

The importance of research paper in the academic career of a student can hardly be overemphasized. For a student, a well written research paper can fetch high grades which can augment the total C.G.P.A. Further, the research papers which contain original research or a reformulation of the existing research in a particular field can be accepted for publication by leading journals, which can further boost the career- prospects of a budding academic. In this article, we attempt to give a comprehensive guide to the art of research paper writing.

Who Is This Guide For?

This guide is written for the students only. While we are well aware of the fact that the requirements for writing academic papers differ from one discipline to another, our definitive guide to research paper writing will be beneficial for students from any discipline. No matter which level of graduate study you belong to, you will find our guide to be the most definitive.

How To Use This Guide?

Each section is concerned with a specific aspect of research paper writing. In order to write a successful research paper, it is advised that you must read the article all the way through. We not only discuss in detail each and every aspect of a research paper, we also give you the highlights of our paper in a tabular form for quick reference. Keep our guide handy, next time when you are writing your research paper.

What is a Research Paper?

While there is no singular definition for the term ‘research paper’, it is generally accepted by scholars that a research paper is a generic term that can be applied to any one of the following:

Term Paper

A term paper is usually written by a student either at the graduate or at the undergraduate level as a part of the requirements for an academic coursework. In U.S. universities and colleges, a typical academic course requires the submission of term papers along with mid-semester and end-of-semester examinations. Students earn credit points for fulfilling the course requirements which are then added to calculate the final C.G.P.A. or cumulative grade point accuracy.

Published Article

A published article is a research paper which is usually written for academic journals. Such a paper is called a published one only if the paper is accepted for publication. Academic publication is, however, a highly competitive field and the number of research papers submitted for publication typically overwhelms the ones selected for final print. The process of academic publishing is a complex and a protracted one. It requires submission of a paper, review by academic peers, revisions and the final print. The entire process takes months.

Thesis or Dissertation

A thesis or a dissertation is a long academic paper divided into several chapters (usually five or more) that is submitted to obtain a Ph.D. degree. Additionally, M.A., M. Phil, M.S. and M. Tech degrees may also call for a thesis.
Here are 6 Quick Tips to Write a Good Research Raper

Why Is a Research Paper Written?

A research paper is usually written for any one of the following purposes. There are times when it can fulfill multiple requirements. Usually they can be summarized as follows:
1. A research paper might be assigned to a graduate or an undergraduate     student as a part of the course work.
2. It may be written specifically for academic publication.
3. Finally, it may be written in the form of a thesis or a dissertation in order     to obtain a terminal academic degree (for instance Ph.D.).

The above points require a bit of further explication. Universities and colleges across US, UK and Australia require a definite period of coursework for academic degrees. Both undergraduate and post graduate degrees require submission of term papers to earn credit points, failing which a student is debarred from taking the final examination.

Academic publishing is crucial for those seeking a career in academia. Budding scholars publish their research papers in various peer reviewed journals in order to strengthen their curriculum vitae. The world of academic publishing is so ruthlessly competitive that cynics called the trend ‘publish or perish’.
Finally, dissertations and theses are also large research papers written for submission in order get a degree. A thesis or a dissertation must be based on a candidate’s original research or should at least be a reformulation of the existing research findings in a particular disciplinary field.

How To Select a Topic For a Research Paper?

To begin with, any good research paper needs to have a research topic on which the paper is written. It is imperative that the topic chosen or given should have the following qualities:

The Topic Should be Relevant

Relevance is usually determined by the fact whether the topic is given or chosen. If the paper is on a given topic then the student needs to stick to the topic as closely as possible. However, if some leverage is given then the students might choose their own topic. Interesting and unusual topics may impress the teacher but make sure that your topic relates to what has been taught in class. If you are still confused, taking help of your seniors or graduate assistants (many universities provide them) may be a good idea.

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The topic should be able to speak to other researchers

This is especially true if you are writing an article that is meant for publication. Since the research paper is meant for publication in what is called a ‘peer reviewed’ journal, the paper will be reviewed by at least two anonymous referees. As such it is important to choose a topic which other researchers will find interesting and challenging.

Finally, chose an under-researched subject area

No matter which stream you belong to, cutting-edge research work is always appreciated. On the contrary, if you chose a research topic in which a number of published works already exist, your chances of coming up with original research is rather flimsy.

How to Formulate a Research Question?

A research question is the primary question that guides the research paper. The paper is meant to elaborate on, modify, question or even criticize the given question. Here is a list of suggestions that should be taken into cognizance while coming up with a research question:

Keep in mind the central argument of your research

Your research question should be structured around this argument.

Modify the research question if necessary

While writing your paper or in the course of your research work, it is highly possible that you may be veered towards a different direction. Do not feel lost. A good researcher will always question his own research and leave a space for further study in that area.

Keep your research question for the end

This might seem a bit odd, but we insist that this is a highly effective approach. As a student you are not supposed to have all the answers. That is the perhaps the whole point of doing ‘research’ in the first place. Once you have scanned through your research findings and have noted them down, you should be able to isolate the central question that guides your research. That is your research question.

Here is an instance

Suppose, the research topic given to you is ‘Financial Policies of the US federal Government’ and you are supposed to write a research paper on it, how will you formulate your research question? Break down the topic into several sub-topics. In this case, possible sub-topics might include at least three areas: policies relating to economic sectors, policies relating to taxation and policies relating to social security. Conscientious students will immediately note that in all three areas, the US government follows a free market policy with minimum governmental intervention and maximum freedom to private entrepreneurs. This, then, can become your central research question: “How does the federal government of US follow a policy of minimal governmental intervention in all the three sectors of the economy?”

What Structure to Follow?

Various subjects have various writing methodologies. However, some points run in common in all the subjects.

A five paragraph essay is the classic format

Although there is no hard and fast rule as such. A well written essay must contain an exposition or an introduction where you state your research question and your methodology. This should be followed by the body of the essay and finally the conclusion

While an exposition, a main body and a conclusion may work for all subjects, specific subjects do require additional points

Here are two instances from science and marketing respectively.

For instance, science courses based on laboratory experiments should start with a hypothesis followed by details of the experiment and finally the inference.

For a marketing case study, you must start with a brief history of the company, including its current market status. Then conduct a situational analysis of the company, including any one of the following methods: SWOT, PESTEL or Porter’s Five Forces model. End with a discussion on the marketing mix, including four particular areas of the company. They are product, price, promotion and place.

What Style of Writing Should you Follow?

While substance is important, style too cannot be ruled out. After all this is a writing assignment. An elegant style of writing is sure to impress your teachers while academic journals are scathing when it comes to selecting a research paper for publication. You might be given some leverage when it comes to science-based papers. But expect no mercy if you are a humanities students, especially students from English, Comparative Literature and Creative Writing. Do keep in mind the following tips:

Follow a simple style of writing free from jargons and convoluted sentences

Although professional researchers do use a fair amount jargons, that should not overwhelm your subject matter. However, your linguistic style should not be too casual as you are writing for an academic audience. It is also important to be politically correct and not to use any sexist or racist terms.

A simple style of writing should be supplemented with a forceful argument

should consider both sides of an argument and come to a possible solution. Remember the conclusion should be your own intervention and not a rehashing of clichéd statements. Originality is always appreciated. Further, it is likely that your teacher will already know what experts have said on the given topic. He or she will be more interested in knowing what you are thinking.

Divide your research findings into several short sections or paragraphs

Doing this will make your essay look nice and organized.

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Be careful about spelling and grammar

If you are using MS word then chances are that your software will have spell check and suggestions on possible grammatical and syntactical errors. Alternatively, you can use online tools like Grammarly.com, Reverso.net, Gingersoftware.com, Spellcheckplus.com etc. Most of these sites are entirely free of cost where you can check for possible errors.

How to Conduct Research on the given Topic?

Whether it is meant for a journal or for submission for a particular university course, you can’t do without proper research. Earlier, students used to run from one library to another in order to get help. In this fast changing world, physical libraries are being replaced by virtual ones. Research papers are now being published online instead of being stored in the dusty shelves of university or public libraries. You can simply log on to the concerned website and get the research paper you want. This will help you to nail the research paper topic and come up with a good grade.

Research writing help is now made easy through several online journal sites. Some of the most popular sites are:

JSTOR

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