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How to Write a Research Paper: A Step-by-Step Guide

Research papers are a requirement for most college courses, so knowing how to write a research paper is important. These in-depth pieces of academic writing can seem pretty daunting, but there's no need to panic. When broken down into its key components, writing your paper should be a manageable and, dare we say it, enjoyable task.

We're going to look at the required elements of a paper in detail, and you might also find this webpage to be a useful reference.

What is a Research Paper?

A research paper is more than just an extra long essay or encyclopedic regurgitation of facts and figures. The aim of this task is to combine in-depth study of a particular topic with critical thinking and evaluation by the student—that's you!

There are two main types of research paper: argumentative and analytical.

Argumentative -- takes a stance on a particular topic right from the start, with the aim of persuading the reader of the validity of the argument. These are best suited to topics that are debatable or controversial.

Analytical -- takes no firm stance on a topic initially. Instead it asks a question and should come to an answer through the evaluation of source material. As its name suggests, the aim is to analyze the source material and offer a fresh perspective on the results.

If you wish to further your understanding, you can learn more here.

How to Write a Research Paper

A required word count (think thousands!) can make writing that paper seem like an insurmountable task. Don't worry! Our step-by-step guide will help you write that killer paper with confidence.

How to Start a Research Paper

Don't rush ahead. Taking care during the planning and preparation stage will save time and hassle later.

Get Clear Instructions

Your lecturer or professor is your biggest ally—after all, they want you to do well. Make sure you get clear guidance from them on both the required format and preferred topics. In some cases, your tutor will assign a topic, or give you a set list to choose from. Often, however, you'll be expected to select a suitable topic for yourself.

Having a research paper example to look at can also be useful for first-timers, so ask your tutor to supply you with one.

Brainstorm Ideas

Brainstorming research paper ideas is the first step to selecting a topic—and there are various methods you can use to brainstorm, including clustering (also known as mind mapping). Think about the research paper topics that interest you, and identify topics you have a strong opinion on.

Choose a Topic

Once you have a list of potential research paper topics, narrow them down by considering your academic strengths and 'gaps in the market,' e.g., don't choose a common topic that's been written about many times before. While you want your topic to be fresh and interesting, you also need to ensure there's enough material available for you to work with. Similarly, while you shouldn't go for easy research paper topics just for the sake of giving yourself less work, you do need to choose a topic that you feel confident you can do justice to.

Outline Your Outline

It might not be possible to form a full research paper outline until you've done some information gathering, but you can think about your overall aim; basically what you want to show and how you're going to show it. Now's also a good time to consider your thesis statement, although this might change as you delve into your source material deeper.

Researching the Research

Now it's time to knuckle down and dig out all the information that's relevant to your topic. Here are some tips.

Make Friends With Your Librarian

While lots of information gathering can be carried out online from anywhere, there's still a place for old-fashioned study sessions in the library. A good librarian can help you to locate sources quickly and easily, and might even make suggestions that you hadn’t thought of. They're great at helping you study and research, but probably can't save you the best desk by the window.

Find Quality Sources

Not all sources are created equal, so make sure that you're referring to reputable, reliable information. Examples of sources could include books, magazine articles, scholarly articles, reputable websites, databases and journals. Keywords relating to your topic can help you in your search.

As you search, you should begin to compile a list of references. This will make it much easier later when you are ready to build your paper's bibliography. Keeping clear notes detailing any sources that you use will help you to avoid accidentally plagiarizing someone else’s work or ideas.

Understand Your Topic

Simply regurgitating facts and figures won't make for an interesting paper. It's essential that you fully understand your topic so you can come across as an authority on the subject and present your own ideas on it. You should read around your topic as widely as you can, before narrowing your area of interest for your paper, and critically analyzing your findings.

A Detailed Outline

Once you've got a firm grip on your subject and the source material available to you, formulate a detailed outline, including your thesis statement and how you are going to support it. The structure of your paper will depend on the subject type—ask a tutor for a research paper outline example if you're unsure.

Get Writing!

If you've fully understood your topic and gathered quality source materials, bringing it all together should actually be the easy part!

Keep it Factual

There's no place for sloppy writing in this kind of academic task, so keep your language simple and clear, and your points critical and succinct. The creative part is finding innovative angles and new insights on the topic to make your paper interesting.

Don’t forget about our verb, preposition, and adverb pages. You may find useful information to help with your writing!

Finalize Your Thesis Statement

You should now be in a position to finalize your thesis statement, showing clearly what your paper will show, answer or prove. This should usually be a one or two sentence statement; however, it's the core idea of your paper, and every insight that you include should be relevant to it. Remember, a thesis statement is not merely a summary of your findings. It should present an argument or perspective that the rest of your paper aims to support.

Think About Format

The required style of your research paper format will usually depend on your subject area. For example, APA format is normally used for social science subjects, while MLA style is most commonly used for liberal arts and humanities. Still, there are thousands of more styles. Your tutor should be able to give you clear guidance on how to format your paper, how to structure it, and what elements it should include. Make sure that you follow their instruction. If possible, ask to see a sample research paper in the required format.

Cite, Cite and Cite

As all research paper topics invariably involve referring to other people's work, it's vital that you know how to properly cite your sources to avoid unintentional plagiarism. Whether you're paraphrasing (putting someone else's ideas into your own words) or directly quoting, the original source needs to be referenced. What style of citation formatting you use will depend on the requirements of your instructor, with common styles including APA and MLA format, which consist of in-text citations (short citations within the text, enclosed with parentheses) and a reference/works cited list.

The Editing Process

It's likely that your paper will go through several drafts before you arrive at the very best version. The editing process is your chance to fix any weak points in your paper before submission. You might find that it needs a better balance of both primary and secondary sources (click through to find more info on the difference), that an adjective could use tweaking, or that you've included sources that aren't relevant or credible. You might even feel that you need to be clearer in your argument, more thorough in your critical analysis, or more balanced in your evaluation.

From a stylistic point of view, you want to ensure that your writing is clear, simple and concise, with no long, rambling sentences or paragraphs. Keeping within the required word count parameters is also important, and another thing to keep in mind is the inclusion of gender-neutral language, to avoid the reinforcement of tired stereotypes.

Don’t forget about our other pages! If you are looking for help with other grammar-related topics, check out our noun, pronoun, and conjunction pages.

Final Checks

Once you're happy with the depth and balance of the arguments and points presented, you can turn your attention to the finer details, such as formatting, spelling, punctuation, grammar and ensuring that your citations are all present and correct. The EasyBib Plus plagiarism checker is a handy tool for making sure that your sources are all cited. An EasyBib Plus subscription also comes with access to citation tools that can help you create citations in your choice of format.

Also, double-check your deadline date and the submissions guidelines to avoid any last-minute issues. Take a peek at our other grammar pages while you’re at it. We’ve included numerous links on this page, but we also have an interjection page and determiner page.

And Relax

So you've done your final checks and handed in your paper according to the submissions guidelines and preferably before deadline day. Congratulations! If your schedule permits, now would be a great time to take a break from your studies. Maybe plan a fun activity with friends or just take the opportunity to rest and relax. A well-earned break from the books will ensure that you return to class refreshed and ready for your next stage of learning—and the next research paper requirement your tutor sets!