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:
- Outline and write your paper
- Check for errors
- 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 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 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 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
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!
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:
- Start early — 3 weeks in advance!
- Read the guidelines
- Mind map/Brainstorm research paper topics
- Write out your questions
- Do the research (Remember to keep track of your sources!)
- Create a Thesis Statement
- Create an outline
- Write your essay
- Cite your sources (In-text and in your bibliography)
- Read your essay (twice and once aloud!)
- 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!
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. Schedule Your Paper
In this state of time-limited anxiety, you’re going to have the vicious urge to dive straight into writing. Don’t do it. Resist. Abort. Pace yourself first- chart out a decent amount of time in which you think you can write this paper. If you’re a slow, hesitant writer, an hour per page is the maximum I would ever suggest. In all likelihood, you can probably write a fairly decent ten to twelve page paper out in about five hours. Set this pace for yourself and then work carefully, but briskly. Let’s say you’ve allotted two hours to write a six to eight page essay. It’s a crunch, but you can manage. Spend a half hour researching your topic, a solid hour explaining what you’ve learned in paper format, and then spend the last half hour editing and compiling a bibliography.
2. Thesis and Introductory Paragraph
The thesis is the framework of the entire paper, and a good thesis automatically lends a more academic, positive outlook to the rest of your essay. Your thesis should very briefly outline the points you will make in the paper to support your claim. The thesis of your essay should always have some sort of claim, goal or overarching summary. Let’s say you were given the topic to analyze a movie and then compare it to the decade it was produced in. First, decide what you want to accomplish with your paper. It’s to explain how the movie represents the decade it was produced in. You need to convince your reader that a movie can be an accurate portrayal of its decade, even if the setting was in a different time period. You should avoid flowery prose in a thesis and instead be concise and simple. Place your thesis at the end of the introductory paragraph, after four or five quality sentences that roughly very basic ideas and facts about the topic. Don’t give it all away though- you want to draw your reader in.
“The movie How To Marry A Millionaire is an accurate representation of the nineteen fifties through its rendering of family values, consumerism and portrayal of women.”
You can either begin writing about the first of those three subtopics in the next paragraph, or according to your needs or instructor’s requirements, you can follow with a paragraph describing the topic in more detail to allow the reader to follow along with more ease. Afterward, devote a solid analysis and description to each of the three subtopics. Each subtopic should have around three sources that compliment what you’re saying, but do not replace your ideas. For a Thesis to be as solid as possible, always have at least three subtopics that revolve around your main topic to create a good basis for your argument or ideas. Any less is too weak and the thesis will be unable to stand on its own.
Here is where your essay will live or die. The more research you can provide, without drowning your TA or professor in useless facts, the better. You need to prove that you’ve thought deeply about your topic and sifted through various resources over a period of several weeks, even if you haven’t. If your paper requires book sources, utilize your campus library. If not, Google is your savior. Plug in your topic followed by your subtopic keywords. Stay on the first three pages and peruse carefully. Don’t click through every search option. Look at the title, summary and web address carefully. You want good, solid sources. If you use a quote or fact from the web, follow it with an in text citation (if your college uses footnotes, use those instead). Generally an in text citation will have the author’s last name followed by the page number with a single space in between, like so (Smith 56).
Some of the time, Google will not return sources that are academic in nature, and so you must turn to databases- I recommend you use databases more than Google searches, simply because the wealth of knowledge is far more expansive and most likely to be legitimate. Log on to your school’s library webpage and search for database options; I guarantee your school’s library will have several to choose from, and from there, you will have access to many scholarly schools that you can incorporate into your paper.
4. Body Paragraphs
Once you’ve established your thesis and introductory paragraph, move on to the body paragraphs. I find this format to be the most helpful for outlining a simple but quality paragraph.
Sentence 1: Summary of Subtopic point- Family values were important to American’s of the nineteen fifties….
Sentence 2: Analysis- quickly analyze why you think sentence one is true.
Sentence 3: Fact- back up sentence two and lend support to sentence one through the use of a relevant fact. Make sure you cite your source correctly.
Sentence 4: More analysis.
Sentence 5: Quote- Quotes from credible sources can be powerful, but should be used sparingly, otherwise your own words will be drowned out and the paper will be little more than cut and paste plagiarism. Find a quote that says something similar to your analysis and use it as support for your ideas. Do not let it replace your ideas or be the springboard for them.
Sentence 6: Analyze the quote and how it relates to the point you’re making with your subtopic.
This basic framework for a body paragraph makes it easy to plug in your sentences. You must be careful to provide plenty of your own thoughts and ideas, and use quotes to compliment them. Facts support your ideas and quotes compliment them. Remember that. Plagiarism is stealing, and it’s downright lazy and one of the rudest things you can do to another person. Not only does it have very serious consequences, but it’s just not cool. Don’t do it.
The conclusion of your paragraph needs to restate all your previous ideas. Summarize your paper basically, avoiding repetitive phrases and already stated facts or ideas. Mention your subtopics again and reaffirm how they support your overarching topic. Leave your reader with a sentence that makes them think about the topic for a moment after they’ve finished the paper- a question or a thought-provoking sentence, for example.
If you’re having trouble with your paper and feeling stuck, go for a quick five minute run. Run briskly and breathe deeply. On your return, drink some water and eat a light snack. Get back to work. You can write this paper, and you will.
7. Finishing Up
Okay, so you’ve churned out as many pages or words as you need to. You’re done with the bulk of the work and over the hump. Now you can start editing and revising. Make this quick. Read through your paper silently first, fixing any mistakes you notice. Now, compile your bibliography- collect all your sources, format them properly and quickly using easybib.com and get a quick drink. Come back to your paper and read it out loud, as if you’re presenting it to an audience. This helps you catch any other mistakes you might have missed. Shore up any weak arguments with a quick sentence containing a source or with more analysis or argument. Add a title if necessary. If you don’t have time to come up with a creative title, be boring, but be true. For example: “How to Marry a Millionaire: Cultural Connections in the Nineteen Fifties.”
Simple, quick, done. Writing a paper is a formula with specific components that you just need to plug data into, and can easily be simplified beyond what many stressed college students may think. Take a deep breath, break things down, find your data, and insert it into the proper locations. You will not get the grade you probably could have gotten if you’d started well in advance, but you won’t flunk the assignment either and you can alleviate some of the dread that accompanies writing a paper last minute. Now, get some sleep and try to plan better next time.