Research papers are a fact of life for any high school or university student. Tears of frustration, endless refills of strong coffee, long hours staring blankly at a computer screen—these might be some of the images that come to mind if you’ve ever had the pleasure of writing one.
But what if there was a better way?
How to Write a Research Paper
If you know how to properly prepare for a research paper (and don’t procrastinate until the very last minute), you’ll find that the process actually isn’t so painful. In fact, you might actually enjoy learning something in depth.
By choosing the right topic, conducting proper research, and organizing an efficient outline, you can ace your next research paper and avoid hellish all-nighters.
How to Choose a Research Topic
The first step in your research odyssey is finding the right topic, which is actually just a question that you want to answer.
You can start by reading up on a general topic that interests you. As you read, take notes and bookmark anything that strikes you. Most importantly, be curious and ask questions.
Is there something you feel could be better explained, or a subtopic that merits greater attention?
You’ll want to choose a topic that interests you and allows you to contribute a relatively new angle, but not something so specific that you can’t find sources.
Here’s an example of how the topic selection process can work:
1. Start with a topic: Post-conflict reconstruction
2. Narrow your focus: Women and post-conflict reconstruction in South Africa
3. Generate a researchable question: What role did women have in the Truth and Reconciliation Commissions of South Africa, and how can states work to better include them in the future?
As you can see, the first part of this question can be answered with research, while the second half will allow you to contribute your original thoughts and suggestions based on your research.
Some quick Googling should show you if there is enough information available to work with, or if a certain subject has already been exhausted.
The Best Research Tools
If you’re a university student, most likely your school’s library has access to large databases and research tools like JSTOR, Lexis Nexis, DOAJ, and so on.
Definitely take advantage of these, as they contain thousands of articles from academic journals.
Other great resources include:
- Google Scholar
- Online encyclopedias*
- Government publications
*Most teachers and professors will strongly discourage you from using Wikipedia in your research, as pages can be edited by anyone at any time.
However, you may find Wikipedia helpful for finding some general information to guide your research, and you can always scroll to the bottom of the page to be redirected to the article’s original sources.
When you take notes from a source, always remember to include a proper citation of it in your paper. There are lots of great online citation generator tools to make creating citations easy and pain free!
Develop a Thesis Statement
Now that you’ve done your research, it’s time to develop a thesis statement.
A thesis statement is a sentence (or sometimes 2-3 sentences) that conveys the main point of your essay and tells readers what you’ll be explaining or arguing. It’s usually found within the first paragraphs of your paper.
Thesis Statement Example:
Governments should take stronger action against climate change because doing so can create more jobs, raise the quality of living, and decrease health complications associated with pollution.
It’s good practice to draft a thesis statement before writing your research paper, since every point you make in your paper should work to support this statement.
However, it’s not uncommon at all to rework your thesis a few times as you dive deeper into your research.
In fact, it’s okay if you change your mind about your argument or even find that you’ve disproven your thesis (hopefully you’ll give yourself plenty of time to allow for adjustments!)
You never want to start with the approach that your thesis is the only answer, because then you’ll be more likely to conduct biased research (searching only for sources that confirm your initial assumption and ignoring the rest).
Remember that good research is thorough, honest, and comes from a variety of sources.
Create an Outline
Create an outline to organize your thoughts before you start writing your paper.
Think about what you’ve found in your research and how it can best be organized to support your thesis.
Your main points will be your sub-headings, so find the supporting information for each headline and organize it accordingly.
Keep in mind that not every note you jotted down during the research process will be necessary. Information that doesn’t directly support your thesis does not need to be included.
Write Your Research Paper
The outline is a great tool for guiding and organizing your thoughts, but your ideas could always evolve. You might also come up with new ones once you start writing, so stay flexible as you begin composing your first draft.
Your introduction should present the background and context for the rest of your paper. Without directly stating your purpose, it should be clear whether your paper is trying to explain, describe, analyze, or persuade readers.
The introduction should also provide context that answers the following questions:
- What will you argue/explain?
- Why does your research matter?
- If persuasive, what action do you want your readers to take?
The thesis statement is usually included toward the end of your introduction, but this can vary case by case.
The body of your paper should contain your key points and supporting evidence. Remember that you aren’t limited to what’s on your outline.
There are many different ways to organize your body paragraphs, but you should make each section relatively balanced (in other words, don’t write three sentences for one point and one page for another).
You might also consider ending with your strongest point to deliver a more impactful finish.
You’re not done yet! Your conclusion should present your rephrased thesis statement and briefly summarize your paper’s main points.
If you feel any aspects deserve further research—or if you came across any limitations to your research—you can also mention that here.
You might be tired, but try to leave with a lasting impression as powerful as the first you made in your introduction.
Reread, Revise, and Edit
If you haven’t waited until the eleventh hour to write your paper, put it away for a day or two before you start the revision process. This way, you’ll have a fresh set of eyes to catch any structural or grammatical errors.
Make sure that your ideas follow a logical sequence and that your arguments actually support your thesis.
Then, you can move onto the details, like checking for repeated phrases, punctuation errors, weak word choice, and other grammatical mistakes.
You can also try running your paper through a grammar and plagiarism checker like Grammarly, just to give it one more comb-through.
Cite and Format Your Research Sources
Proper citations are a must for any research paper. Check with your professor to make sure you’re using the proper style.
There are plenty of online resources available that will format your citations for you in APA, MLA, Chicago, and other styles if you simply enter the appropriate information.
If you borrowed any phrases or ideas without proper attribution, you could land in some hot water for plagiarism, so always take the time to double check.
Tips for Better Research
Next time you’re assigned a research paper, try using some of these tips to prepare and write with confidence.
Organizing your research and producing a solid outline will help you finish faster and probably even score a better grade!
Do you have any tips for writing a research paper? Feel free to share in the comments below!