10 Easy Steps to Writing a Research Paper
Writing a research paper can seem like a daunting task – especially if it’s your first paper where you’re required to cite sources. However, just like with any big project, writing a research paper can actually be very manageable if you break down the entire project into a few simple steps.
So grab your index cards and highlighters and let’s get to work!
Step 1: Read the directions for the assignment thoroughly
Don’t start off on this long journey without first knowing exactly what you are supposed to do. Poor grades on papers are often caused by not accomplishing all of the tasks asked by the teacher, not as a result of bad writing.
Step 2: Pick a topic
One of the coolest parts of doing a research paper is you have the freedom to pick a topic that is interesting to you. And since you’re going to spend a fair amount of time reading about it, you might as well pick something you like!
One of the biggest mistakes many students make is selecting a topic that is too general. Instead of writing a paper about a single topic, such as global warming or the invention of the television, try turning the topic into a guiding question – such as “How does global warming affect hurricanes?” or “How did the invention of the television affect the movie industry?” – and answer that.
Step 3: Start your research
One of the requirements for a research paper is that you need to find information from a variety of sources. That means you can’t just go to Wikipedia, copy what’s there and call it a day. Instead, you need to seek an array of sources that examine the topic from diverse points of view. These may include websites, magazines, newspapers, scholarly journals, and even good old-fashioned books. You may also be required to find both primary and secondary sources that deal with your topic. (A primary source is one that provides firsthand evidence about a topic or event, such as an eyewitness account, a scientific study, or a legal document. A secondary source is an article or other text that summarizes, analyzes, or interprets the primary source. For example, the transcript of a presidential speech is a primary source, but a newspaper article reporting on that speech is a secondary source.)
So how do you go about finding these sources? Actually, Wikipedia can be a great jumping off point for research. Start by getting familiar with the topic and then look at the articles referenced at the bottom to find more information.
Next, come up with a list of keywords associated with your topic and use those to search online for other articles from trusted websites, such as those that end in .edu, .org, or .gov, which may be more reliable than those ending in .com. If you are on a .org site, read about the organization’s mission to find out if they have a specific agenda or not. And make sure to avoid getting information from personal blogs or forums, which are often highly biased or may even contain inaccurate information.
Another tip: Print out articles that seem promising, so you can read them in more depth later on, highlighting key information as you go. Don’t rule out a potential source just because the title doesn’t seem to relate directly to your topic. Take the time to print, read and annotate before deciding if a source is useful for your research or not.
Step 4: Take notes on interesting, relevant facts
You can do this either by hand or on a computer, but no matter what, make sure you take notes on what you find so you can organize all of the information later. If you’re taking notes the old-fashioned way (with pencil and paper), write down each fact or idea you discover on a separate notecard, and write the author and title of the source on the back of that card, so you can provide citations in your paper. (If the fact comes from an actual book, include the page number, and if the source is online, write down the website for future reference). Using notecards is particularly helpful because when you go to write your research paper, you can move around all the different pieces of information until they’re organized logically and your paper really starts to flow.
If you don’t want to write all your notes out by hand, open up a Word document and when you find an article that has relevant information, copy and paste that info into the document. Make sure to paste the source URL as well, so you can cite it later on. And of course, remember that you just pasted that text word-for-word into your notes from some publication. We’ll say more about plagiarism later, but for now, just make a note that those were someone else’s words, not your own.
Step 5: Come up with your thesis statement
Okay, you’ve made a lot of progress so far! After getting lots and lots of interesting facts about your topic, it’s time to start writing. And before you do anything else, you need to come up with your thesis statement, an interesting and concise statement of the argument you’ll be making in your paper. Once you have a solid thesis, you can turn your attention to providing evidence and analysis that support that argument.
If we return to our guiding question from earlier, “How does global warming affect hurricanes?,” your thesis statement would be an answer to that question, such as, “Global warming is causing hurricanes to intensify, which will lead to more loss of life and billions of dollars in damage if governments don’t do something to change it.”
Step 6: Organize your paragraphs
Here’s where the notecards come into play. Go back to your notecards, organized in the order you want to write about them. You should have several piles of related notecards, and each of those piles can be turned into a paragraph or section of your essay. Each paragraph should have a topic sentence that relates back to your thesis and summarizes what you are about to say, as well as a quote from a source to back it up. Don’t forget: Direct quotes from sources need to be put into quotation marks and must include a citation at the end!
Step 7: Write an intro and conclusion
Now that you’ve written the body of your essay, you can go back and flesh out your introduction, making sure to provide any context or background readers need for understanding your key points.
Finally, it’s time to write your conclusion. If your essay is very long, it may be worthwhile to summarize your main arguments one last time. However, if the essay is short (four pages or fewer) this probably isn’t necessary. So, what else can you say in a conclusion? Well, this is your last chance to convince the reader to adopt your point of view. Restate your thesis, and then make an emotional appeal and a call to action. Tug at your reader’s heartstrings, trigger their sense of pride or justice or whatever feeling relates most to your topic. Then, if action is relevant, offer a suggestion for what steps readers can take in support of your point of view.
Step 8: Don’t plagiarize!
Ok, this is a rule, not a step, but it’s a big deal, so we wanted to mention it one last time. You cannot simply copy and paste someone else’s words – or even just rearrange them a little bit – and call them your own. If you found the information somewhere else, you MUST cite where it came from to avoid committing plagiarism. And remember, it’s not just facts that need to be cited. If you are taking someone else’s ideas or ways of thinking about facts, you should be citing those as well.
Step 9: Write a works cited list
At the end of the paper, you need to provide information about each source you cited, so readers could go find those sources themselves if they wanted to. Follow MLA style (unless your teacher directs you otherwise) when formatting your list and in-text citations.
Step 10: Revise and edit
One of the toughest parts of learning to write an “A” paper is knowing when you are really done. It’s not going to be perfect the first time, and there is always great editing (or an editor) behind every great writer. Take the time to reread, edit, and revise. If a sentence seems clunky to you, it probably is. Don’t be afraid to cut stuff even if it makes your paper too short. Pay attention to the flow of your paper and move sentences or paragraphs around if needed to make the argument more logical. Finally, if you can’t get someone else to read your paper first, put yourself in the shoes of a person who knows nothing about your topic, and read it from their perspective to see if it makes sense.
That’s it! You’ve done it. Research is not simple, and it can be overwhelming. But if you follow these steps, you’ll have something to guide you through the process and you’ll be more likely to create a final product that meets your teacher’s expectations.