Last revised 8/2020
This resource takes you through the stages of developing a typical research paper:
If you are asked to do a research paper, your instructor expects you to find good information, present and interpret it in a clearly written essay and document clearly where you got the information you included. Instructors may give you specific instructions to fit their subject area.
The most common problem leading to poor marks is misunderstanding of instructors’ expectations, so read over all assignment instructions carefully. Underline or highlight the key words or phrases that define your assignment criteria:
If you are unclear about any of them, check with your instructor.
Once you are clear on the instructor’s expectations, start your research paper by giving yourself a series of deadlines. Writing a good research paper is a big job; you can’t do it well if you leave it to the last minute. So, as soon as you get your assignment, look at the due date and then work backwards giving yourself a series of deadlines.
How long each stage takes depends on a lot of variables like paper length, your current knowledge of the topic, your research, your reading and writing skills, and the amount of time you can spend on the paper each week. For your first few research papers, start early.
To plan your time, follow these steps:
Your instructor may give you a list of topics to choose from. If you need to find your own topic, there are several prewriting strategies you can use, including asking questions, making lists and drawing diagrams.
Choose a topic that:
Winkler and McCuen (2003) suggest that students should avoid topics that are:
Once you’ve chosen your general topic, the next step is to narrow it to something manageable within the assigned paper length. If you are already fairly knowledgeable about your topic, you may be able to narrow it easily. However, if you don’t know much about your topic, you need to do some general reading on your topic. Try reading about the topic in your textbook; you might also try doing a quick Google search on the internet to find basic information about the topic. Such sources are most likely too general to use as sources for your paper, but they can help you to get an overview of your topic and show you options for how you might focus your paper.
One good approach to narrowing your topic is to use Who, What, Where, When, Why and How questions to help you explore your topic. Your goal is to come up with a question you can’t answer without doing some research, but that you feel is worth answering. Such a question is often called “The Research Question”. The Research Question can guide your research and the answer you find through your research can often become your thesis statement – the main point of your paper.
Now it’s time to get going on your research. Hopefully, your instructor has arranged for your class to go to the library and learn basic library research skills. If not, ask for help from a librarian.
When you find sources, you need to decide how useful they are for your particular topic. This is especially important on the Internet. Use this checklist to evaluate each source:
Once you’ve found some useful looking sources, you should skim them:
During this initial research phase, don’t try to do a lot of in-depth reading. Instead, skim them by reading introductions, conclusions or abstracts and glancing over topic headings and graphics. Keep a record of all useful-looking sources for later use. For more information about how to find sources, see the next section of this handout.
From what you learn in doing this initial research, you should develop a basic plan. This plan should mainly be a short list of the categories of information you think you might include in your paper. This initial plan may change as you do more research, but having an initial starting place is very useful.
Now it is time to start taking detailed notes. A planned approach to taking notes can save you a lot of time later. Follow these steps:
As you take your notes, you may find you need to add new topic areas. In that case, make a new page for that topic area and treat it like the others.
For each topic area from your basic plan, decide what points you want to make and how you want to organize the ideas. Make a simple outline for each section of your paper. The outline should include:
Consider the best order, both for points within a section as well as the order of the sections themselves. Some students like to make an outline for a section and then write it before moving on to the next section. Others prefer to make a full outline for the whole paper before starting to write.
Here are some time saving tips that might help you:
Using your outlines as a guide, you will write the sections of your paper in the next step.
As you write your draft, just get the ideas on the paper following your outline. Later you can go back and revise the paper, improving its content, organization, language and mechanics.
A research paper generally has three parts: the introduction, the body and the conclusion. Some students find it helpful to write the body sections of their paper before they write the introduction and conclusion. Some students just write the easiest sections first, which helps them tackle the more difficult sections later.
Remember that not all subjects are alike in what they expect in a research paper. Some areas have very specific formats that are different from the most typical described below.
Here is some basic information about each of the parts in the typical research paper format:
The introduction is one or two paragraphs that introduce your reader to your topic. The purpose of the introduction is to capture your reader’s interest, to provide background information, and to clarify your focus.
As a part of the introduction, you should have a thesis statement. The thesis statement tells your reader about the focus of your paper. It is the most important sentence of your paper. Thesis statements can state a point of view or simply outline the scope of the paper, depending on instructor requirements.
The body of your paper is the paragraphs that make your points and provide the research evidence. The sections you took notes on are included in the body. Each section generally will become a few paragraphs in the completed essay.
As you write, be sure to include where your information came from. You need to do that whether you quote, paraphrase or summarize someone else’s ideas. See the next section on documentation for more information about how to document your sources.
A problem some students have when they use information from sources is that they just put a whole bunch of quotes together without really discussing them. It is important to both introduce the information from your sources and follow up by discussing how the source information is relevant to the point you are making.
Use transitions and topic sentences to help your reader move from one point to the next. For long research papers, it is often a good idea to include headings in the body showing the major sections in the paper.
In the conclusion, you often summarize the main points of the paper and make some comments about the significance of your topic or about actions that should be taken as a result of the truth of your thesis. Your instructor may also provide you with more specific instructions about what she/he expects you to do in your conclusion.
Documentation of sources means that you show where you got your information -- whether you quoted, paraphrased or summarized your sources. If you do not document your sources properly, you risk committing plagiarism. Plagiarism is unacceptable in college and has serious consequences.
Documentation in academic work is done in a variety of styles. These styles all basically do the same job, but they are different in the details. Your instructor may specify a particular style you should use. The most common styles are referred to as APA style and MLA style. In both these styles, you give key information about the source in brackets after you quote, paraphrase or summarize. At the end of the paper, you provide all the bibliographic information that would allow your reader to find your source themselves.
There are many other styles of documentation that are used for one or a few subject areas. Some of these styles use footnotes instead of putting source information in brackets. The most common of these is Chicago style.
When you have finished your draft, don’t make the mistake of thinking your job is done. A good paper requires more work. You need to revise your paper to strengthen its points, improve its organization and style, and check for language and mechanics errors. The following questions can help you assess and revise your work. First, concentrate on issues of content and organization. When you are comfortable with those aspects, then check the language and mechanics.
Language and Mechanics include spelling, punctuation, word choice, grammar and sentence structure. There are many ways to find these kinds of errors.
Additional resources for many of these topics (e.g. prewriting, outlining, revising) are available through the Learning Centre and Learning Centre website.
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