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!
Write a Scientific Paper
On a separate page, write your title, and the names and locations of people doing the study. Your title should summarize the question you studied. The title page should include the information in the following example:
Effects of different host plant species on growth rates and larval survival in Danaus plexippus
Ayan Abdinur1, De Cansler2, Janelle Firl2,
Julia Goldburg2, Mary Watson1 and Mai Phia Yang1
1 Century High School, Rochester MN 55901
2 Willow Creek Middle School, Rochester MN 55904
Your abstract should be a concise summary of your question, methods and results. Many people find it easiest to write the abstract last. It should contain no more than 200 words. A useful format is to recall what you did, explain the purpose, state the results, and finally summarize the implications of these results. Here is a 99-word example from one of Karen Oberhauser’s papers:
We studied the relationship between the timing of mating and oogenesis in monarch butterflies to determine 1) the potential for male nutrient input into eggs and 2) whether mating stimulates egg development. Most females mated soon after they started maturing eggs. (this sentence tells what we did and why we did it) One and two days after mating, females contained the same number of mature oocytes as virgin females of the same age, while three days after mating they contained more mature oocytes than did virgins. (this sentence summarizes the results of the study) These results confirm the potential for male-derived nutrients to augment oocyte production, but indicate that mating is not required for oocyte maturation to occur. (this sentence tells the implications of the study)
Your introduction should include a fairly detailed summary of the question you addressed, with some background on this problem. You want to convince people that this is an important and interesting question. You may want to do some research to learn about related studies, and discuss them in this section. For example, one of Sonia Altizer’s papers includes the following introduction:
I explored geographic variation in host resistance and parasite virulence among populations of monarch butterflies infected with the neogregarine protozoan parasite, Ophryocystis elektroscirrha. (this sentence tells what she did) Monarchs and this parasite are distributed worldwide, and parasite prevalence is highly variable among populations (Ackery and Vane Wright 1984, Leong et al 1997, Altizer et al. 1998). One possible cause of this variation in prevalence is that populations have genetically diverged with respect to host susceptibility or parasite infectivity. (these sentences give some background information, with references, and introduce her approach to studying the cause of existing variation)
After introducing the topic, briefly describe your research procedure, and then list your hypotheses (it is OK to have more than one hypothesis). Here is an example of the end of Sonia’s introduction to this paper:
To test the potential for genetic differences in hosts and parasites among populations, I conducted cross-inoculation experiments with hosts and parasites from three North American populations. Because virulence is often associated with the degree of parasite replication within hosts, I measured both host survival and the parasite loads of inoculated monarchs. (this sentence explains what was done and why) I predicted several effects of host and parasite origin, including 1) higher replication of parasite strains on native hosts, indicating that parasites are locally adapted, 2) lower replication of parasites strains on native hosts, indicating that hosts are resistant to local parasites, 3) higher host resistance among the longest-distance migrants, resulting from an increased cost of infection, 4) higher parasite virulence in non-migratory populations due to increased horizontal and vertical transmission opportunities, or 5) no effect of either host of parasite origin on host survival or parasite replication. (numbers 1-4 are several alternative hypotheses, some of which are mutually exclusive (1 and 2), and 5 is the null hypothesis)
This section should be a brief, concise summary of what you did. It should be detailed enough that someone else could repeat your study, but should not go into long, boring detail (e.g. We obtained milkweed plants from an unmowed area behind our school is better than During third period we walked to an unmowed area 0.5 km from our school. We picked milkweed plants from this area, then carried them back to our classroom). You should include locations, dates, and sample sizes in this section.
This section will summarize the answers to your question. Before you start writing the Results section, list everything that you learned, and decide what is most important and how to organize your results to make the important points. The section should include tables, charts and graphs to illustrate these points. As a general rule, graphs or charts (called figures) do a better job of making a point than tables, but it is not always possible to get all of the information you need into a figure. Tables and figures should both have captions. Whenever you use a table or figure, be sure to refer to it by number in the text of the results section. Never include a table or figure that you don’t don't discuss in the text. Look at other reports on this site for examples.
In this part of the report, summarize your findings, and discuss their implications with respect to your hypotheses. If relevant, compare your results to those found in similar studies in the past. In addition, you could suggest future directions for research. If you feel that there were methodological problems with your work, mention them here, and state how they might have affected your results. If you think that your results were inconclusive, state what you might want to do differently in the future.
In this section, acknowledge people who helped you with this work. For example, you could say "I would like to thank my mother, Sylvia Plexippus, who checked my cages while I was at school." Here is an example from one of Karen’s papers:
I thank De Cansler, Ann Feitl, Rachel Hampton, Brenda Jenson and Christine Jessup for help counting and weighing eggs. Don Alstad, Carol Boggs and Christer Wiklund provided helpful comments on the manuscript. Research was supported by the National Science Foundation (DEB-9220829).
List all of the published sources you used to get information for your report. These should include the author’s name, year of publication, title of article or book, publisher or journal, and issue and pages for journal articles. Below are examples of citations for a book and article:
Choe, J. C. & B. J. Crespi. 1997. Mating systems in insects and arachnids. Cambridge University Press.
Oberhauser, K.S. and R. Hampton. 1995. Relationship between mating and oogenesis in monarch butterflies. J. Ins. Behav. 8:701-713.
If you use websites, give the organization and the address of the site. (e.g. Monarch Joint Venture website: www.monarchjointventure.org)