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Cathy Keller Brown7 Steps to Writing a Great Research Paper

by Cathy Keller Brown

As you begin taking more upper-level courses, you may be distressed to find that your grades hinge on one assignment—a major research paper.

You may not have written anything longer than a few pages for years—or maybe even decades—so the thoughts of this daunting task creep into your mind as you drive to class every morning, get dinner on the table each evening, and try to ease your mind enough to fall asleep each night.

Writing a long paper is a challenge for most of us. Few people can easily churn out an A-worthy paper, but if you follow these seven simple guidelines, you are certain to increase your odds of acing the assignment, impressing your professor, and alleviating stress.

1) Know what your instructor wants you to do.

Before you do anything else, make sure you have a clear understanding of what your instructor expects from you. Read over the assignment several times and underline action words like define, describe, classify, compare, analyze, argue, and evaluate. Throughout the writing process, keep those terms in mind so that you are always aware of your task. If the assignment doesn’t include any action words other than write, as in “write a research paper,” your teacher probably wants you to present an argument about your topic and provide support for the argument. If you are at all unsure, talk to him/her right away.

2) Begin planning the paper as soon as you receive the assignment.

After you know what to do, begin defining a good topic. That can be a time-consuming task, but if you do it well in the beginning, you will save yourself some heartache as you get further into the writing process. Keep in mind that you may need to do some preliminary research in order to develop a good topic. As you decide what to write about, think about how long the essay needs to be and whether your professor expects you to cover one narrow topic in depth or to survey a broader range of material. It’s always smart to discuss your topic with your professor, if possible; he/she can help you determine whether your goals are feasible. If the professor isn’t available, discuss the topic with a tutor or classmate.

Once you have decided what to write about, you might be ready to jump in and begin researching right away – Resist that urge! Before you begin, think
about your topic. Write down everything you already know about it and then make a list of questions you’d like to answer in your research. This early
planning step may seem tedious, but it will help guide your research and make it more productive. Keep in mind that a tutor or colleague can also help
you during this stage.

3) Begin the research process well in advance.

I can’t say this enough. When you’re taking several courses, you will be tempted to delay getting started on a long-term assignment so that you can manage more immediate challenges. Your chances of acing this assignment depend, however, on your discipline and time management. As soon as you’ve defined your topic (if not before), go to the library or search online for relevant materials. Take advantage of resources available to you; a librarian can be your savior during this stressful time because he/she is trained to know the best ways to track down information.

4) Don’t delay the writing process.

When working on research papers, many students mistakenly compile research for weeks or months and then plan to write the paper a week (or even a day) before it is due. This strategy might work for you, but it can be risky. It is best to interrupt the research process frequently to review and evaluate what you have gathered.


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