7 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.
Start writing parts of the essay long before you finish researching (and don’t worry about starting at the beginning!) This strategy works well because writing is thinking, and the process of writing can help you define your arguments and questions and enable you to return to gathering materials with clear goals in mind. You might even change direction almost completely as you discover more interesting ideas through writing. If you don’t write early in the process, you might be forced to stick with a less interesting thesis because of a lack of time.
5) Write in your own words.
An article on writing academic essays wouldn’t be complete without a warning about plagiarism. Presenting someone else’s work as your own is never appropriate. Never turn in an essay that you haven’t written—chances are a professor will recognize that it has been plagiarized—and always cite any material that you have found in an outside source.
Whenever you want to include a phrase or sentence that comes directly from another text, be sure to put quotation marks around it. Try to be selective about when to quote an outside source. Remember that for most assignments your job isn’t to compile other writer’s thoughts; it is to analyze and synthesize the information you find. If the idea can be paraphrased in your own words, try to do so. Keep in mind, though, that an idea from another source that is presented in your own words still needs to be cited. Check with your instructor to find out which citation style to use (MLA, Chicago, APA, CBE, etc.).
6) Read and revise your first draft. Once you have written your first draft, put it away for a few days. If you can only put it away for an hour or so because of time constraints, do so, but remember that the more time you have away from it the better. After you’ve had a chance to get away from the essay, take a look at it again. As you read over it again, ask yourself these questions: • Is the main point clear? • Does each paragraph focus on one main point and have a clear topic sentence? • Am I providing enough support for my claims? • Does the order of the paragraphs make sense?
• Are there transitions between ideas and paragraphs to help the reader move from one point to the other?
Take some time to revise and fix any problems you notice.
Then, if possible, share your essay with a teacher, tutor, or classmate. Writing is communicating, and you need to be sure that you’ve communicated effectively to another person. When another person reads your essay, he/she can let you know whether your argument is convincing and easy to follow.
Keep in mind that you can repeat this step as often as is necessary to get your essay into great shape.
7) Proofread carefully.
Proofreading is an important process. A polished essay is much easier to read than one filled with typos and formatting errors.
Know that the spellchecker will help you find some errors, but it can’t help you find all of them and won’t catch a word that is spelled correctly but doesn’t fit the meaning of your sentence. Also, be cautious when using the grammar checker because it might encourage you to change something in a way that will change a sentence’s meaning.
There are two great ways to find errors in your essay: 1) Read it out loud. You may feel silly doing this, but it will help you catch omitted or repeated words and awkward sentences. You might even have someone else read it out loud while you listen. 2) Read the essay backwards sentence by sentence from the end to the beginning. This editor’s trick works well because it forces you to focus on the words on the page rather than on what you expect to be there.
Once you’ve fixed all of your typographic errors, look for formatting and spacing problems, make sure your essay conforms to the guidelines stipulated by your teacher, and feel relieved and confident when you turn it in!
Cathy has taught freshman composition and worked as a writing tutor for undergraduate and graduate students across the country. She currently
serves as a writing consultant for graduate students working on theses and dissertations.