Today we’re going to talk about how to write a research paper. I know, I know. You hate those. Guess what? So do professors.

How to Write a Research Paper

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I don’t know why research papers are such a point of contention with students. Honestly, I’d gladly write a research paper in place of taking a test. But standarized tests have always seemed stupid to me, and like they really only predict how well someone can do on a test, not how well they know a topic.

As a college instructor, I dislike the research paper for two reasons: 1.) Grading it IS THE ABSOLUTE WORST OMG and 2.) students freak out about writing them so much.

(I should say that grading papers isn’t that bad. It’s just a lot of work to do after hours. Also, if you like to procrastinate before writing a paper, imagine how much worse that procrastination becomes when you have like 80 of those to grade.)

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So, in an effort to ease the anxiety surrounding research papers, today I’m going to share how to write a research paper. This strategy will work for any class, any level, and any topic.

How to Write a Research Paper

001: Define your topic and brainstorm.

I think the number one reason why I get asked how to write a research paper is because people skip this step. It feels like a waste of time since you aren’t actually digging into the research or writing. But here’s the thing: Without this step, you can’t satisfactorily complete the rest of the project.

This is the time where you refine the topic if you’ve been given something super broad. This is where you decide what specific thing you’re going to dig into. This is also where you shape your thesis. And while you may edit your thesis throughout the process based on your research and the direction the paper takes, this is your first specific idea of what your overall purpose is for this paper.

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002: Research based on the direction you want to go.

Databases can be intimidating if you don’t know how refine your search. And if you’re the type that wants to use Google Scholar, that’s totally fine, but know that the amount of results you’re going to get for any specific search is going to be immense. So, if you can make your search term hyper-specific, you’re going to have an easier time finding the information you need.

When you know the direction you want to take this paper, come up with 5-10 search terms that should bring up some results. Then, use those search terms to find the sources you need. This process may wind up bringing you a lot of the same sources over and over, but keep re-tooling that search term to get more sources. Depending on your academic level, you may only need a specific amount. But if you’re writing a lit review, know that you need to keep finding more and more.

Pro Tip: If you have one article that you really like, cull the reference list at the end of that article for more sources. Keep doing that on all the relevant articles until you stop finding new sources.

003: Outline down to the specific quotes you’ll use.

Boy, do I love a good outline.

At this point, you probably have at least a vague idea of the sections of your paper. (If your paper is shorter, you probably have an idea about the paragraphs of your paper.) Start building your outline based on those different sections/paragraphs. Then, pull your quotes from your sources and put them in the sections/paragraphs they’ll go in for your paper.

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Once you have those quotes in there, it’s time to start adding your personal commentary and analysis. Since you’re outlining, you don’t need to write in full sentences. But, beware! As a person who has suffered under the weight of a vague outline in the past, make sure you’re very clear about what these non-full sentences actually mean. There’s nothing worse than going back to find that you have no idea what that supposedly brilliant idea was.

(In my case, it’s generally not that brilliant, but more of a caffeine-fueled fever dream.)

004: Write a terrible first draft.

Anne Lamott said all first drafts are shit, and the first draft of a research paper is no exception. This is the second most important part of the research paper writing process, next to defining your topic. And the reason this one is so important is because this is when your ideas become fully-formed. Sure, they’re full of errors, but they are out of your head and onto the page.

I recommend starting with the body paragraphs/sections of the paper here. It’s much easier to get all the substance in place first, and then write the introduction. And I highly recommend writing the conclusion last, because it’s much easier to sum everything up if you have everything.

005: Edit and re-write.

Now it’s time to get that shitty first draft into proper shape. Once all the words are out, read the paper to yourself. Add what you left out, and take out what shouldn’t be there. Then, read it out loud. This will help you find specific errors, like words that have been transposed, or sentences that are way too long. Then, read the paper backwards from the last word to the first to see your spelling and formatting errors.

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If you choose to have someone else read your paper, beware. Depending on your educational level, this may be a good idea or a bad idea. Also, if this research paper is in a topic that your proposed editor isn’t familiar with, it may be even more of a problem. Look for proofreaders who fully understand the assignment, and who know the appropriate language to use in this type of research paper.

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How Do You Write a Research Paper?

Now you tell me: What are you tips and tricks? How do you write a research paper? What techniques got you through school? What’s the hardest thing about research paper writing for you?

3 Responses

  1. Hello, my thing was : where does your personal opinion go? One instructor said that It didn’t belong in a research paper. When I went to college I was highly criticized for not including my personal views. That kinda confused me. What is your take?

    1. I say include it! One of my favorite things about reading student papers is seeing how they take the information they have, and then use it to state their point of view. I always look at it like you’re trying to give your two cents in the conversation. Even though the sources will make up the brunt of the paper, your opinion is what is adding to the pre-existing conversation.

      1. I agree, I love taking information and ingesting it…then you can write about your opinions with logic and facts to either support or contradict your views.

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