The first step in writing a great research paper is understanding the assignment. Read through the assignment carefully, review class/subject notes, and look for anything needing clarification. Identify the goals you intend to achieve with your assignment, including length, submission guidelines, and formatting. (Note that formatting may differ for different professors, especially for different publications. Ask upfront.)
Next, set a schedule to help you manage your time. We recommend a Gantt chart: make a list of all the tasks you need to achieve and the order you need to achieve them. Assign time estimates to each task to create a visual map that lists your consecutive tasks filled to the allotted amount of time.
Now may also be the right time to seek out a mentor. Looking for help in a writing center can be very valuable. You should begin your preliminary research at this point as well.
How do you write a research paper thesis? With combined help from a student advisor, faculty mentor, and your preliminary research. A thesis is a declaration of what you intend to prove. As with all great writing, it’s important to find something you care about. Having a thesis in mind will energize the research, determine your goalposts, and keep you from straying from your subject area. Have your research paper thesis approved by your faculty advisor or professor.
Consider drafting a rough outline of your research paper. This draft is a place to store ideas and references as you develop your research and refine your argument. The layout will be very rough, but it should be your first go at organizing your materials. Meanwhile, formulate a hypothetical conclusion based on your research so far and pay attention to evidence that contradicts your hypothesis. Taking note of inconsistencies can work to strengthen your final paper as you present evidence supporting your research paper thesis.
Some assignments require a certain number or type of bibliographic sources. Make sure you know the requirements when selecting preliminary resources. Emphasize finding quality, reliable sources. Prevent redundant work by having a system of organization in place as you track bibliographic data. Traditional folder systems are handy, but advanced research tools like Petal can reduce research friction by using computer vision to retrieve metadata that other reference managers miss. Use this tool to manage annotations and bibliographies.
Don’t know where to start? Consider reading our guide on librarian resources and best academic search engines.
Begin taking notes as soon in the process as possible. Notes provide the backbone for early drafts, helping you to recall information and track your references. As you gather notes, you will discover connections between sources and realize which references rise to the top of your research. The more sources you read and the notes you take, the clearer the picture of what you will write in your research paper.
Petal has built-in annotation summary pages that enable users to review their notes at the file or project level; you can search, manage, and review all your notes at once.
From here, how do you write a research paper outline? Start by sorting your notes into your very rough layout from Step ### #2. Note that this is a working outline and not a finished product. As previously mentioned, you should know your hypothetical conclusions when you start. A research paper outline marks the pathway of your argument from introduction to hypothetical end. This is where you should organize and state your claims, assemble your evidence, and list or anticipate counterarguments.
Some suggested subheadings in a working outline are: Problem (stating the issue, defining terms) Thesis Main body (main ideas, evidence, examples) Main arguments (counterpoints) Conclusion
Now that you have made your way through your working outline, start fleshing out locations of key arguments. Rearrange your hierarchy as needed, but be careful not to reinvent the wheel. Much research writing abides by specific templates or standards. If you don’t already have a clear idea of that standard, review your assignment details and ask your peers/mentors for guidance. By this step, you should be early in or halfway through your research process. Use the research paper outline to organize your ideas; continue adding and rearranging ideas as you develop them.
Be careful to track your bibliographic references as you go so you don’t do catch-up work later. Reference managers like Petal can simplify this task for you by helping you organize and format your references as you research.
At this stage, with your notes and full research paper outline handy, you will write the first draft of your research paper. One rule: start writing. Do not concern yourself with perfection at this point--worry about mechanics and style later. Assuming that you are only around halfway through your research process, there is remaining time for editing. Instead, focus on writing quickly and getting to this stage as early in the process as you can. This is where all of your outlining and research come together, and you want to be able to finish this first draft with plenty of time to spare. Remember: you can revise a bad page, but you can’t revise a blank page. You need to write this first draft, get it on paper, and then move on.
With your first draft complete, get some other eyes on your paper. Up to this point you’ve mostly been working alone, maybe bouncing ideas off a study partner or meeting with a mentor. Now is the time to collect feedback by getting someone to actually read what you have written. If your peers are too busy to help out, consider reaching out to your TA or visiting the school writing center.
Many students neglect this part of the process because negative feedback can sting, especially after you’ve invested your time, ideas, and effort into your research. Consider constructive criticism an opportunity to strengthen your argument. This step of writing a research paper will likely illuminate holes in your claims, present a new perspective, introduce counterpoints, or identify confusing prose. Fixing these lends credibility to your position and enhances the persuasiveness of your argument.
During this stage, you may find it helpful to read your paper aloud. It’s often when we hear our words spoken that we recognize flaws in our writing or logic.
Hopefully, by now, you have identified and fixed critical problems with your research paper thesis, arguments, evidence, conclusion, and organization/transitions. Now comes the tedious part: examining your writing for grammatical, mechanical, wording, and other errors. Your native word processor may have built-in features that can help.
You should also consider your tone and voice, paying particular attention to your word choices. Though you already have a good grasp of your paper’s organization, how you handle transitions is critical to maintaining a flow that will make sense to readers.
The step that needs no introduction. With all of your preparation work done, you will be well on your way to success. Remember the three main steps to writing a research paper: collection, synthesis/organization, and revision. Keeping this in perspective will simplify the overall process. Whatever you do, start writing.