Steps in Writing a Research Paper
A series of steps, starting with developing a research question and working thesis, will lead you through writing a research paper. As you move through these steps and actually create the research paper, you may find that you can't move through all of them in chronological order, and that's o.k. In fact, you may change the order of the steps depending on the subject, your knowledge of the subject, and your sources. For example, sometimes you need to do just a bit of background research and reading before you can develop a research question. Sometimes you need to go back and find additional sources to corroborate your viewpoint. The research writing steps that we offer represent a general, ideal, movement through the research writing process. In reality, writers often repeat or circle back as needed.
Hey, wait a minute. . . why did we say "ideal?" In our opinion, these steps represent the best way to move through the writing process because they ask you to think and develop a research question before you actually do a lot of research. The one big mess that you can get into, as a student, comes from doing too much unfocused research before identifying your own viewpoint, the one that you will eventually need to support. If you do too much unfocused research first, then the tendency is to try to include all of it in the paper. The result is a hodgepodge of information that's not focused, developed fully, or indicative of your own thoughts. It's also not efficient to do too much research before you really know what you're looking for. Try it our way--develop that research question first--to cut out a lot of research paper mess.
These steps will lead you through writing a research paper:
- One Big Mess...
- Developing a Research Question
- Developing a Research Thesis
- Finding Sources
- Evaluating Sources
- Taking Notes
- Working with Quotations
- Writing Summaries & Paraphrases
- Building the Essay Draft
- Documenting Sources
- Revising and Proofreading the Draft
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- Do a thorough job annotating to make your outlining and paper-writing easier in the end. Make marks on anything that you think might be remotely important or that could be put to use in your paper.
- As you mark off important pieces in the research, add your own commentary and notes explaining to yourself where you might use it in your paper. Writing down your ideas as you have them will make writing your paper much easier and give you something to refer back to.
- Try writing each quote or item that you marked onto an individual note card. That way, you can rearrange and lay out your cards however you would like.
- Color code your notes to make it easier. Write down a list of all the notes you are using from each individual resource, and then highlight each category of information in a different color. For example, write everything from a particular book or journal on a single sheet of paper in order to consolidate the notes, and then everything that is related to characters highlight in green, everything related to the plot mark in orange, et cetera.
Construct a preliminary bibliography/references page. As you go through your notes, mark down the author, page number, title, and publishing information for each resource. This will come in handy when you craft your bibliography or works cited page later in the game.
- An argumentative research paper takes a position on a contentious issue and argues for one point of view. The issue should be debatable with a logical counter argument.
- An analytic research paper offers a fresh look at an important issue. The subject may not be controversial, but you must attempt to persuade your audience that your ideas have merit. This is not simply a regurgitation of ideas from your research, but an offering of your own unique ideas based on what you have learned through research.
Determine your audience. Who would be reading this paper, should it be published? Although you want to write for your professor or other superior, it is important that the tone and focus of your paper reflect the audience who will be reading it. If you’re writing for academic peers, then the information you include should reflect the information you already know; you don’t need to explain basic ideas or theories. On the other hand, if you are writing for an audience who doesn’t know much about your subject, it will be important to include explanations and examples of more fundamental ideas and theories related to your research.
- An easy way to develop your thesis is to make it into a question that your essay will answer. What is the primary question or hypothesis that you are going to go about proving in your paper? For example, your thesis question might be “how does cultural acceptance change the success of treatment for mental illness?” This can then determine what your thesis is - whatever your answer to the question is, is your thesis statement.
- Your thesis should express the main idea of your paper without listing all of your reasons or outline your entire paper. It should be a simple statement, rather than a list of support; that’s what the rest of your paper is for!
- When you outline your main ideas, putting them in a specific order is important. Place your strongest points at the beginning and end of your essay, with more mediocre points placed in the middle or near the end of your essay.
- A single main point doesn’t have to be kept to a single paragraph, especially if you are writing a relatively long research paper. Main ideas can be spread out over as many paragraphs as you deem necessary.
Consider formatting guidelines. Depending on your paper rubric, class guidelines, or formatting guidelines, you may have to organize your paper in a specific way. For example, when writing in APA format you must organize your paper by headings including the introduction, methods, results, and discussion. These guidelines will alter the way you craft your outline and final paper.
Finalize your outline. With the aforementioned tips taken into consideration, organize your entire outline. Justify main points to the left, and indent subsections and notes from your research below each. The outline should be an overview of your entire paper in bullet points. Make sure to include in-text citations at the end of each point, so that you don’t have to constantly refer back to your research when writing your final paper.