Many of the students I tutor are writing research papers for their college classes. I could write a series of blog posts about various tricks that can make the job easier – maybe I will! – but for now I think I’ll start with the most elementary tip. Take notes. Whether your paper is a literary discussion of The Grapes of Wrath or a dissertation on the factors that lead up to the Civil War, take notes. Take copious notes. You’ll save yourself time and irritation if you don’t have to remember where you read that one piece of information that you really need to finish up your paper.
My preferred method of taking notes is to create a separate Word document for all the notes I take from each source I read. Each note is a separate entry in that document and usually begins with its subject in bold, followed by the page number, a direct quote inside quotation marks, and anything more I have to say about it afterwords. I prefer this method for writing my notes because I can basically write my paper without referencing anything but my notes, but sometimes I’ll simply give the subject and page number, then follow with “lots of info on X here; be sure to use!” It helps a lot when there’s an information gold mine on page 137, but you only want to use that method when there’s just too much information to jot down in one note. Otherwise, you’re back to having to look everything up in your books and other sources when you start to write your paper, rather than having it already in front of you in handy little notes.
Once you have all your notes written, use them to guide you in the construction of your paper. Copy and paste them into a separate document that will become your paper, following the outline you’ve created (you did create an outline for your paper, right?). In the example I gave earlier about the dissertation on the factors that lead up to the Civil War, paste all your notes on economic factors that affected the South in the same section of the paper, whether they came from the same source or not. If you have any holes that need to be filled, this is the easiest and best time to notice and fix them. Then just flesh out your paper, adding in what you have to say on the subject and using your quotes to strengthen your position. The rest is polishing up your work and making sure that your citations are in the correct format. Since you included the page number for each of your notes and used a separate document for each source, the citations are easy.
Good notes lead to good papers. They also have the additional bonus of being around and easy to utilize if you ever find yourself writing a paper on, say, late nineteenth century economics.