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Jacqueline Zote

How to Write a Research Paper: 9 Steps You Need to Know

Are you stuck with a blank page because you have no idea how to write a research paper, or where to start in the first place? Writing a research paper is time-consuming and mentally taxing. It can be particularly challenging if you’ve never done it before, and that’s exactly why we’re here. In this guide, you’ll discover nine tips to help you write a compelling research paper.

Let’s begin!

1: Understand the prompt

Before you jump to pick a topic, take a pause to understand the assignment or prompt. Are there any specific instructions or tasks that could clash with the topic you like? Could there be a topic that fits the assignment better?

For instance, you’ll have to work with a specific word limit so it might help to narrow down on a very specific topic. Otherwise, you could end up trying to fit in too much information because the topic is too vague. Going through the assignment instructions at the beginning will also give you enough time to address any concerns or confusion you might have.

In addition, make sure you understand the assignment goal and research paper format. Find out whether you’ll need to use APA format guidelines or MLA format guidelines. Don’t forget to clearly note your deadlines. This will help you with set your timeframe accordingly.

2: Know your audience

Who’s going to read your paper? Knowing who your audience is will help you adjust your writing style and choice of words accordingly. Plus, it’ll also give you some idea of the level of explanation you should provide for certain concepts. If you have some trouble adapting your writing style based on your audience, a writing tutor can provide you with the guidance you need.

For an undergraduate paper, you’ll typically be targeting people who fall between generalists and experts. So while you should be informative, make sure you avoid using too many technical terms and do not over-explain concepts that they’ll be familiar with. If you’re writing a Master’s thesis, you’ll mainly be targeting experts so you should carefully justify the claims you make.

3: Choose your topic

Ideally, you should pick a topic that’s challenging and/or controversial, but it should also interest you. At the same time, don’t pick something that’s so challenging that you can’t find credible sources to back up your claims or arguments. Make sure you choose something that meets your assignment criteria and is possible to research.

As mentioned earlier, it’s best to get as specific as possible with your topic. So instead of just “Deforestation in South America” you could choose something like “The Impact of Deforestation on South American Wildlife.”

Your topic should neatly but comprehensively summarize what your research is all about. It might also vary depending on different types of research papers. For example, you may have to objectively explain different stances or you might have to write an argumentative paper defending a single stance.

4: Start with preliminary research

Use reliable sources to collect information relevant to your topic. Start by quickly skimming through each source to narrow down on the most relevant ones and identify key talking points. Keep track of all the reference material you’re using so you have no trouble citing them later on.

Most importantly, don’t just look for sources that support your argument, but also ones that contradict it. This will help you avoid confirmation bias and identify any flaws in your argument, so you’ll have plenty of time to adjust your topic before you dive too deep. So you’ll have plenty of time to adjust your topic before you dive too deep.

5: Form your thesis statement

Now that you have your topic and all the reference material to form your argument, use that to come up with a strong thesis statement. This is a statement defining your central argument and establishing the purpose of your paper. It should be short and to-the-point, while helping readers understand the main idea of your research. If you’re not sure how to write a thesis statement, ask yourself, “What is the paper about?” The answer will help you form your statement. Here are a few thesis statement examples for research papers:

Deforestation adversely affects the wildlife population in South American forests. Excessive social media use can have a detrimental effect on mental health, contributing to anxiety and depression.

Chimamanda Adichie uses her work to explore the subtle leftovers of colonialism in Nigerian society and showcases how deeply it is ingrained in the minds and outlook of modern-day Nigerians.

6: Develop your outline

Next, it’s time to organize all your ideas, arguments, points, and research material into a proper research paper outline. This is when you omit any information that doesn’t support your thesis statement even though it may be highly intriguing. Build a framework for how you’ll present your argument in a logical flow.

Your outline should include the following sections along with a brief statement of what each section will contain:

  • Topic title
  • Thesis statement
  • Introduction
  • Body
  • Conclusion

To further build on your outline, divide the body into different sections where you’ll present a relevant argument or point. Each point should have a topic sentence to describe what you plan on discussing under the subhead. Check out our previous guide on how to write an outline to get a better idea and a few examples.

7: Begin your first draft

Now it’s time to build from your rough ideas and use them to prepare your first draft. Don’t be too caught up on perfect grammar, word choice, and sentence flow at this point, as it won’t be your final draft. Your main focus should be on writing and expressing the ideas you wish to present in the paper.

Follow your research paper outline to neatly structure the information you’re presenting. You don’t even necessarily have to start writing from the introduction. Which subheading speaks to you the most? Start from there and you can build on the other sections as you write. If you get stuck somewhere, move to another section and get back to it later. This will significantly speed up your writing.

Even if you end up writing too much or you feel like you’re trailing off, don’t delete it just yet. Set it aside in another document in case it comes in handy later. In addition, keep your arguments flexible as you might need to adjust or abandon it later on.

Here are a few tips on how to write different sections of the paper:

Introduction

As the name suggests, your introduction should introduce the readers to your topic. What are you planning to discuss in the paper? Give a little background about the topic by providing key terms and theories as well as historical details. Then talk about what new insight you’ll be offering and what important issues you plan to address.

Body

When writing the body of your research essay, the best way to stay on track is by dividing it into different sections with topic sentences that clearly define what the section is about. Like a subheading, a topic sentence is a statement indicating what each paragraph is about.

Make sure you assess each topic sentence to see if it’s relevant to the topic, too similar to other topic sentences, or logically ordered. Make sure they transition smoothly from one to the other, and that they don’t discuss points that are essentially the same.

Conclusion

This is where you tie the whole thing together and prove your thesis statement. Start by paraphrasing your thesis statement and summarizing the key points you discussed. Follow up by explaining how those points support your case. Make sure you have a strong conclusion to make your argument more compelling.

8: Cite your sources

It’s crucial that you add your citations while writing the first draft so you don’t have any trouble linking your info to the right source later on. It doesn’t have to be perfect now, but make sure you add the essentials such as the name and year of publication, author name, page number, etc. If you wait till the final draft to cite your sources, it’ll take a long time to trace back where you sourced the info.

You can polish your citations later on while you’re polishing the rest of the paper. Don’t forget that you’ll have to maintain a citation style similar to the format you’re using. So make sure you understand the variations in citation styles between the MLA format guidelines and APA format guidelines.

Here are two citation examples illustrating the differences between these two styles:

MLA Citation Style

Adichie, Chimamanda Ngozi. Americanah. Harper Collins Publishers Inc, 2013.

APA Citation Style

Adichie, C.N. (2013). Americanah. New York: Harper Collins Publishers Inc.

9: Proofread and edit

This is the part where you reread your paper and edit it for content, clarity, and grammar. Are there any sentences that don’t flow well together? Is there a way to simplify some sentences and make them easier to understand? Are there any misspellings, unnecessary words, or incorrect info? Most importantly, are there sections that don’t make sense for the topic sentence you’re discussing?

Additionally, look for the following common mistakes in writing a research paper:

  • Missing or unnecessary punctuations
  • Interchanging easily confused words
  • Incomplete sentences
  • Contraction use

Proofreading and editing your paper will not just help you create a compelling piece but also help you improve your overall writing. The better you get at detecting these mistakes, the more conscious you’ll be to avoid them in the future.

Finally, Perfect Your Paper

When you’re finally done with the proofreading and editing process, go through your paper one last time to see if it reads well and if the information flows logically. Make sure you go through the assignment guidelines again and see if you followed all the instructions to a tee.

If you feel your writing quality needs some improvement even after following this guide, it’ll help to work with an English tutor to guide you through perfecting your writing.