Writing Effective Research Papers

Stacie Heaps
Professional Writer and Editor

There are few things as feared by students as writing the dreaded research paper. Many don’t know where to begin. Or they fear they won’t do a good job. And because of this paralysis they often wait too long to be able to write a decent paper—thus fulfilling their self-made prophecies. But it doesn’t have to be that way. With the tips below, you’ll be able to research and write a good—and possibly great—paper.

Make a schedule.
If your instructor or professor has not already created a schedule to follow when doing your research paper or set up intermediary deadlines, then that should be your first step. Write the due date of the final, finished paper on a calendar or in a planner, and then work backward from there. Choose specific dates for important steps in the process, such as creating your working bibliography, finishing your initial research, completing a rough draft, having the rough draft reviewed, revising the rough draft, finishing your research and completing the bibliography, and so forth. Set realistic goals, and then stick to them. Make sure to give yourself enough time to find out what resources are available to you, to choose a topic, to select and read the relevant material, to gather the information you are going to cite in your paper, and to write your first and final drafts (and any necessary drafts in between).

Pick a subject.
Before you can begin working on your research paper, you must first pick a general subject, from which you can later choose a specific, narrow topic. Depending on the type of research paper you are writing and the purpose of your paper, you might consider doing it on something you have always been interested in; a current event; contemporary or classical music or literature; a hobby; a favorite sport, team, or player; or some other subject that is personally meaningful. If you can’t come up with a subject on your own, your professor or teacher or a family member or friend should be able to help.

Find out what’s available.
After you have a general knowledge of the subject you want to discuss, find out what resources are available in your university or local library. Talk to a research librarian to find out what materials he or she suggests. Your library will probably have academic databases available online, so make sure to ask the librarian about those, as well—and particularly about any electronic journals or other databases that you can access online from your home. Many university libraries also offer tours, or you can simply walk around the library yourself and become familiar with its offerings that way.

Begin with general research.
If you don’t know much about your chosen subject or if you’re not sure of a specific topic yet, then begin by doing some basic, general research. The Web is often a great tool for this, though be careful, as not all information on the Web is accurate or reliable. Even Wikipedia, though often an excellent resource, is not completely trustworthy. You can also check encyclopedias and topic-specific dictionaries (found at most public and university libraries). Don’t spend too much time on this step, however; you need to make sure you leave yourself plenty of time to do more targeted research after you narrow your topic.

Find and make a list of sources.
Once you have a general idea of your topic, begin looking for specific books, journals, articles, and other resources that relate to your topic. As you find materials that you plan to use, make a list of sources (a working bibliography). Not only will this make creating the final bibliography easier and less time-consuming, it will also save you the effort of having to track down your sources again if you need them later on.

When you find an article, journal, book, or other resource that seems particularly relevant, check the bibliography. It will provide many other potential sources for your research. You will probably not have access to all of the materials you find, so at this point it’s better to have too many potential sources than too few—you can always narrow them down later as you narrow your topic to a specific thesis.

In choosing your source documents, for most subjects, the majority of your reference materials should be fairly recent—usually within the last 10 years or so. If you find information from a particular author that perfectly fits your topic but that isn’t very recent, research the author online and find out if he or she has any more recent publications that you aren’t aware of or that your library might not have. If the latter is the case, you can often use interlibrary loan, so talk to your librarian. If you do want to use interlibrary loan, however, make sure to give yourself adequate time, as it may take a couple of weeks or more for the book or journal to arrive. This is another important reason to give yourself plenty of time to work on your paper and to not procrastinate!

Again, be cautious when it comes to Internet sites. Though there is a wealth of information available, not all of it is accurate. For this reason, it is generally best to stick to Internet sites suggested by your professor or librarian or that you find in researching other scholarly sources.

Narrow your scope to a specific thesis.
Once you have begun collecting source materials on a specific topic and finding out what they have to say, it is time to narrow your focus to a specific thesis statement. This will be your driving force as you research your materials and organize your quotes and other information. As you read your materials, determine whether the information supports your thesis. If it does not, pass it by. There is an unbelievable amount of information out there, and if you’re not careful, you could spend all of your time doing peripheral research and not give yourself enough time to organize your information and write your paper.

Organize your information.
Before you begin writing your paper, you will need to decide how to collect and store the information that you find. You can use index cards, a notebook or legal pad, or a word processor. Personally, I prefer the latter tool because then I don’t feel like I am duplicating as much work. When I come across a quote I think that I will want to include or information I want to paraphrase and cite, I type it into my word processor document and create a heading for it or add it below a heading where it fits with other information I have collected, and then add the last name of the author and the page number so that I can easily cite it in my paper. Then when it is time to write my paper, I can simply copy and paste it where it fits into my document.

Write your paper.
Writing your paper deserves another article of its own, but I will just mention a few points here. Before you begin writing the paper, I would make an outline. You can do this on paper or using a word processor; either works great. One possible advantage of a word processor document is that you can easily revise the outline, if needed. In your outline, write the thesis statement at the top. Then write your main supporting points below that (these can often be used as the basis for the topic sentences of your supporting paragraphs in your paper), and then write the information, including references to specific quotes, if you want to be that specific, that corresponds to each main supporting point below that. Creating an outline fairly early on in the writing process will help you to identify any gaps in your research (or in your logic!) and will save you a lot of potential heartache later on.

When you have a good working outline, begin writing the paper itself. Though there is no one “right” way to write a research paper, in most cases, I prefer to begin with the body of my paper, then write the conclusion, and then finish with the introduction. That way my initial energy is spent writing the meat of my document, my conclusion is a relatively simple summary of my main points and a “so what?” statement or call to action, and I don’t worry unduly about coming up with the brilliant opener right at the beginning of my writing. After the body and conclusion are written, then I can go back and sculpt a compelling opening at my leisure without stressing too much because I know that the bulk of the work has already been done.

After you write your rough draft, you need to read over it, revise it, have someone (or ideally, someones) read over it, and revise it again. This is another reason it is important to start working on your paper early, so that you have time to do a decent revision. And when you feel that your paper is in good shape, only then should you read over it one more time to catch any previously missed spelling or punctuation errors or other typos, run your spell checker and grammar checker—though do not rely on them completely—and turn in your paper.

You can’t get around the fact that writing research papers requires work, but it can be enjoyable if you give yourself plenty of time, choose a topic that you are interested in, and follow the suggestions above.