Research papers are a bit different than other types of papers, like personal essays or lab reports. We've put together these step-by-step tips to help you navigate the process:
- Select a topic you love (if you're given an option): Choose something you're interested in or curious about. Researching your information will be more enjoyable and you'll write with more enthusiasm.
- Consider a form of prewriting: Try writing note cards out with your ideas on them, or mapping your ideas with a web diagram, or just talking your ideas through by yourself or with a friend. These steps will help your organization and creativity, which in turn will help you avoid plagiarism. If you are somewhat uncertain of what the paper's focus will be, conducting a broad area of research can be beneficial in narrowing a topic and selecting a specific area of preference.
- Make an outline: This will give you a "blueprint" for your paper and keep your writing organized. See the Writing Center's handout on outlining if you need a sample.
- Develop a Thesis: A thesis statement introduces the topic and primary focus of the overall paper. While this can seem somewhat daunting, it is imperative to develop at least a rough thesis before endeavoring to write the paper. It should be noted, however, that a thesis can be manipulated throughout the writing process to better suit the purpose of a paper. Prewriting and research are necessary accompaniments when composing a potential thesis statement.
- Use transitions: Transitions should be a mix of the last sentences/ideas you wrote and what you're going to say next. See the Writing Center's handout on transitions for some ideas and sample phrases.
- Balance your use of paraphrases, quotes, and your own sentences: A higher ratio of paraphrases and your own sentences over direct quotations is the academic ideal (an excess of quotes can compromise the quality of the paper and indicate a lack of understanding and/or effort). When using a direct quote, it will be expected that you know why and how it relates to your topic. Remember to avoid plagiarism – you need to cite any ideas that do not come from you. This will include paraphrases, quotes, and even some of your own sentences that are based on ideas in your sources.
- Keep a list of your sources: There are few things more frustrating than having to track down a source weeks after you first accessed it. To save yourself time and potential frustration, keep a running bibliography as you write; cite each source as you use it. That way you'll have all the information you need right in front of you.
- Know your style standards: Go into the paper knowing whether you're writing in MLA, APA, or another style. Check a handbook or another reference for in-text citation styles, works cited/references page styles, and heading or title page formats. Even page number standards change between MLA and APA, so be sure you're familiar with the style and its conventions. You should also be aware of what style edition is required of the assignment; some professors prefer older editions, whereas others utilize the most recent.
- Produce your finalized title last: Titles can be limiting; your writing can stray away from original thoughts. You can only be sure that your title is tailor-made for your paper if you compose it after the paper is complete. Note that some writers feel this approach works best for them concerning introductory paragraphs, concluding paragraphs, and thesis statements as well.
For more information on how to write a successful academic paper, please see our section on The Writing Process.