If you’re an online college student, you’ll probably have to write at least one college-level research paper before you graduate. Writing a good research paper can be daunting if you’ve never done it before.
We’re here to help.
We’ll tell you how research works, and we’ll outline the basic steps you’ll need to write a strong research paper. Research writing can be a challenge, but with a little practice and a bit of patience, it can become an important part of your academic and professional arsenal.
The Goals of Good Research Writing
- Orients the audience to the topic.
- Informs the audience of the issues most relevant to the topic.
- Argues strongly in favor of the thesis.
- Masters the subject matter and displays that mastery to the audience.
- Interests the audience by being engaging — and possibly even fun to read.
Three Broad Stages of Writing
The most important part of a research paper is the research. (Surprise! Surprise!) If we break the process into three broad stages, the research portion should occupy the majority of your time. Gaining a strong command of your subject matter allows you to organize, write, and proofread more effectively.
Stage 1: Research — Get familiar with the subject by finding relevant sources, skimming them, recording their main arguments and key quotes, recording your unprocessed thoughts on the subject, and noting the primary evidence and objections. Following this preliminary review, determine the sources that most warrant your attention and explore them in depth. In this stage, you’ll select, survey, and scour your topic.
Stage 2: Writing — Only after you have studied your subject and supported your opinions with relevant and defensible data, and only after you have organized your thoughts into an outline, are you ready to write your paper. This stage can be further broken down into three basic steps: writing your thesis, constructing an outline, and incorporating your research. Your thesis and outline may grow and change as you write, but these should still give your paper a sense of purpose and order. In the draft stage, flesh out your outline, adding evidence, explanation, and argumentation that underscore your thesis.
Stage 3: Review — Once you’ve completed your first draft, proofread, revise, and rewrite as needed. Correct errors in spelling, grammar, and sourcing. Also look for gaps in your argument, redundancy, awkward phrasing, and other errors in flow or thought. Tie up unresolved ideas and smooth out the style of your paper to make it readable, concise, thorough, persuasive, and interesting. Do not be afraid to write several drafts.
Stage 1 Research
You’ll want to begin by collecting, organizing, and understanding the body of knowledge on your topic. To do so, you’ll need to take three basic steps: Select, Survey and Scour your topic.
First: Select a Topic
If your instructor assigns you a specific topic, skip to the second step. Otherwise, be mindful of the following as you select your subject.
- Find a narrow focus. Don’t bite off more than you can chew.
- Select a topic that lends itself to a central argument. The most effective research writing defends a particular position within a debated subject area.
- Pick a topic that is both relevant to your course and to your interests. You’ll do your best work on an inspiring subject that aligns with your passions.
- Make sure information is sufficiently available, accessible, and plentiful on your topic. Look through GoogleScholar or check a similar search engine. Your search results will provide a clue about the quantity of useful supporting material.
- Choose a scholarly topic, or at least one that can be explored from a scholarly perspective. When writing about something close to your heart, be sure it can support an academic argument.
Second: Survey the Topic
Before you start digging too deeply, do a wide survey of the field. You don’t want to get 300 pages into a book before you realize you’re bored out of your mind by the subject matter. Start by gaining a general familiarity with your topic. Find simple summaries and make sure enough depth exists to warrant your continued research. Below are a few good ways to get started.
- Read encyclopedia and dictionary entries (including Wikipedia and other popular outlets).
- Using a search engine, scan through headings, key words, and summaries.
- Skim websites on the subject.
- Read relevant abstracts — the opening paragraphs that commonly provide summary of scholarly academic articles.
- Read the introduction, preface, or table of contents of relevant books.
- Read SparkNotes, CliffNotes, or similar summaries on your topic (though we advise strongly against using these as actual sources. Such “Notes” are for introductory purposes only).
Third: Scour the Topic
Once you’ve picked a topic and surveyed it, take a deeper dive. Find the major view on your subject, identifying key resources, reading these with depth, recording their main arguments, pulling key quotes, and recording your unprocessed thoughts on the subject.
Using what you’ve learned in your survey, find key positions or claims that merit further investigation. Think of these key positions as giant targets on the ground that yell, “Dig here!”
- Favor scholarly books and articles over non-academic/non-scholarly sources.
- Favor evidence that is agreed upon by credible parties.
- Seek first-hand accounts and primary documents rather than secondary reporting.
- Keep an ongoing record of the key positions, arguments, and evidence related to your subject matter, including citations and page numbers in your notes. (You’ll need those for your reference page!)
- Speaking of which, source information should include author, title of the text, text edition, city and state of publication, copyright date, and the specific pages you cited. Pages are usually not required for online sources, though a URL (and sometimes a date of retrieval) is called for. The formatting style of your citations and bibliographies will depend on professorial specifications. Check out related style guides for specific tips on using notable formatting styles including MLA, APA and Chicago.
Stage 2 Writing
Once you’ve done your due diligence on research, start writing your paper. You have three tasks ahead of you: write a thesis statement, outline your paper, and write your first draft.
First: Form a Thesis Statement
Your thesis statement is a single sentence stating the big idea you want to communicate. It should be relevant to your topic and cut to the heart of your research project. Use your thesis statement to state your primary argument and the primary points that support your conclusion. Your thesis should be …
- Researchable, and
Second: Create an Outline
Create a brief skeleton of your paper. A typical outline includes your thesis statement and three to five lines of evidence supporting your big idea. The outline should also clarify any major claims as well as state some of the opposing views you will address. A good and thorough outline should make the rest of the paper easier for you to write because you’ll already have your thoughts organized. Your first draft must develop those thoughts and present them in a readable context.
Third: Write Your First Draft
With a strong thesis and a well-organized outline, it should be much easier to compose your first draft. If the thesis is the backbone of your paper, and the outline is the rest of the skeleton, then a first draft puts some meat on those bones. Your thesis and outline can grow and change as you develop your draft but should still give your paper a sense of purpose and order. In the draft stage, you are elaborating on your thesis and fleshing out the skeleton you built in your outline.
Here, you’ll want to focus on the following elements:
- Explanatory sentences, including definitions and clarifications,
- Connecting and transition sentences, directing readers to follow your train of thought from one section to the next,
- Vivid word pictures, such as metaphors, illustrations, parables, allegories, and analogies, which can help the reader better understand abstract or complex ideas,
- Quotations and sourcing, adding authority by citing and interacting with comments from experts in the field, and
- Argumentation and evidence, underscoring your thesis with demonstrable proof.
Stage 3 Review
Now that you have a first draft, it’s time to refine your composition. Proofread for preventable errors, conduct a full editorial review, and revise where necessary. The review stage is extremely important and should not be glossed over. This is your opportunity for quality control.
Read through your paper for preventable mistakes. Look for the following issues:
- Poor formatting,
- Run-ons, fragments, and tortuous sentences,
- Grammar and syntax issues,
- Poor word choice,
- Length and spacing issues,
- Holes in your argument,
- Unnecessary tangents, and
- Misleading title or headings.
And of course, you’ll want to make sure you’ve met all the criteria set by your instructor. This is a good time to review the original assignment prompt to ensure that you complied with word count, style guide, formatting, and topical requirements.
After proofreading, review your work on a deeper level. Perhaps the argument needs alterations or your evidence should be ordered differently. These kinds of changes may lead to a significant rewrite or to just a few, quick tweaks. Before you submit your completed work, make sure you’ve produced a well-organized, readable, focused, coherent, and supportable essay. And doublecheck that your thesis is well stated at the start of your paper and well supported by the end.
If the paper requires substantial revision, you may need to do more than a quick edit. If your thesis isn’t defensible, your evidence doesn’t hold up to scrutiny, or your argument can be easily dismantled, you may need to take a step back and consider a full rewrite. This is a great point in the process to invite a trusted third party (whether a classmate, tutor, or parent) to read your draft and provide feedback. Another set of eyes can be a great way to identify and resolve core flaws in your research or composition. And if you do need to do a big revision, lather, rinse, and repeat the entire Review stage. A great research paper demands it.
Now that you know the basics, it’s time to dive into your research and start gathering knowledge. Happy writing!