How to Write a Research Paper

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

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.

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.

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!”

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 …

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:

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.

First: Proofread

Read through your paper for preventable mistakes. Look for the following issues:

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.

Second: Edit

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.

Third: Revise

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!