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How to Organize Research Papers

Updated on August 10, 2008

I remember those days of frantically writing the last few pages of a research paper, scrambling to reorganize my index cards and ideas. When I was younger, I thought I could pump out a great paper the night before it was due. As I continued on in school, I learned to appreciate teachers who provided opportunities for research planning, peer revising, and self-editing.

Whether you are in high school, college, or graduate school, there are some basic things you can do to make writing research papers a lot easier. You will still probably rush to finish everything at the end, and maybe even wish you had chosen another topic when you are wrangling out page 13, but at least you will have some tools and techniques to help you through it.

Whether you are in high school, college, or graduate school, there are some basic things you can do to make writing research papers a lot easier.

1. Choose a Topic

The first thing you need to do is figure out what you want to write about. Sometimes this is easier than other times. It is possible that your professor has assigned you the task of writing a research paper on the history of rats or a comparison of Mrs. Dalloway and Twelfth Night in relation to the reaction of the audiences at the times the different texts were written. These assignments give you some freedom, but still provide you with a focused topic to write about. However, another teacher could simply tell you to write a 15 page research paper. The purpose of such an assignment could be to allow you the freedom to write about whatever you want, to provide you with the opportunity of practicing what you have already learned in the course, or just because the teacher is bored with reading about the same topic all the time.

Whether you are given a focused or broad assignment, you still need to do some preliminary research. If you have a focused assignment, come up with a few ideas that you want to write about. If you are given a broad assignment, choose a topic to write about. Then do some research to see if your ideas will pan out. If you find that you can’t find enough information on your topic, or realize that your idea is way off base, you have time to switch your focus because you are still in the beginning stages.

Simple Brainstorming Diagram
Simple Brainstorming Diagram
In-depth Brainstorming Diagram
In-depth Brainstorming Diagram

2. Brainstorm

I always hated it when teachers told us to brainstorm. I never liked using their different diagrams and methods to brainstorm, but I have to admit it helped. Regardless of the methods your teacher likes, I want you to figure out what works best for you because that is what will help you the most. Whatever you do, don’t start writing without a plan.

Some Brainstorming Ideas:

  • Make an outline.
  • Make a map or diagram.
  • Draw it out.
  • Record your ideas, and then listen to them.

Simply do what works for you.

You might like to see things visually or hear your ideas out loud. You might like drawings and symbols or just words. You might like to see a big map of ideas or an organized outline list. Everyone is different. There is no right or wrong way to brainstorm, but you do need to do it because it will help organize all of your ideas.

Brainstorm with Stickies
Brainstorm with Stickies
Head to the Library
Head to the Library

3. Research, baby, research!

Okay, you have come up with ideas, done some preliminary research, and organized your ideas by brainstorming. Now it is time to do some hardcore research. Go to the library, search online, and talk to people. There are tons of books, periodicals, and other media to utilize, but you probably won’t have time to read all of it. This is why you did the brainstorming, to narrow down your ideas. If you don’t already have experience with focused research, ask a librarian to help you—trust me, they are very helpful. You will learn how to find the most relevant books and how to use online research tools more effectively.

Every school has different online research tools available, so another good reason to seek help from a librarian or teacher is to learn about those tools. When I attended my university, I had access to a ton of research material online that I never even knew existed when I was at a community college. Now that I work at that same community college, I have learned that the school has its own research tools, but I never knew about them. So: ASK.

Ask about what is available.

Before you start researching, make a list of all of the materials you have. Depending on the citation style you have to use, write down all of the relevant information you will need to cite the work. By making the list at the beginning, you are cutting out the chances of mis-citing or even forgetting to cite something. Once you have recorded all of the relevant information (title, publisher, etc.), give each piece of work an identifier, like a letter or number.

Now, start skimming the books and materials you have gathered. If you see something relevant to your research, note it down. Put the identifying letter or number, along with a page number if appropriate, next to your note so that you can remember where you found that information. Make different piles of your material: Won’t Use, Will Use Some, Read More In-Depth.

As you skim the materials, you will find some of it simply isn’t relevant to what you are writing about. You can put those back and cross them off of your reference list. You will find some that you can further skim, but others that you will need to read more in depth, so organize them accordingly.

Taking notes while researching is very important. You can use index cards, lined paper, or your computer—whatever works best for you. You are already keeping track of where you are finding the information, so it will be easy to go back for clarification or quotations when you are actually writing the paper.

4. Reorganize & Brainstorm Again

That’s right, you have to do it again. This time, you have ideas and research to organize and brainstorm with. Using your original brainstorming materials, organize all of the research you have done. Where do the different ideas fit together? What supports what?

You will find that some ideas are more developed, while you have to scratch others. Even if you find something very interesting, it might not fit into the purpose of your paper, so leave it out. That is the hardest for me: narrowing my topic. I find so much interesting stuff that I want to write about everything, but it would take up 500 pages instead of 12. Narrow your focus and cut stuff out.

On the other hand, if you find you don’t have enough material, you probably need to go back a few steps to reorganize your ideas.

Organize your research, and write the dang paper!
Organize your research, and write the dang paper!

5. Write Your Thesis

By now, I’m betting you have already drafted your thesis, either on paper or in your head. Write it out. Stick to it. Eliminate any information that is not related to proving your thesis. (This is why I like using note cards—I can simply toss them out of the mix if the information isn’t relevant.)

6. Create an Outline

If you already created one earlier, while brainstorming, create another one. This time, it will flesh out exactly what you are going to write. By outlining your paper, you won’t go off on tangents when you sit down to write. You will have a plan and stick to it.

7. Write It!

Hey, you have organized and researched and organized again. Now you have to write the paper. As much as I’d love to tell you how to do that...well, I can’t. This is where your brilliance comes in. You have all of the tools you need at your fingertips, so get to work.

When you are finished, make sure you proofread. Let other people proofread. Sometimes revision and editing can be just as important as actually writing it. And, don’t forget to cite your references!

This hub was written in collaboration with the Hub Tennis team. Learn more at


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    • profile image

      Amin Zouch 

      6 years ago

      I've just finished collecting relevant ideas and am about to write my proposal. Your tips are very helpful and guiding for a first-timer like me. thanks!

    • profile image

      Daniel Wheeler 

      7 years ago

      A topic that you might be interested in is Managing a Business with Computers. Address each department of the business with the appropriate software and the type skill set each employee might need.

    • profile image


      7 years ago

      Dear Sir/Madam, I'm a Cambodian student study in China with Master degree, my major is Enterprise Management, but i don't know what topic should i choose, oh is not i don't know but in fact is i can't think it out what's research topic, so could u please give me some advise, my bachelor is Information Technology.and i want to write research with MIS.... (sorry my English is bad)

    • profile image


      8 years ago

      Its very nice and good article thanks for sharing

    • LOKESH.SHETTY profile image


      8 years ago from MANGALORE, KARNATAKA, INDIA.

      GOOD ONE

    • ezzy1512 profile image


      8 years ago

      Great write up. Has given me some insight.

    • buyessay profile image


      9 years ago from Essay

      wery well written. and pictures are great )

    • profile image


      9 years ago

      the best

    • profile image


      9 years ago

      This such a nice hub. It will give more info. and ideas to students out there working on their researches.

    • RooBee profile image

      Arby Bourne 

      9 years ago from USA

      This is a superb hub and I will bookmark it for sure as I know I'll refer to it in the future. Thanks for a simple, yet comprehensive guide to those daunting papers!

    • AndyBaker profile image


      9 years ago from UK

      Very clear, concise and informatitive hub.

    • talford profile image


      10 years ago from U.S.A.

      Great hub! Organization and staying focused are my two biggest downfalls when it comes to writing.

      Two thumbs up.


    • ElitePoetz profile image


      10 years ago from Right Near the Beach

      Hey I really enjoy'd you hub.. i wish my boss would get a lil

    • MM Del Rosario profile image

      MM Del Rosario 

      10 years ago from NSW, Australia

      Yes,its true.... the library is not only a place for books now, there are lots of databases, periodicals, journals, standards and online resources that are now available in the library and Yes, we librarians are very friendly and helpful....

    • Lifebydesign profile image


      10 years ago from Australia

      This is great Stacie and perfectly timed for my hub tennis topic!

    • madellen profile image


      10 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      This is sooo good. I have like 6 bursting banker boxes with nowhere to go - from a stab at doctoral work. Incidently, did you know that about 60% of doctoral students never finish? There's a little research topic for you ( :


    • DJ Funktual profile image

      DJ Funktual 

      10 years ago from One Nation Under a Groove

      What a great fuggin hub stacie.  I loved it and the brainstorming technique is essential IMO.

      p.s. You need a link back to Hub Tennis.

    • Hope Wilbanks profile image

      Hope Wilbanks 

      10 years ago from Louisiana

      This is an absolutely fantastic Hub! I recently started back to college this year and am wrapping up my first class that required a research paper. It has been EXTREMELY stressful. Sure wish I would have had this Hub to help me out in the beginning. ;) Great job!

    • solarstories profile image


      10 years ago from Pacific Northwest

      Well that makes research look a lot more interesting!

    • Zsuzsy Bee profile image

      Zsuzsy Bee 

      10 years ago from Ontario/Canada

      Stacie! I knew you would stand up to a challenge and you did that marvelously. This is a really great hub. I will print it out for my daughter and nephew who are both going to be scrambling again this coming year. Even going into their second year of College they still don't seem to have time management under control. Three days before the due days pulling 'all-nighters' while moaning that they will reform and never again leave it to the last minute. Ha--I've heard it many times before.

      Fabulous hub regards Zsuzsy


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