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How to Write a Research Paper, or Any Paper

Updated on November 15, 2013

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Research Papers Aren't Supposed to be Hard!

The dreaded final assignment in most literature and history courses is some sort of long-ish paper. This paper must be researched, with citations, and construct a long arument meaningfully in prose. A daunting task, the challenge of the paper is not so much the writing, but the stuff you do before you even begin writing! The writing part is supposed to be the easiest part. In fact, when approached with the right mindset and skills, the writing is only challenging in that it is tedious, like math homework.

Keys to success with research papers involve three important things, before the fingers ever touch a keyboard!

  1. Choose a topic with enough data out there, and an appropriate angle of approach to utilize the data.
  2. Focus on a strong argument that is based on the research, regardless of personal bias.
  3. Outline the argument carefully to follow the academic argument format.

Students would do well to touch actual, physical books and magazines to do their research, and avoid on-line sources whenever possible.
Students would do well to touch actual, physical books and magazines to do their research, and avoid on-line sources whenever possible. | Source

Choose Your Topic

I read a lot of research papers, these days. The best ones all have one thing in common: Fundamentally, the paper is trying to win me over to some idea. Think of it this way: If you want to research something, you also have to say something meaningful about that research.

Pick up on a controversy or place that is open for debate, and take a stand on it. Begin planning the paper with this question: Why does my research into this topic matter?

If the answer is that you like the topic, keep searching. You're not trying to show off your research in a research paper. You're trying to show off that you can use the research to construct an argument. Instead of telling me the history of a battleship, prove to me why the battleship should be decommissioned. Instead of telling me Shakespeare's life story, point to the controversy of his existance and take a stand on whether he wrote all his plays or not. Make sure that the argument you are making is an issue where you are taking a stand, choosing a side, and presenting this side with research.

The two biggest I see all the time in Research Papers are as follows.

  1. Creating an Encyclopedia Entry, Not an Argument
  2. Making an argument that is unworthy of the format, and/or inappropriate

On the first front, I have seen numerous papers that do things tracing the history of a technology, explicate historical timelines of styles of dance, or even just explain different medical conditions. The research was deep and vast, but it didn't go any deeper than a Wikipedia entry. What was the point of all that research without an argument to sustain it?

Remember, you are trying to construct an argument, not just research something.

On the second front, when planning your argument, ask yourself the question, "Is my argument worthy of the format?" Recently a student put together a research paper that tried to convince me that the Apple company and the Samsung company should join forces and make the ultimate smartphone. For an English course, I was completely underwhelmed. The fundamental topic of debate was not appropriately strong enough to merit any research whatsoever, and was weak in the very foundation of the argument. No amount of research can save an argument that isn't worthy of the research, to begin with.

Research Papers are fundamentally about constructing a fact-based argument. The research should serve the thesis, not the other way around!

Go To a Real Library

Get off the internet and go to the library! You need sources for research that are professionally vetted!
Get off the internet and go to the library! You need sources for research that are professionally vetted! | Source

Where Does the Research Lead?

Right, so you've got your strong argument about a topic that you feel is worthy of research and debate. You have your own pre-concieved notion of what you want to say with your paper. You start researching and ram into a wall of... Hey, the research isn't saying what it is supposed to be saying! How come the data doesn't support my thesis?

Or, what's worse: There's a huge gap in the data, and this whole section of things I want to prove cannot be supported by the data!

It happens. It happens more often than students would like to admit. The research is the meat of the argument that you're constructing. When you review your research, you may discover that you cannot prove something, or that you have to prove the opposite of what you thought you were going to prove. Follow the evidence, and adjust your argument around it. For instance, if you are going to write a paper about sexuality in the plays of Shakespeare, your research may reveal that despite the cross-dressing and theater-antics, the plays themselves propose very limited gender roles, and very old-fashioned ones (or vice versa!) If you were arguing one side, and the research proves the other, it is time to revisit your thesis and adjust to the research that you have!

Once you begin researching, your argument will shift according to what you discover. Let the research lead the debate for now, and focus on what you can prove.

Another common mistake, of course, is failing to prove something. For instance, a paper about man-made global warming may list out all the causes of global warming, but skip over things like agriculture in the body paragraphs and research. Constructing an argument about global warming that includes agriculture in the thesis and conclusion without any research in the body paragraph means there's a hole in the research. Either do more research, or delete the extraneous ideation from the thesis and conclusion!

Don't state things that are not proven by the research!

Read Sample Papers

Most students begin writing without even knowing what they are writing. Have you ever actually read a long-form paper before? Here are some places to look for long-form, research-centred articles and content. (I don't understand how teachers can expect students to produce a form and format that is not read in class, but they do!)

  • Investigative Journalism News Magazines like The Economist and Mother Jones.
  • Academic Resources available through the school library, like JStor.
  • Sample papers available through writing guide websites, like OWL at Purdue

Outline, Outline, Outline...

When I was learning how to write research papers, my very Southern instructor, taught me the form of research papers. First, you tell people what it is you are about to tell them. (That's your introductory paragraph, with your thesis as the last sentence of that paragraph!) Second, you tell people what you're going to tell them. (That's the body paragraphs, with your research and data!) Finally, you tell people what it is you just told them. (This should mirror your introductory paragraph!)

Another way of thinking about this form: The introductory paragraph is the outline of your paper. Each sentence in the introductory paragraph is going to be expanded into at least paragraph in the body text. The conclusion, in wrapping up the paper, re-states the thesis in a new way.

Constructing a solid outline begins with your introductory paragraph. Write out the intro, lining up, line-by-line, what your research proves about your chosen topic. Then, take each sentence from that paragraph and plan out the paragraphs of the body of the paper, arranging the ideas exactly as they appear in your introduction. Finally, conclude with a clear and solid statement that reflects the results of your argument.

Once the outline is complete, it's just a matter of filling in the blanks and citing sources! At this point, the paper should be as simple and tedious as filling in a form.

Remember, the harder you work before you even start writing, the simpler the writing will become! If done correctly, the final paper really can be completed in a couple hours the night before, because the outline is strong and the topic is strong and the research is complete and thorough!



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