If you’re in college, odds are you’re going to face the dreaded 20-page research paper sometime in your academic career.
These things used to freak me out so much that I think I spent more time crying about the paper than actually sitting down and writing it (yup, those are healthy coping skills for you). After doing a few, though, I quickly realized—Hey! these aren’t actually scary at all!
A lot of college comes down to knowing how to do things rather than knowing about what you’re doing, which is why you can get a 90 on a paper you didn’t really understand but had a solid rubric, but a 72 on a paper that you could talk about for days but wasn’t sure what the prof wanted.
That’s why I love research papers. Once you know how to write a research paper, you’re set for any class that asks for one! It’s one of the only things in college that doesn’t really change from prof to prof. Sure, some might ask for subheadings and some may say you can’t use them, but for the most part, once you’ve got it, you’re golden.
This is the system that I use every single time I write a paper. No joke—every single time. And I’m sharing it with you today! I so hope you find this helpful, and that it helps you get an A on that next project!
Brainstorming a topic
Some profs will have a topic list for you to choose from for your paper’s topic, others will let you have a bit more freedom. The most important thing to remember while brainstorming is that what you choose doesn’t actually matter all that much. I’ve written papers on topics I have felt so strongly about that I’ve flat out cried while reading the research on it and other papers that I thought were so boring I cleaned the toilet to procrastinate. Both of them got the same mark. By using this method, you just need to find a topic that has research, you don’t need to stress about finding “the perfect topic.”
The way I find my topic is pretty simple. First, I go through the slides and look for anything that I found particularly interesting. If nothing pops up (some classes are really boring, let’s be real), I look for times where they asked questions in class (i.e., “why do you think that fluoxetine use is declining in North America?” or “does using daycare influence mother-child attachment?”). (Just letting you know, pretty much every example will be a psych one. Sorry.) Usually when a prof asks a question, that’s a key idea that they want to know that you understand, and writing a paper on it may help you for the exam, too.
If that doesn’t work, I look at the table of contents in the textbook. You rarely use every chapter in a textbook over the semester, so I find one that we haven’t covered and I look at the headings until I find something I could use as a topic. Done!
This part is fun! What you want to do after you have a topic is brainstorm keywords related to that topic. So, for instance, if I was writing a paper on the effect of daycare on mother-infant attachment, I might use keywords like:
– day care
– mother-child relationship
– emotional development
– attachment behaviour
– attachment theory
By searching some of these key words together, you can find all sorts of articles on daycare’s influence on mother-child attachment.
Figure out how many sources you need to cite for your project and what format they should be in (news articles, books, peer reviewed articles), then search until you find what you need!
This part’s important: as soon as you get your sources, write out the full citation in the style your paper calls for. This will save you loads of time later, since you won’t have to go back searching to try to figure out where exactly the article came from and what issue number it was, since usually databases have all the information right there at the download page!
Tip: If you can’t find enough sources on your topic because you’re studying a relatively untouched area of research, look at the references that the sources you could find used. Even if they aren’t exactly what you’re looking for, you can likely use them to make your point in a more roundabout way.
Organizing your research
This part is quite possibly the most important one when it comes to efficiency. Do this part right and you’ll save yourself 5-6 hours of work later, depending on how long your paper is.
When you have your sources all lined up, you’re going to start taking notes on it in an organized way that’s going to make it super-duper easy for you to write your paper later.
Here’s how you do it.
1. Copy out the full citation for the source at the top of a blank page
Same reason as before—you want to make sure you know exactly where this source came from, and if you end up adding it to your paper you can just copy and paste the citation to your reference list later.
2. Write out anything that could possibly be of any help at all.
This is why you don’t write out your thesis first. You don’t know what the research says yet about the topic, so you have to take notes on absolutely anything on the topic so that later you’ll be able to write a killer thesis statement.
Do this in point form so it’s easier to see all the different notes you’ve taken at a glance. You can paraphrase or quote the material, whichever fits better.
3. Add in-text citations
No matter what, always add the in-text citation after each note on the reference! This way, you’ll be able to just copy and paste your notes later without getting confused as to which source the point came from.
I do something different here, though—I always add the page number, even if in the actual paper I wouldn’t need to. This is because it’s quite easy to delete the page number later and quite difficult to go through hundreds of pages to find the exact place in the book you got that point from if you want to expand upon it later. So add the page numbers now, and take them out later unless your citation type needs it.
Then follow all three of these points for every single reference you have.
After you have all of your articles/sources read, you should have notes that look like this for every article:
Point form with the citation right beside it. Got it? Ok let’s go to the next one!
Organize all your information
Now that you have all of your references in point form, read through all of the information and organize them into topics. I do this by first highlighting everything into different colours based on topic. I might make one yellow, one blue, one pink, for instance.
Soon it’ll look something like this:
Now you copy and paste all of the points so that they’re organized by colour, NOT by reference!
This is where you’ll see how helpful it is to add the in-text citations as you go. Now that they’re all mixed up into all the different topics, it’s still easy to see where they all came from!
You want to be very self-critical while you’re doing this. Make sure that the points all really belong where you’re putting them and re-evaluate the topics if they need to be tweaked to fit the research better.
Something to remember when writing a research paper is that there isn’t really a golden-rule for how many topics you need. I usually try to have between 3 and 5 topics that I discuss depending on how long the paper is.
Write your thesis statement
This is so much easier to do after you have your topics chosen! Now that you have all of the topics, it’s easier to find the common theme behind all of them. Look at your topic you brainstormed and figure out what the question behind it is. A question could look like “what global influence did the fall of the Berlin Wall have?” or “what are the benefits of using animals in therapy for certain disorders?”
After you figure out what the question is that you are asking, decide what your answer is. Are you deciding that there are benefits of using animal therapy, or that the benefits are outweighed by other factors?
After you know your answer to your question, figure out a word that summarizes each of your topics. Then write your statement using your topics and the answer to your question. Here’s an example:
“Since animal therapy has shown to improve [TOPIC 1], [TOPIC 2], and [TOPIC 3], it appears to be highly a highly effective treatment option for autism in children.”
Write your research paper!
You’re finally at the place where you can start writing the body of your paper!
Don’t start at the beginning, though—you’re going to start with the topic paragraphs, then write the introduction, then the conclusion. This is because your introduction is a summary of your body paragraphs, so it doesn’t make any sense to write the summary before you actually write what it is meant to summarize!
For the body paragraphs, look at the notes you’ve organized into each topic and get writing. Combine references that say the same thing, add your own interpretation of the literature by drawing multiple articles together to prove a point, and expand on key points. You want to make sure that each body paragraph only has what it needs. This is big—you don’t want to say the same thing over and over again in all your paragraphs. Figure out your topic for each paragraph, write the paragraph, conclude the paragraph. Rinse and repeat.
Now, for the introduction.
Start with an eye-catching first sentence. This doesn’t need to be something that is overly interesting, but it needs to sound like the beginning of a conversation or a story. For instance, if you are writing an essay on cellphones, don’t start by saying “Cellphones are tools for calling people without a landline.” Rather, maybe start with something like “Cellphone use has skyrocketed among school-aged children over the last decade.” You want to open your paper with a line that propels you into an argument. What does it mean that cell phone use has skyrocketed among children? Is that a good thing? Why is it happening?
Second, you want to write a sentence or two more about the implications of your beginning sentence. For example, “This increased use has raised concerns among school boards and parents in North America that children are turning to technology for entertainment rather than to their imaginations. Ultimately, these groups are concerned that this reliance on technology such as cellular devices will stunt children’s academic performance as well as their ability to think creatively.”
Make the connections very clear between each sentence. This is generally the format that I use:
– The trend (more cell phone use among kids)
– The outcome of the trend (turning to technology for entertainment instead of using imagination)
– Why this problem is bad/good (bad because lower academic performance and less creativity)
This sets you up perfectly for your thesis, which we already wrote earlier!
NB: some profs may want you to state your research question right before your thesis statement. That is pretty much just what you are looking at. For instance, whether or not technology use limits academic performance. NOT what you found. Simply the question, NOT the answer.
Related: How I Said Goodbye to All-Nighters
Writing the conclusion
Conclusions are my favourite. They’re so easy compared to everything else!
All you’re going to do is state another one of those interesting tidbits of information that make your research important, just like we did for the very first sentence (make sure to use a different piece of information, though). Then just list your findings, re-state your thesis, and you’re done!
That wasn’t so bad, was it?
That is my complete guide to writing a research paper. I hope this helps you feel less overwhelmed when you face one this semester!
What are some tips you have for writing papers? How is your system similar/different than mine?
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