How To Write a Research Paper
Ten tips and tricks for conducting a research project and writing a research paper
I. Topic Selection
For a research paper, essay, report or article, you learn information about a subject, then set forth a point
of view and support it with evidence from authorities known as sources. All of your sources must be
declared via citations within the research paper.
The typical research paper, essay, report or article is an informative document, which sheds light on an
event, person or current issue. It also may be persuasive.
If a subject intrigues you, you will do a better job on the finished product. As you home in on a general
topic, consider using the brainstorm and freewrite techniques. Eventually, you must narrow your general
topic to a specific research question.
• Brainstorming, sometimes known as thinking on paper, means jotting down ideas in a computer
file or on paper. Rapidly write rough notes of everything you can think of on the subject-
• Freewriting can help you find your ideas by writing quickly, with no plan, and without stopping
for ten to twenty minutes. Don't worry about what to say first; start in the middle. Ignore
grammar, spelling and organization. Let your thoughts flow into a computer file or onto paper as
they come. If you draw a blank, write your last word over and over. More ideas will follow.
Freewrite more than once, then write a sentence, which begins, "My main point is ..."
Good writing has a subject, purpose and audience. Consider the audience for your work, and how your
purpose limits the subject. Think about how important your topic is in relation to the purpose of your
investigation. Keep in mind the availability, variety and worth of materials you will be able to find.
Consider the amount of time available.
Unsuitable topics: A research paper topic would be a poor choice if it were. ..
• Too broad: Should you try to cover the entire subject of Space Exploration, The History of
Witchcraft or the Life of Napoleon in one research paper? No. You should narrow the scope of
your topic to include only a portion of a broad subject.
• Too subjective: A personal topic, such as "Why My Church Is Best," may be unsuitable because
you probably won't be able to support it from library sources.
• Too controversial: Avoid any subject about which you can't write objectively.
• Too familiar: Your work on a research paper should lead to discovery of things you don't already
know. Don't submit a research paper already written for another purpose.
• Too technical: Don't write about a topic that you still don't understand thoroughly after you have
completed your research.
II. Forming a Research Question
After topic selection, form a research question and hypothesis. A hypothesis is a working idea that your
evidence may support. You will have a hypothesis in mind as you start looking into your subject.
As you plan, research and write your paper, you may narrow the hypothesis or even discover a better
hypothesis. Be prepared to change your hypothesis if evidence you find doesn't support it. Eventually you
will settle on a final thesis.
III. Building a Bibliography
You need to compile a working bibliography. To build a bibliography, you need a search strategy. For
instance, you might start with general sources and proceed to specialized sources.
A master bibliography is a complete list of writings on a particular subject or by a particular author.
A working bibliography is the list of writings you actually will use for a research paper.
Where to start? Often, it is appropriate to start your research with encyclopedias, almanacs and
dictionaries for broad, general background information on a topic. Next, check specialized encyclopedias,
bibliographies and handbooks on your topic. Search general, then specialized indexes and databases for
articles on your subject in authoritative books, scholarly journals, trade papers, consumer magazines and
Taking notes: Read your sources for facts, opinions and examples relating to your subject. Either in a
computer file or on cards, jot notes of information important in answering your research question.
Record a page number in the source for each fact or quote you jot down. If you quote from a source, make
sure you copy the exact wording and have the page number.
Organizing information: After completing your main research, organize the information you have
collected. Of course, you may need to research specific points later while writing.
Outlining the research paper: Group the information in your computer files or on your note cards
coherently by topic. That will lead to an efficient working outline. Organize your points either from most-
to-least or least-to-most important.
Write an outline from the organization of your computer files or note cards. List the major divisions and
subdivisions to visualize your ideas and supporting material. The outline will reveal whether your
research has turned up enough materials to support your conclusion.
How To Do Bibliographies
Creating a bibliography manually can be a very annoying and time-consuming job. Professional
researchers who work with citations every day use one of the commercial computer software tools for
Word Processors: Although modem word processors are loaded with features, they don't offer complete
help with one of academic writing's most laborious tasks- the bibliography. Creating a "bib" means
tracking references, including citations in text, and formatting each reference in a particular style. Two
commercial computer programs (EndNotes3 and ProCite) perform those tasks. They are like employing a
personal librarian to track, store and retrieve bibliographic references while you do scholarly writing.
Researchers, scholars, writers, reporters, authors, reviewers, teachers and anyone gathering and
maintaining bibliographical references and publishing papers and reports can use these tools to access,
organize and update article references pulled from the expanding literature in a knowledge field. If you
read, organize, and report references, you might like to try one of these bibliographic software brand
IV. What is a Literature Review?
A review of the literature is an essential part of your academic research project. The review is a careful
examination of a body of literature pointing toward the answer to your research question.
A literature or a body of literature is a collection of published research relevant to a research question. All
good research and writing are guided by a review of the relevant literature.
Your literature review will be the mechanism by which your research is viewed as a cumulative process.
That makes it an integral component of the scientific process.
Why do it? The purpose of the literature review remains the same regardless of the research methodology
you use. It is an essential test of the research question against that which is already known about your
Questions: If you find that your research question has not been answered satisfactorily by someone else,
then search out the answers to these questions:
What is known about my subject?
What is the chronology of the development of knowledge about my subject?
Are there any gaps in knowledge of my subject? Which openings for research other researchers have
Is there a consensus on relevant issues? Or is there significant debate on issues? What are the various
Remember that nothing is completely black or white. Only you can determine what is satisfactory,
relevant, significant or important in the context of your own research.
Mechanics of a literature review. Your literature review will have two components: the search through the
literature and the writing of the review
Obviously, the search is the first step. However, you must remember that you love knowledge and that
academic databases can be seductive. You could spend untold hours clicking around the bibliographies of
your favorite collections. You may have fun, but you might not advance your literature review.
The solution: Have your research question written down and at hand when you arrive at the computer to
search databases. Prepare in advance a plan and a preset time limit. ~~
Finding too much? If you find so many citations that there is no end in sight to the number of references
you could use, its time to re-evaluate your question. It's too broad.
Finding too little? On the other hand, if you can't find much of anything, ask yourself if you looking in the
right area. Your topic is too narrow.
Leading edge research: What if you are trying to research an area that seems never to have been
examined before? Be systematic. Look at journals that print abstracts in that subject area to get an
overview of the scope of the available literature. Then, your search could start from a general source, such
as a book, and work its way from those references to the specific topic you want. Or, you could start with
a specific source, such as a research paper, and work from that author's references. There isn't a single
Take thorough notes. Be sure to write copious notes on everything as you proceed through your research.
It's very frustrating when you can't find a reference found earlier that now you want to read in full.
It's not hard to open up a blank document in Word, WordPad (Windows) or SimpleText (Macintosh) to
keep a running set of notes during a computer search session. Just jump back and forth between the Web
browser screen and the notepad screen.
Using resources wisely: Practice makes perfect. Learn how and then use the available computer
resources properly and efficiently. Log onto the Internet frequently. Visit the ACCD on-line library. Play
with the database resources.
Identify publications, which print abstracts of articles and books in your subject area. Look for references
to papers from which you can identify the most useful journals. Identify those authors who seem to be
important in your subject area. Identify keywords in your area of interest to help when you need to narrow
and refine database searches. Read online library catalogs to find available holdings. Be sure to write
copious notes on everything.
Getting ready to write: Eventually, a broad overview picture of the literature in your subject area will
begin to emerge. Then it's time to review your notes and begin to draft your literature review. But, where
do you start?
Suppose you have several WordPad or SimpleText files full of notes you've written. You also have a
dozen real books and copies of three dozen, journal articles. Pile them on a table and sit down. Turn to
your research question. Write it out again at the head of a list of the various keywords and authors that
you have uncovered in your search. Do any pairings or groupings pop out at you? You now are
structuring or sketching out the literature review which is the first step in writing a research paper.
What is a database? Does the word database sound forbidding? It shouldn't because we use databases
comfortably everyday. Academic researchers reach into scholarly journal databases to build
bibliographies for their papers. San Antonio College on-line library provides access to academic and other
related databases for use in scholarly projects.
V. Evaluating Evidence (Primary vs. Secondary Evidence)
Primary evidence: A primary source of evidence is first-hand data collected through interviews,
experiments, fieldwork and other hands-on efforts.
Secondary evidence: A secondary source of evidence is information published about research done by
others. Most library material is secondary evidence. For example, if you were to write about a novel, the
novel itself would be a primary source while reviews by critics would be secondary sources.
Evaluating evidence: At this point, you must evaluate your sources. Look for examples of authority.
Check the logic in your data. Watch for contradictions and conflicting statements.
Ask yourself these questions:
• Is there enough material on each point?
• Will this amount of information seem convincing? .What are the assumptions in the research?
What are the implications of the research? .How old is this information?
• Do I have the most recent data? .Who are the authorities?
• Has the information come from recognized experts?
• Has the information come from respected publications? .Are the terms clearly defined?
• Are all sources using the terms in the same way? .Is all the information relevant? .What do the
• How were the statistics gathered?
• What are the relative merits of the arguments? .Which arguments are stronger?
• Which arguments are less significant?
VI. Starting to Write a Research Paper
After outlining, it's time to start writing.
Writing the review: One draft won't cut it. Plan from the outset to write and rewrite. Naturally, you will
crave a sense of forward momentum, so don't get bogged down. Don't restrict yourself to writing the
review in a linear fashion from start to finish. If one area of the writing is proving difficult, jump to
Edit and rewrite: Your goal is to communicate effectively and efficiently the answer you found to your
research question in the literature. Edit your work so it is clear and concise. If you are writing an abstract
and introduction, leave them for the last.
Communicating ideas is the objective of your writing, so make it clear, concise and consistent. Esoteric
jargon and technical terms are not clear to everyone. They make it hard for all readers to understand your
writing. Consider their use very carefully and substitute "lay terms" wherever possible. Avoid gratuitous
Style and writing guides are worth browsing if you are unsure how to approach writing. Always re-read
what you have written. Get someone else to read it. Read it aloud to see how it sounds to your ear. Then
revise and rewrite.
Title: Research paper titles should be descriptive and informative. Sometimes the research thesis or
research question is used for a title. Avoid vague, inaccurate or amusing titles.
Introduction: The introduction should appeal to a reader's interest and it should make clear what the
research paper is about.
Ask the research question or state the thesis. The question can come first, informing the reader of the
purpose of the research paper. Or, the question can come last, making a transition to the body of the
Body: The meat of a research paper is evidence, facts and details. You can't have too much
documentation, too many references.
On the other hand, it is possible to have too many quotes. You can control that by paraphrasing and
Discover information and analyze and evaluate it for your readers. Tell readers what your data mean and
show them how to weigh the evidence.
Present your evidence in the body of the research paper .
You must be impartial. Point out strengths and weaknesses on both sides of the issue. Concede
worthwhile opposing positions to establish your credibility. Making concessions establishes that you have
researched the issue thoroughly.
Artwork: Use appropriate drawings, pictures, diagrams, maps, tables and charts to illustrate key points.
Keep artwork simple.
Conclusion: The conclusion of the research paper is the culmination of everything written in the paper
before the conclusion. The research question is answered in the conclusion. You must help the reader
understand why you reached your conclusion.
Writing the conclusion: Throughout your written review, you should communicate your new knowledge
by combining the research question you asked with the literature you reviewed. End your writing with a
conclusion that wraps up what you learned in the literature review process.
While the interaction between the research question and the relevant literature is foreshadowed
throughout the review, it usually is written at the very end. The interaction itself is a learning process that
gives researchers new insight into their area of research. The conclusion should reflect this.
It would not be enough to say, for example, "This evidence shows that it would be unwise to give a gun to
a small child.” You must help readers understand why your conclusion is the correct one.
Review the main points for your readers. Give a final example, or quote, or something else which will
strengthen the end of the research paper.
VII. Drafting a Research Paper
A complete job on a research paper will include writing, editing and revising. Each complete revision is a
draft. Don't try to write just one final draft of a research paper.
First draft: Always write a first draft with the intention of having one or more revision drafts.
For the first draft, you will find it faster to write something approximating the points you wish to make,
then go back and revise them.
While drafting, keep computer or paper at hand so you can jot down new ideas as they occur to you.
It's faster to edit and revise on computer, without printing out the intermediate drafts. However, if you
need to print out a draft for editing, format the text with double-spaced or triple-spaced lines so you can
mark changes between lines.
Revising: Write a second draft. Check your spelling and use a thesaurus to make improvements. If
needed, edit the second draft for a third draft, and so on.
VIII. Documenting your Sources
Give credit to every one of your sources, even if you change information into your own words. When you
use a writer's exact wording, put quotation marks around those words and use a citation.
Plagiarism means writing facts, opinions or quotations you get from someone else or from books, ~
magazines, newspapers, journals, movies, television or tapes as if they were your own and without
identifying the source. Unintentional plagiarism still is plagiarism.
Document all sources using the citation style of the American Psychological Association (APA).lnclude
the references at the end of your research paper.
You must acknowledge the source of any:
• Concrete fact
• Direct quotation
• Idea other than your own
• Opinion held by someone else
• Information not commonly known
If a fact is common knowledge, don't show a source. For instance, John Adams was the second president.
IX. Internal Parenthetical Citations and References Page
Use a parenthetical citation format. That means show the source in parentheses (Jones, 1998) inside your
text immediately after you give the information. Use the AP A style consistently throughout your research
Check your APA style guide for specific rules applicable to your research paper:
A reader looks at the works cited at the end of the research paper to find details of the sources shown in
the internal parenthetical citations.
Check your APA style guide for specific rules applicable to your research paper:
X. Quoting, Paraphrasing, Summarizing
Summarize and paraphrase more often than you quote. Quoting: Use quotations in support of your own
• Each quotation should illustrate a point you want to make.
• Keep quotations brief. A void quotes longer than three or four lines. Shorter quotes are easier to
• Use the ellipsis ...to omit the middle of a quote.
Paraphrasing: A paraphrase puts someone else's points in your own words. It includes all information
from the original.
Summarizing: A summary condenses original information, summarizing main points of someone's words
Acknowledgement: Cornell University