HOW TO START (AND COMPLETE) A RESEARCH PAPER
You are a re-entry student and it's been fourteen years since you've written a paper. You coasted through high school on your charm and good looks and never actually wrote a research paper. You have written research papers, but every time is like the first time, and the first time was like a root canal. How do you start? Here is a step-by-step approach to starting and completing a research paper.
- Choose a topic.
- Read and keep records.
- Form a thesis.
- Create a mind map or outline.
- Read again.
- Rethink your thesis.
- Draft the body.
- Add the beginning and end.
- Proofread and edit.
You may read this TIP Sheet from start to finish before you begin your paper, or skip to the steps that are causing you the most grief.
1. Choosing a topic: Interest, information, and focus
Your job will be more pleasant, and you will be more apt to retain information if you choose a topic that holds your interest. Even if a general topic is assigned ("Write about impacts of GMO crops on world food supply"), as much as possible find an approach that suits your interests. Your topic should be one on which you can find adequate information; you might need to do some preliminary research to determine this. Go to the Reader's Guide to Periodical Literature in the reference section of the library, or to an electronic database such as Proquest or Wilson Web, and search for your topic. The Butte College Library Reference Librarians are more than happy to assist you at this (or any) stage of your research. Scan the results to see how much information has been published. Then, narrow your topic to manageable size:
|Too Broad: Childhood diseases||Too Broad: Eating disorders|
|Focused: Juvenile Diabetes||Focused: Anorexia Nervosa|
Once you have decided on a topic and determined that enough information is available, you are ready to proceed. At this point, however, if you are having difficulty finding adequate quality information, stop wasting your time; find another topic.
2. Preliminary reading & recordkeeping
Gather some index cards or a small notebook and keep them with you as you read. First read a general article on your topic, for example from an encyclopedia. On an index card or in the notebook, record the author, article and/or book title, and all publication information in the correct format (MLA or APA, for example) specified by your instructor. (If you need to know what publication information is needed for the various types of sources, see a writing guide such as SF Writer.) On the index cards or in your notebook, write down information you want to use from each identified source, including page numbers. Use quotation marks on anything you copy exactly, so you can distinguish later between exact quotes and paraphrasing. (You will still attribute information you have quoted or paraphrased.)
Some students use a particular index card method throughout the process of researching and writing that allows them great flexibility in organizing and re-organizing as well as in keeping track of sources; others color-code or otherwise identify groups of facts. Use any method that works for you in later drafting your paper, but always
start with good recordkeeping.
3. Organizing: Mind map or outline
Based on your preliminary reading, draw up a working mind map or outline. Include any important, interesting, or provocative points, including your own ideas about the topic. A mind map is less linear and may even include questions you want to find answers to. Use the method that works best for you. The object is simply to group ideas in logically related groups. You may revise this mind map or outline at any time; it is much easier to reorganize a paper by crossing out or adding sections to a mind map or outline than it is to laboriously start over with the writing itself.
4. Formulating a thesis: Focus and craftsmanship
Write a well defined, focused, three- to five-point thesis statement, but be prepared to revise it later if necessary. Take your time crafting this statement into one or two sentences, for it will control the direction and development of your entire paper.
For more on developing thesis statements, see the TIP Sheets "Developing a Thesis and Supporting Arguments" and "How to Structure an Essay."
5. Researching: Facts and examples
Now begin your heavy-duty research. Try the internet, electronic databases, reference books, newspaper articles, and books for a balance of sources. For each source, write down on an index card (or on a separate page of your notebook) the publication information you will need for your works cited (MLA) or bibliography (APA) page. Write important points, details, and examples, always distinguishing between direct quotes and paraphrasing. As you read, remember that an expert opinion is more valid than a general opinion, and for some topics (in science and history, for example), more recent research may be more valuable than older research. Avoid relying too heavily on internet sources, which vary widely in quality and authority and sometimes even disappear before you can complete your paper.
Never copy-and-paste from internet sources directly into any actual draft of your paper. For more information on plagiarism, obtain from the Butte College Student Services office a copy of the college's policy on plagiarism, or attend the Critical Skills Plagiarism Workshop given each semester.
6. Rethinking: Matching mind map and thesis
After you have read deeply and gathered plenty of information, expand or revise your working mind map or outline by adding information, explanations, and examples. Aim for balance in developing each of your main points (they should be spelled out in your thesis statement). Return to the library for additional information if it is needed to evenly develop these points, or revise your thesis statement to better reflect what you have learned or the direction your paper seems to have taken.
7. Drafting: Beginning in the middle
Write the body of the paper, starting with the thesis statement and omitting for now the introduction (unless you already know exactly how to begin, but few writers do). Use supporting detail to logically and systematically validate your thesis statement. For now, omit the conclusion also.
For more on systematically developing a thesis statement, see TIP sheets "Developing a Thesis and Supporting Arguments" and "How to Structure an Essay."
8. Revising: Organization and attribution
Read, revise, and make sure that your ideas are clearly organized and that they support your thesis statement. Every single paragraph should have a single topic that is derived from the thesis statement. If any paragraph does not, take it out, or revise your thesis if you think it is warranted. Check that you have quoted and paraphrased accurately, and that you have acknowledged your sources even for your paraphrasing. Every single idea that did not come to you as a personal epiphany or as a result of your own methodical reasoning should be attributed to its owner.
For more on writing papers that stay on-topic, see the TIP Sheets "Developing a Thesis and Supporting Arguments" and "How to Structure an Essay." For more on avoiding plagiarism, see the Butte College Student Services brochure, "Academic Honesty at Butte College," or attend the Critical Skills Plagiarism Workshop given each semester.
9. Writing: Intro, conclusion, and citations
Write the final draft. Add a one-paragraph introduction and a one-paragraph conclusion. Usually the thesis statement appears as the last sentence or two of the first, introductory paragraph. Make sure all citations appear in the correct format for the style (MLA, APA) you are using. The conclusion should not simply restate your thesis, but should refer to it. (For more on writing conclusions, see the TIP Sheet "How to Structure an Essay.") Add a Works Cited (for MLA) or Bibliography (for APA) page.
10. Proofreading: Time and objectivity
Time permitting, allow a few days to elapse between the time you finish writing your last draft and the time you begin to make final corrections. This "time out" will make you more perceptive, more objective, and more critical. On your final read, check for grammar, punctuation, correct word choice, adequate and smooth transitions, sentence structure, and sentence variety. For further proofreading strategies, see the TIP Sheet "Revising, Editing, and Proofreading."
There is no magic formula for writing a successful research paper. It is basically a question of learning to organize your time and materials effectively. The steps outlined below can help serve as a general guide for writing your next paper. For more detailed information on researching and writing term papers or essays, consult the Books on researching and writing term papers section that appears below. Individualized writing assistance is offered by the Student Success Centre's Learning Support.
Begin working on your research paper as soon in the semester as possible. Take advantage of the time at your disposal to do your research and writing in order to meet the assignment due date. If you wait until the last minute, you may have difficulty finding the best materials, particularly if other students are researching the same topic, and you may also feel pressured by other assignment deadlines.
Selecting the topic
Keeping in mind the guidelines your instructor has set down for the assignment in terms of length, subject matter, types of sources, etc. If possible, try to select a topic that is of interest to you, even if it may appear to be the most difficult one. Avoid broad topics for research papers. Try to narrow your topic to one particular aspect that you will be able to investigate thoroughly within the prescribed limits of your paper.
If the topic is unfamiliar to you, consider doing some background reading to help you to develop your understanding. Subject encyclopedias and handbooks provide concise, scholarly overviews and they often refer you to major writings on the topic. Consult the appropriate Subject or course guide for the encyclopedias and handbooks in your area of research or simply ask a librarian.
Researching the topic
Your next step is to verify that there are sufficient and relevant sources and that they meet the requirements of the assignment (e.g. scholarly journal articles). This will require using Library resources, the tools for locating books and journal articles. There are subject librarians to assist you with finding the best sources for your specific topic.
Preparing an outline
Map out your approach by composing a detailed sentence outline. First, compose a thesis statement. This one sentence statement is the most important one of your entire research paper so be sure to phrase it carefully. A thesis statement clearly communicates the subject of your paper and the approach you are going to take. It is the controlling factor to which all information that follows must relate. Secondly, group and regroup your notes according to the various aspects of your topic until you find a sequence that seems logical. This can serve as the basis for your outline.
Writing and revising a rough draft
In writing a rough draft you are striving for a flow of ideas. Write using your final outline and organized notes as guides. Do not worry about correct spelling or punctuation at this stage. Remember that the purpose of a rough draft is to see if you have a logical progression of arguments and sufficient supporting material.
Make the necessary adjustments until you are satisfied your statements flow logically and your ideas have been fully presented in clear, concise prose. You may need to review your documentation if some sections of your text need further development.
Writing the bibliography (list of sources used)
Be sure you have all of the publication information (author, title, date, pages, etc.) appropriate for each source that you consulted. This information will then be compiled in a bibliography. A bibliography is a listing of all the sources you consulted in writing your research paper. You must closely follow the specific rules for writing bibliographies that are provided in style manuals, the most common ones being APA, MLA, and Chicago. These style manuals will also guide you on the correct way of citing (attributing) each of your sources in the content of your paper (see the Plagiarism section below). Concordia University provides a Web-based tool, RefWorks , that helps organize the references you find, incorporates citations into the content of your paper, and automatically prepares a bibliography in the style appropriate for the particular assignment.
You are now ready to focus primarily on the style of your paper rather than the content. Make use of:
- a dictionary or spellcheck for correct spelling
- a thesaurus for synonyms
- a grammar book
Representing another person's ideas as your own within the context of your term paper is plagiarism. Serious penalties can be exercised against students who plagiarize, not the least of which can include failure of the course for which the paper was submitted. Please consult Concordia University's position on plagiarism.
Play it safe - acknowledge any use of another person's ideas, whether the information is quoted directly, paraphrased, or summarized. The correct procedures for citing (attributing) sources is described in the style manual guides.
Selected books on researching and writing term papers
Bailey, S. (2015). Academic writing: A handbook for international students.
Buckley, J. (2013). Fit to print: The Canadian student's guide to essay writing
Hunt, A. (2005). Your research project: How to manage it. (e-book)
Lester, J.D., & Lester, J. (2015). Writing research papers: A complete guide.
Northey, M., & McKibbin, J. (2010). Making sense: A student's guide to research and writing
Making sense books on specific subject areas from the same author:
For more information, ask a librarian.