How to write a research paper
A research paper is any kind of academic writing based on original research which features analysis and interpretation from the author — and it can be a bit overwhelming to begin with!
That’s why we created a step-by-step guide on how to write a research paper, where we take you through the academic writing process one manageable piece at a time.
Table of contents
- Understand the assignment
- Understand your audience
- Choose a research paper topic
- Conduct preliminary research
- Develop a thesis statement
- Create a research paper outline
- Paragraph structure
- Write a first draft of the research paper
- Write a research paper introduction
- Write a compelling body of text
- Write the research paper conclusion
- The second draft
- The revision process
1. Understand the assignment
Part of completing a piece of assessment successfully means accomplishing the specific tasks set out for you. That entails properly and thoroughly understanding the assignment task sheet, which you can achieve by doing the following:
- Read it carefully, looking for anything confusing you might need to clarify with your professor.
- Identify the assignment goal, deadline, length specifications, formatting and submission method.
- Make a bulleted list of the key points, then go back and cross completed items off as you’re writing.
At this stage, consider:
- Timeframe: be realistic, and plan for time to research, write and edit.
- Word limit: work with a precise or specific topic to avoid trying to cover too much information.
- Purpose: Each purpose comes with different requirements. For example, are you aiming to inform people of something, persuade them to think differently, or encourage them to take a certain course of action?
2. Understand your audience
When asking yourself how to write a research paper, you need to consider your audience. Their knowledge level influences your writing style, choice of words and how much detail you need in explanations of concepts.
A master’s thesis is usually written for an expert audience, though you may wish to make it accessible to a broader audience. If you are writing an undergraduate paper, you can assume your audience is somewhere between generalist and expert.
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3. Choose a research paper topic
There are many ways to generate an idea for a research paper, whether you prefer old-fashioned brainstorming by writing notes, or talking with a fellow student or professor to figure out how to approach a topic.
You can try free writing, which involves taking a broad topic and writing continuously for two or three minutes to identify absolutely anything relevant that could be interesting.
You can also gain inspiration from other research. The discussion or recommendations sections of research papers often include ideas for other specific topics to examine.
Once you have a main subject area, narrow it down to choose a topic that:
- Interests you
- Is original
- Meets the criteria of your assignment
- Is possible to research
Remember that the idea is to be both original and specific. A paper following the chronology of World War II would not be original or specific enough. A paper on the experience of Danish citizens living close to the German border during World War II would be specific and could be original enough — that is where the next step comes into play.
4. Conduct preliminary research
Note any discussions that seem important to the topic, and try to find an issue that you can focus your paper around. Use several types of sources, including journals, books and reliable websites, to ensure you do not miss anything glaring.
Do not only verify the ideas you have in mind, but look for sources that contradict your point of view, to avoid confirmation bias.
- Is there anything people seem to overlook in the sources you research?
- Are there any heated debates you can address?
- Do you have a unique take on your topic?
- Have there been some recent developments that build on the extant research?
In this stage, you might find it helpful to formulate some research questions to help guide you. These are more commonly used in a thesis or dissertation rather than an essay. To write research questions, try to finish the following sentence: “I want to know how/what/why…”
In addition, this stage will help you determine whether there is a possible flaw in your argument. If you find there is a flaw, you can adjust your argument or topic at this stage.
Most researchers do not conduct a great deal of research at this point — it is only to ensure the paper is on track and to get a sense of the literature.
5. Develop a thesis statement
A thesis statement is a statement of your central argument — it establishes the purpose and position of your paper. If you started with a research question, the thesis statement should answer it. It should also show what evidence and reasoning you’ll use to support that answer.
The thesis statement should be concise, contentious, and coherent. That means it should briefly summarize your argument in a sentence or two; make a claim that requires further evidence or analysis; and make a coherent point that relates to every part of the paper.
You will probably revise and refine the thesis statement as you do more research, but it can serve as a guide throughout the writing process. Every paragraph should aim to support and develop this central claim.
6. Create a research paper outline
A research paper outline works as an effective guide to use during the writing process. It is essentially a list of the key topics, arguments and evidence you will include, divided into sections with headings so the paper is planned before you begin writing.
A research paper outline can help make the writing process much more efficient, so it is worth dedicating the time to create one.
Read our article on creating a research paper outline.
7. Paragraph structure
Paragraphs are the basic building blocks of research papers. Each one should focus on a single claim or idea that helps to establish the overall argument or purpose of the paper.
Here is what a paragraph should look like. Hover over the sentences to learn more.
George Orwell’s 1946 essay “Politics and the English Language” has had an enduring impact on thought about the relationship between politics and language.This impact is particularly obvious in light of the various critical review articles that have recently referenced the essay.For example, consider Mark Falcoff’s 2009 article in The National Review Online, “The Perversion of Language; or, Orwell Revisited,” in which he analyzes several common words (“activist,” “civil-rights leader,” “diversity,” and more).Falcoff’s close analysis of the ambiguity built into political language intentionally mirrors Orwell’s own point-by-point analysis of the political language of his day.Even 63 years after its publication, Orwell’s essay is emulated by contemporary thinkers.
8. Write a first draft of the research paper
Your first draft should not be the last, as you can polish later on. The main goal at this stage is to:
- Turn your rough ideas into workable arguments
- Add detail to those arguments
- Get a sense of what the final product will look like
You do not need to start your paper at the introduction. Start writing where it feels most natural for you — some prefer to finish the most difficult sections first, while others choose to start with the easiest part. If you created a research paper outline, use it as a map while you work.
Do not delete large sections of text. If you begin to dislike something you have written, move it to a different document, but do not lose it completely as you never know if it might come in useful later.
Your priorities when writing the first draft should be:
- Maintaining forward momentum — write now, perfect later.
- Paying attention to clear organization and logical ordering of paragraphs and sentences, to help yourself when you come to the second draft.
- Expressing your ideas as clearly as possible, so you know what you were trying to say when you come to perfecting the text.
- Keeping your arguments flexible. Be prepared to change or abandon arguments if needed. If you get stuck on one section, move on to another and come back later.
- Citing clearly — your citations do not need to be perfect yet, but you will save time by including the essentials such as author name, year of publication and page numbers with the relevant information.
9. Write a research paper introduction
The introduction usually addresses three questions: What? Why? How?
In a thesis or dissertation, the introduction has strict requirements of precisely what to include. For an essay, the introduction serves as a “hook,” designed to move the reader from what they already know to the information you plan to discuss or convince them of. Remember, the introduction in an essay should be concise and not make any arguments.
After finishing the introduction, the reader should know what the paper is about and why it is worth reading.
What? Be specific about the topic of the paper, introduce the background and define key items such as terms, theories and historical details. If you are writing a longer essay with a literature review, you should give a sense of how your point fits with the extant research.
Why? This is the most important, but also most difficult, part of the introduction. Try to provide brief answers to the following questions: What new material or insight are you offering? What important issues does your essay help define or answer?
How? The reader needs to know how the paper will proceed. Therefore, the introduction should include a “map” of what will be discussed or briefly present all the key elements of the paper in chronological order.
10. Write a compelling body of text
The major struggle faced by most writers is how to organize the information presented in the paper, which is one reason a research paper outline is so useful. However, remember that the outline is only a guide and, when writing, you can be flexible with the order in which the information and arguments are presented.
One way to stay on track is to use your thesis statement and topic sentences. Check: topic sentences against the thesis statement; topic sentences against each other, for similarities and logical ordering; and each sentence against the topic sentence of that paragraph. Do not be ruled by your sources — use them as they become relevant to what you are writing.
After completing the first draft, condense the paragraphs into only topic sentences and read them one at a time. Be aware of paragraphs that seem to cover the same things. If two paragraphs discuss something similar, they must approach that topic in different ways. Check for smooth transitions between paragraphs.
11. Write the research paper conclusion
The conclusion is designed to help your reader out of the paper’s argument, giving them a sense of finality.
Trace the course of the paper, emphasizing how it all comes together to prove your thesis statement. Give the paper a sense of finality by making sure the reader understands how the paper has settled the issues raised in the introduction. Recap the what, why and how, and try to show how the key ideas mentioned in the introduction look now that your point is established.
You might also discuss the more general consequences of the argument, outline what the paper offers to future students of the topic and suggest any questions the paper’s argument raises but cannot or does not try to answer.
You should not:
- Offer new arguments or essential information
- Take up any more space than necessary
- Begin with phrases that signal you are ending the paper
12. The second draft
There are four main considerations when it comes to the second draft.
- Check how your vision of the paper lines up with the first draft and, more importantly, that your paper still answers the assignment.
- Identify any assumptions that might require (more substantial) justification, keeping your reader’s perspective foremost in mind. Remove these points if you cannot substantiate them further.
- Be open to rearranging your ideas. Check whether any sections feel out of place and whether your ideas could be better organized.
- If you find that old ideas do not fit as well as you anticipated, you should cut them out or condense them. You might also find that new and well-suited ideas occurred to you during the writing of the first draft — now is the time to make them part of the paper.
13. The revision process
The goal during the revision and proofreading process is to ensure you have completed all the necessary tasks and that the paper is as well-articulated as possible.
- Purpose: confirm that your paper completes every task specified in your assignment sheet.
- Check for logical organization and flow of paragraphs.
- Check paragraphs against the introduction and thesis statement.
Check the content of each paragraph, making sure that:
- each sentence helps support the topic sentence.
- no unnecessary or irrelevant information is present.
- all technical terms your audience might not know are identified.
Next, think about sentence structure, grammatical errors and formatting. Check that you have correctly used transition words and phrases to show the connections between your ideas. Look for typos, cut unnecessary words and check for consistency in aspects such as heading formatting and spellings.
Here are some tips to make sure you do not miss anything:
- Read the paper aloud, which will force you to slow down and look more closely at each word.
- Change fonts, as it helps to spot mistakes by making the text less familiar.
- Edit a printed copy. Follow each word with a pen or pencil.
- Have someone else read through and make notes.
Finally, you need to make sure your paper is correctly formatted according to the rules of the citation style you are using. For example, you might need to include an MLA heading or create an APA title page.