Writing a Great Research Paper

Caitlyn Reese

Research papers aren’t easy. There’s so much work that goes into writing one, and doubly so if you want it to be a reliable paper. It may seem like you’re standing in front of an insurmountable cliff, but I have a few tips that can help you be the best research writer you can be, without driving yourself crazy! Plus, believe it or not, you may be able to turn what you think is just another paper, you trudged through for your composition class, into a publishable work of art. That is exactly what I decided to do with my final research paper for my sophomore writing class, and through perseverance and help from a great teacher, it was published in the URJHS. Here are some tips for you that will help, right from the start:

  1. Choose the right topic
    • Don’t choose something that bores you just because you think it will be easy and there is a lot of information on it. Good papers don’t come from straight facts and statistics. You have to be passionate about the subject, and therefore be able to contribute your own opinions, suggestions, or ideas—especially if it’s an argumentative research paper.
    • Make sure the topic isn’t too narrow or too broad. When I started brainstorming for my paper, I thought I wanted to cover gun control. However, I realized that the scope of that project was beyond my nine-page limit. So, I let it go and found a new topic. Then I chose stem cells, but I had to narrow this down as well. I chose to research adult stem cells rather than taking on the entire world of stem cell research, making my topic more manageable.
  2. Be flexible.
    • The topic you start out researching may not be the topic you finally end up with, and that’s fine. That is the nature of the beast! You may very well uncover a new bit of information that completely changes your ideas and perspectives on the topic. For example, when I began researching adult stem cells, I had planned on arguing for legalization of adult stem cell use in the U.S. Low and behold, however, I found out rather quickly that adult stem cell treatments were alive and well in the U.S., and there was actually a controversy going on about companies failing to receive FDA approval before giving out the treatments.  Suddenly, my topic was null, and I decided to take on the controversy of FDA approval. This turned out to be a much more lucrative and current topic that made a much better paper in the end.
  3. Break up your research
    • We all know that it’s a bad idea to leave researching and writing a paper until the last week or so before it’s due. So why do so many of us do it? It’s because the hardest part of a paper is getting started. The reading, the highlighting, the annotating—it seems like too much.  But the truth is that it’s all about the approach. You don’t have to spend three to four hours on it at a time! That’s the beauty of starting early and working frequently.  When you have 30 or 45 minutes between classes, hop on the computer and start looking! You don’t have to read through an entire resource either. Skim it, and if you even think there’s a chance the information might be useful, print it, and shove it in your notebook (just don’t forget it’s there).  Then on your next bit of free time, pull out the highlighter and read it. If you do not have to think about the topic constantly for hours on end, you don’t feel nearly as "fried" and actually become better at selecting truly useful information. So start looking stuff up the first week! Your brain will thank you.
  4. Sources
    • We all know the pain of finding "peer-reviewed" sources. They aren’t necessarily the easiest things to find, and often they are written in professional language within its respective discipline, especially in scientific specialties. I’m not going lecture you on how to find peer-reviewed sources. We all get plenty of that in class. But something that may make your life a lot easier is to start out with reliable non-peer-reviewed sources. Often you may not be completely sure what you want to focus on, or you may not understand the topic completely at first. It is almost impossible to find journal papers that actually address broad subjects. So try getting your introductory information for yourself from .gov and .edu sites. These kinds of sources can get you prepared and help you identify key points that you can look for in peer-reviewed sources. This is a great starting point when you are still in the planning and outlining phases, that way you can go back and find journal papers for each specific point that you make. However, DON’T rely on non-peer-reviewed sources. You may indeed have to use some of them in your paper, but the MAJORITY of your information should come from proper sources.
  5. Again, be flexible
    • As you begin writing, read each complete train of thought out loud to yourself and see how it sounds. Make sure that every piece of information in the paragraph relates back to the topic of that paragraph. It is really easy to go on a rant and end up way off topic. Doing these little self-checks can help a lot, especially when done on an on-going basis. Then, when you do find something that goes off topic, don’t be afraid to cut out an entire set of sentences. If it doesn’t fit, it doesn’t fit.  But don’t throw it away. Open up a new Word document and cut and paste the entry onto the blank page. You may be surprised that you will find a perfect place for the information later.
    • After you have a working rough draft, consider the organization of the paper. You can consider grammar and punctuation later. Is the introduction a proper springboard into the information? Are certain points more important than others, therefore deserving to be further toward the beginning? Does one point lead into another? If so, change some things around! You’d be surprised how easy it can be to completely rearrange your draft just by adding a few transitions
  6. Show it to everyone and their mother!
    • If you really want to know if you have a good paper on your hands, have people read it, read it, read it! You professor is always a good start, and 9 times out of 10 he or she would be happy to help you. There’s also usually a tutoring center of some sort on campus that can also be a good help. But what you might not expect is that it can be very helpful to have regular people read it. Most papers are written for a general audience, so what better way to see if you’re catching the attention of the normal person?  Ask a family member, a friend, a co-worker, or a classmate to read it. These are the people that can give you a broader perspective: whether the paper is organized well, if the language makes sense, and if the argument is valid. Don’t be scared to get out there!

Writing your next research paper doesn’t have to be misery. Sometimes the hardest part is just starting out, but I promise that if you follow your teacher’s advice, start early, and try some of these tips, you may actually write a paper that you can both enjoy and be proud of!