Co-authored by Renae Hintze
It’s a beautiful sunny day, you had a big delicious breakfast, and you show up bright-eyed and bushy-tailed for your first class of the day. Just as you’re getting comfortable in your chair, your teacher hits you with it:
A 5-page, size 12 font research paper… due in 2 weeks.
The sky goes black, your breakfast turns to a brick in your stomach. A research paper? FIVE pages long? Why???
Maybe I’m being a little over-dramatic here. But not all of us are born gifted writers. In fact, I think it’s safe to say that most of us struggle a little or a lot with writing a research paper.
But fear not!! I can help you through it. If you follow these 11 steps I promise you will write a better essay, faster.
1. Start early
We all do it. We wait until the LAST day to start an assignment, and then something goes wrong at the LAST minute, and Woops! We get a bad grade.
ALWAYS start your essays early. This is what I recommend. Especially since writing a research paper requires more effort than a regular paper might.
I have a 3-week timeline you can follow when writing a research paper. YES, 3 weeks!! It may sound like waaay too early to start, but it gives you enough time to:
- Outline and write your paper
- Check for errors
- Get pointers from your teacher on what to improve
All of this = a better grade on your assignment. You’re already going through all the effort — why not be positive that you’ll get the best results??
2. Read the Guidelines
Ever taken a shirt out of the dryer to find it has shrunk 10 sizes too small?
It’s because the shirt probably wasn’t meant to go in the dryer, and if you had read the tag, you’d have saved yourself one whole article of clothing!
Before you even START on writing a research paper, READ THE GUIDELINES.
- What is your teacher looking for in your essay?
- Are there any specific things you need to include?
This way, you don’t have to finish your essay only to find that it needs to be re-done!
3. Brainstorm research paper topics
Sometimes we’re assigned essays where we know exactly what we want to write about before we start.
Write an essay on my favorite place to travel?? I know where I’M going to choose!
But there are probably more times where we DON’T know exactly what we want to write about, and we may even experience writer’s block.
To overcome that writer’s block, or simply avoid it happening in the first place, we can use a skill called mind-mapping (or brainstorming) to come up with a topic that is relevant and that we’re interested in writing about!
Here’s an example of a mind-map I just did for Influential People!
By writing whatever came to my mind and connecting those thoughts, I was able to come up with quite a few influential people to write about — I could come up with EVEN MORE if I kept writing!!
See here I can choose to write about Hillary Clinton and how she may have an influence on women and women’s rights in society.
Following this method, you can determine your own research paper topics to write about in a way that’s quick and painless.
4. Write out your questions
To get the BEST research, you have to ask questions. Questions on questions on questions. The idea is that you get to the root of whatever you are talking about so you can write a quality essay on it.
Let’s say you have the question: “How do I write a research paper?”
Can you answer this without more information?
Not so easy, right? That’s because when you “write a research paper”, you do a lot of smaller things that ADD UP to “writing a research paper”.
Break your questions down. Ask until you can’t ask anymore, or until it’s no longer relevant to your topic. This is how you can achieve quality research.
5. Do the research
It IS a research paper, after all. But you don’t want to just type all your questions into Google and pick the first source you see. Not every piece of information on the internet is true, or accurate.
Here’s a way you can easily check your sources for credibility: Look for the who, what, and when.
- Who is the author of the source?
- What are they known for?
- Do they have a background in the subject they wrote about?
- Does the author reference other sources?
- Are those sources credible too?
- What does the “Main” or “Home” page of a website look like?
- Is it professional looking?
- Is there an organization sponsoring the information, and do they seem legitimate
- Do they specialize in the subject?
- When was the source generated — today, last week, a month, a year ago?
- Has there been new or additional information provided since this information was published?
Double-check all your sources this way. Because this is a research paper, your writing is meaningless without other sources to back it up.
Keep track of your credible sources!
When you find useful information from a credible source, DON’T LET IT GO. You need to save the original place you found that information from so that you can cite it in your essay, and later on in the bibliography.
You don’t want to have to go back later and dig up the information a second time just to list the source you got it from!
To help with this, you may be familiar with the option to “Bookmark” your pages online — do this for online sources.
There IS another tool you can use to keep track of your sources. It’s called Diigo, and it’s what we use at Student-Tutor to build an online database of valuable educational resources!
You can create a Diigo account and one free group for your links. Check out this video on how to use Diigo to save all your sources in one convenient location.
Now, of course there are other ways besides the Internet to get information, and there’s nothing wrong with cracking open a well-written book to enrich your essay’s content!
Ways to get information when writing a research paper
- The Internet
6. Create a Thesis Statement
How to write a thesis statement is something that a lot of people overlook. That’s a mistake.
The thesis statement is part of your research paper outline but deserves its own step. That’s because the thesis statement is SUPER important! It is what sets the stage for the entire essay.
How do you write a thesis statement?
Here’s a color-coded example:
7. Create an outline
Once you have constructed your thesis, the rest of the outline is pretty simple. It should mimic the structure of your thesis!
Here’s a color-coded research paper outline you can follow:
8. Write your research paper
Here it is — the dreaded writing. But see how far we’ve already come?
We already know what we’re going to write about, and where we’re going to write it. That’s a lot easier than taking a pen straight to your paper and hoping for some magical, monk-like inspiration to come, am I right?
As you write, be sure to pin-point the places where you are inserting sources. I’ll talk about in-text citations in just a moment!
Here are some basic tips for writing your essay from International Student:
- Generally, don’t use “I/My” unless it’s a personal narrative
- Use specific examples to support your statements
- Vary your language — don’t use the same adjective 5 times in a row
9. Cite your sources
This goes along with the second step — make sure to check your essay guidelines and find out BEFOREHAND what kind of citation style your teacher wants you to use.
Like I promised earlier, Purdue University has a great article that provides instructions on and examples on how to cite different types of sources WITHIN your text. Reference this when you’re not sure what to do.
As a general rule of thumb, in-text citations usually go AFTER the sentence drawing from the source, but BEFORE the period of that sentence, in parentheses. If more than one sentence is referencing the same source, try to place it at the last of those sentences.
However, no matter what you cite INSIDE your writing, all the sources you use for the paper need to be included in your bibliography.
This goes on a separate page, after your main essay and may be titled “Works Cited” or “Bibliography”. (Make sure to check the guidelines, and ask your teacher!)
For this, I’m going to introduce you to an awesome, totally free citation tool called EasyBib.
Important Tip: Make sure that when you use EasyBib, you are filling in a template provided by EasyBib and NOT asking EasyBib to pull information directly from the source. EasyBib can’t always find information that is there, and your citation will be incomplete without it!
By selecting “Manual Cite”, EasyBib will provide you with a template for filling in the necessary information to create your citation.
You can then ask EasyBib to generate the source in the citation format you’ve selected. Copy and paste that source into your bibliography — easy!
10. Read your essay
Why do I need to read my essay if I wrote it?
You’d be surprised what you’ll catch the second, third, and bazillionth time around reading your own writing! Not that you have to read THIS a bazillion times… just once or twice over will do.
I recommend that you read your essay once-through, and the second time read it aloud. Reading your essay aloud reinforces your words and makes it easier to recognize when something is phrased strangely, or if you are using a word too often.
11. Have someone else read your essay
Lastly it is always important that someone else besides you read your essay before you submit it.
Find a professional who can give you constructive feedback on how to improve your essay — this may be a tutor or a teacher. It can also be someone who specializes in the subject you are writing about.
The absolute BEST person to review your essay would be the teacher that assigned it to you.
And yes, many teachers WILL read the essay they assigned before it is due and give you pointers on how to make it better. They want you to succeed and they’re the ones grading it — I think it’s safe to say they know what they’re talking about!
For most of us, writing a research paper is no walk in the park. Unfortunately, it’s important that you know how to do it!
Let’s review the steps to make this process as PAINLESS as possible:
- Start early — 3 weeks in advance!
- Read the guidelines
- Mind map/Brainstorm research paper topics
- Write out your questions
- Do the research (Remember to keep track of your sources!)
- Create a Thesis Statement
- Create an outline
- Write your essay
- Cite your sources (In-text and in your bibliography)
- Read your essay (twice and once aloud!)
- Have someone ELSE read your essay — try your teacher first.
Do you have experience writing a research paper? What process did you use, and was it effective? Tell us about it in the comments below!
Hello! My name is Todd. I help students eliminate academic stress, boost confidence, and reach their wildest dreams through college tips and digital age knowledge they are not teaching in school. I am a former tutor for seven years, $85,000 scholarship recipient, Huffington Post contributor, lead SAT & ACT course developer, and have worked with thousands of students and parents to ensure a brighter future for the next generation. Currently, I am traveling across America delivering presentations, rock climbing, adventuring, and helping inspire the leaders of tomorrow. Let's become friends! Follow my journey via my YouTube Vlog for inspirational value added tips!
Whether you’re a seasoned writer, an emerging scholar or a student just learning the ropes, writing an essay (or a review, journal article, or book chapter, or anything for that matter) can be - depending on the day - either an absolute pleasure or an exercise in complete and utter frustration. Rather than banging your head against your keyboard or incessantly cleaning your apartment, we’ve developed a series of steps that may help get you (or your students, or your roommate) through the research and writing blues.
Regardless of your area of study, there are a number of key things that make an essay solid from introduction to conclusion. These guidelines were compiled by us after teaching various topics in women’s studies, facilitating writing workshops at Concordia University’s Simone de Beauvoir Institute, and struggling with our own writing time after time. They include the criteria that we use for evaluating student work and which we use ourselves when writer’s block inevitably hits. Some topics covered herein will be more useful to some than others, but all combined should help you or your students get the grade. Again, these are just the basics to help lay the foundation - feel free to use your own style to dot the “i”s and cross the “t”s. After all, it is your paper, and your style should shine through.
The 12-Step Program
1. Read the assignment (or call for papers or submission guidelines). Read it again.
Do you know what is expected of you? Did your professor ask you to use course readings? Outside sources? Primary data collection? Should the paper comply with a particular style? Don’t be afraid to ask questions. Be sure.
2. Think about possible themes.
For example: If you are required to write a paper for a course on “Women and Health,” there are an innumerable number of themes to choose from. Breast cancer, AIDS/HIV, substance abuse, nutrition, eating disorders - how do you decide? The best course of action is to select a theme that genuinely interests you. There’s nothing worse than having your interest wane when there’s still 10 pages left to write!
3. Think about possible paper topics.
Say you choose to write on “Issues Facing Young Women with HIV in Canada.” What made you come to this decision? What have you read that made you want to investigate further? Was it personal experience? Do you know a young woman with HIV? Do you volunteer at an AIDS organization? Did you find and read an old Cosmo article that made you question media reporting on HIV/AIDS or STIs? Have you often thought that sex workers have been unfairly targeted as harbingers of disease?
Other questions to think about at this stage: Do you have a reasonable grounding in the topic, or will you be starting from scratch? Is there enough information available to adequately cover the issue(s)? Make sure it’s doable within the time frame you have for completion.
4. Start your preliminary research.
Remember: CONTEXT IS CRUCIAL. Your paper will not work if you make generalizations about a phenomenon in Canada using resources from the United States. [Note: if you are comparing and contrasting, this is an altogether different story. Make this clear to yourself, and ensure that the sources you select for one region are on par with the other, to make your assessment sound.] Also important to the preliminary research stage is keeping your discipline in mind. For instance, if you’re writing for a feminist theory course, ensure that a good number of your sources are feminist, are indebted to feminism, or are grappling with feminist discourses. Or if you’re writing a historical analysis, ensure that the texts you use deal with a time period appropriate for your work.
a) Does your faculty or department have a resource centre or reading room? If so, it should be your first destination. Quite often, departmental collections have precisely what you’re looking for, the materials will all be relevant to your discipline, and their staff is extremely knowledgeable and helpful. It could be one-stop shopping!
b) Search the library’s database (either online or at a computer in the building). Get a good idea of what kinds of materials are available to you, how up to date they are, and note where they are located. Don’t just search for books; periodicals are especially useful, and could provide you with a gem of an article your paper will appreciate.
c) Find out who the reference librarian for your discipline is at the University’s main library. Reference librarians are remarkable people, and know the ins and outs of the stacks like no one else. Once you’ve got a pretty good idea of what your research question will be, make an appointment and start asking pertinent questions to help you get the most relevant resources for your paper.
d) Having a list of potentially useful texts is only the beginning; going to the library and seeing what’s within the spines will give you a better idea of what you have to work with. Instead of loading up your backpack with potentials, pull up a stepladder and leaf through them; only checking out (or photocopying) what you think will be valuable to your work.
e) Search the Internet. Many online journals (like thirdspace) are scholarly in nature and peer-reviewed, and are valuable locations for current studies.
Warning: googling your topic (looking it up on Google) is NOT a good idea - chances are you’ll end up with hundreds of thousands of pages of irrelevant material that’ll keep you occupied for hours while your deadline rapidly approaches. Editor’s note: Google now has a beta version of Google Scholar (http://scholar.google.com/) that is designed to bring up scholarly resources. Give it a try, but note there still will be tons of resources to plow through (and their search engine’s not perfected yet). Better yet, try out a site like Feminist Collections: A Quarterly Of Women's Studies Resources
f) Read, making notes of relevant concepts, ideas, and quotations (with page numbers for easy reference!). Some people use index cards - to allow for easy sorting - while others prefer using a word processor for longer lists.
The research stage is probably the most important one. Doing thorough research (or not) can make or break a paper, and make the writing process itself that much easier. Having too much information is far better than too little!
5. Return to your chosen topic, and create an Outline.
Now that you�ve got a handle on what kind of literature surrounds your area of inquiry, return to your chosen topic. Has it changed? Should it change? Is it too narrowly focused? Or is it too large for the parameters of your assignment? If there�s just not enough adequate information available, you�ll have to switch (perhaps from �Issues Facing Young Women with HIV in Canada� to �A Comparison of Issues Facing Young Women with HIV in Canada and the US�) or rethink your approach altogether.
For example: Say you�ve done your reading, and based on what you�ve read and found you�ve discovered that a) sex workers do not necessarily have higher rates of HIV than non-sex working women; b) there is a stigma facing sex workers that often influences how the media portrays them; and c) actually, many sex workers are actually more like sex educators when it comes to condom use; d) and so on. Depending on the length requirements of your assignment, this may be more than enough. If it�s a longer research paper you�ve set out to complete, you�ll have to find more.
Once you�ve got a good collection of materials and ideas, it�s time to make an outline. While it may sound like a lame exercise, it is remarkably valuable in terms of getting your notes and thoughts organized and into some semblance of a cohesive paper. Keeping an outline handy (taped to the side of your monitor helps!) will keep you on track and prevent you from straying from the topic at hand.
Click here to download an Essay Outline Template (PDF).
Having multiple copies on-hand is a good idea - that way, if your essay shifts mid way (or if you catch yourself going off on a tangent) you can alter your outline and keep your focus instead of panicking about going too far off course.
Now you’re ready to write!
6. (Optional) Write a preface.
Not everyone does this, but it is often a fun, creative, and playful way to get started on your essay. It can take the form of a fabulous quote you found while researching, song lyrics that you feel encapsulate perfectly the tone you’ll be setting in the paper, an anecdote, or a more personal take on how you came to this paper topic in the first place (it’s also a good reminder to yourself). It can also work to seduce your reader into wanting to read on. Why did you choose this topic? What does it make you think about? The preface is usually a couple of paragraphs of loose writing that can be written in non-academic language.
So I’m walking down Ste-Catherine street or St-Laurent boulevard, and I see a sex worker leaning against Burger King. Cool skirt, I think, and keep on walking. Then for some reason I think of AIDS. Sex work. AIDS. Sex work. AIDS. I can’t get the connection out of my mind. Maybe that’s because I’ve been less than safe during my last few after-bar encounters. Or maybe it’s because I’ve been reading so much about the connection in the media. Anyway, I wonder: is this woman at more risk of getting AIDS than me?
A few things to keep in mind:
- Choose your preface according to your reader. One professor may find your account of a drunken one-night stand (true or not) enticing (or at the very least amusing); another may not.
- Your preface does not count in terms of your overall word count - it is extraneous to the essay itself.
7. Introduction and Thesis Statement.
While an introduction is self-explanatory (it is a preamble on the subject of your essay), a thesis statement is somewhat more elusive. In short, a thesis statement is a sentence (or a couple of sentences) that clearly and concisely indicates the main points you will discuss, and the order in which you will discuss them. It should include what you’ll prove, your argument, the scope, the main idea(s), and the purpose of the paper. You should give the “punchline” away in the beginning - your reader doesn’t want to wait until your conclusion to find out what your paper is actually about.
The best way to think about your Introduction and Thesis Statement (arguably the foundation of your paper, as this is what tells your reader what they’re getting in to) is to ask yourself two simple questions: “What?” and “So What?”
This paper revolves around media representations of sex workers in North America. Drawing on recent statistical data, I will show that sex workers in Canada and the United States have relatively low rates of HIV infection. In turn, I will suggest that one of the reasons that North American media coverage of sex workers is skewed revolves around the stigma associated with sex workers. As I engage in a brief review of recent sex-radical feminist literature, I will demonstrate how this stigma cannot be disassociated from erroneous assumptions that all sex workers are helpless victims of pimps and poverty, as well as drug addiction, and are thus always at risk. Moreover, I will posit that this stigma is also linked to the good girl/bad girl binary which works to regulate female sexuality and separate women into divisive spheres. In sum, I will suggest that all women - regardless of their occupation or perceived place on the good girl/bad girl spectrum - can become infected with HIV if they engage in unsafe sex.
Note: This is a fluid step. As your essay progresses, you will rewrite it and rewrite it and rewrite it again.
8. Paragraph Structure.
This is a tricky skill to master, and your own style will inevitably affect the way in which you make your arguments and elaborate upon your position. However, if you do get stuck, here’s a surefire way of getting your point across:
- State the purpose of your paragraph or point;
- Elaborate in your own words;
- Provide a quote or example;
- Comment (Note: never leave a quotation, especially a block quote, hanging alone).
In contemporary society, girls tend to be divided according to the good girl/bad girl binary. Good girls dress appropriately, speak sweetly, and do not engage in sex outside of long-term romantic relationships. On the other hand, girls who enjoy many partners, who speak boldly about their exploits and appear comfortable in their sexuality are often, unfortunately, labeled “bad.” Kim Nicolini explains that this binary works to keep women in separate antagonistic spheres:
nice girls need the slut to affirm their own purity and righteousness, to secure their place in the good girl community. If they call me a slut: it means they cannot be one.
In short, the good girl bad girl binary is a patriarchal construct internalized by women who often use it against one another.
In many ways, each point that you make within the body of an essay is a mini-essay in itself. Keep reminding yourself of the “What?”/”So What?” of each step, and your paper will not only retain its focus and organization, it’ll be strongly argued throughout.
Put simply, your conclusion restates your introduction in summation. It may seem redundant, but your reader actually does want a reminder once they get to the end of your work. Say what you’ve done, and avoid introducing new ideas (unless you are pointing to areas for future exploration). A conclusion is also the space for critiquing the concepts utilized in your essay, or acknowledging limitations of your particular study.
10. (Optional) Write a Postscript.
The postscript is a loose paragraph or two - related to your preface and to the body of writing you’ve just produced. What are your personal parting thoughts on the ideas you have just explored? What have you learned along the way? A postscript is a nice way of ‘bookending’ your work and creating a clean, complete package for submission.
11. Return to your Introduction. Possibly (probably) rewrite.
This is also a very important step. Make sure that your introduction and your conclusion match: make sure your intro says what it is you actually did, and make sure that what you did is stated in your intro.
12. Edit, edit, and edit again.
Use your spell checker (but don’t rely on Microsoft to catch all of your errors!). Read it aloud (if it doesn’t make sense to you, it won’t make sense to your reader). Get a friend or a colleague (or a person on the bus) to read it - if you’re doing feminist work, this could serve a dual purpose as both an editing job and a political act!
Pet Peeves and Best Advice
Big words - Unless you’re absolutely, positively, unequivocally sure of the word’s definition, opt for simple, clear language.
Cites/sights/sites or their/there/they’re - Microsoft cannot tell the difference between homonyms. Don’t rely solely on your spell checker!
It’s = it is
A lot is two words.
Papers that obviously weren’t re-read before submitted.
If a paragraph isn’t working, move on to the next one. Chances are you’ll come back to it and it’ll be okay, or you’ll decide to eliminate it.
If you find yourself really stuck, take a break. More often than not, a brisk walk or a half-hour sitcom can do more for your writing prowess than hours drinking coffee and staring at the screen can do.
Don’t get too stressed! You’re not the only one doing this assignment, and you’re certainly not the only person to ever write an essay and have a tough time of it. Talk to your peers and your professors. Give draft versions of it to others to read if you’re super-duper-anxious.
Give yourself time to edit!
Click here to download a Checklist for Essay Writing (PDF).
Don’t get discouraged! Essay writing is a skill that is learned slowly, after a lot of time and a lot of practice. Once you’ve mastered the basics, you can move on to bending the rules!
1If you’re looking for some excellent tips on “getting published,” see Jenéa Tallentire's “thirdspace Guide to Getting Published”[http://www.thirdspace.ca/journal/article/view/resources_get-published/119]. back
2 A good rule is to avoid personal homepages (i.e. geocities, tripod) like the plague for your academic research, as their claims are unsubstantiated and do not abide by a legitimation or review process. If the website you’re viewing is peer-reviewed, it should also provide you with a bibliographic citation for each article (see note 1, above). Also, sites with domains ending in .edu or .org are generally safe as well, and some (like www.statscan.ca) can provide you with the most up-to-date statistics available. back
3Kim Nicolini, “Staging the Slut: Hyper-Sexuality in Performance”Bad Subjects 20 (April 1995): 26 pars. (web), 5 pp. (print). [http://eserver.org/bs/20/Nicolini.html]. back