Getting StartedWriteHereWriteNowWriteOn

How to write a research paper without feeling overwhelmed

by Laura Tibbetts

  1. Find a topic that interests you. Even if professors assign an overall topic for the paper, the topic will often be broad enough for you to find some aspect of it that interests you.
  1. Get sources. Use the library, I-Share, and databases to collect as many sources as you need about your topic.
  1. Research! Skim or browse through all the sources you’ve found, taking note of information that strikes you as particularly relevant to your topic or that provides an interesting opinion/perspective. Be on the lookout for short passages where an author expresses an idea clearly and concisely, because those passages may be useful to quote later in your paper. This stage of the process would also be a good time to start a bibliography so that you can keep track of your sources.
  1. Formulate a thesis. Based on the research you’ve done and the different opinions you’ve found on your topic, come up with a specific and arguable thesis—one that shows what the focus of your paper will be and illustrates your opinion about a question/perspective on your topic that came up in your research. Your thesis can always evolve as you write your paper.
  1. Outline. Now that you have a specific topic and thesis, make a basic outline with an introduction, conclusion, and the main topics supporting your thesis that you want to cover in the body of your paper. Add a few supporting points under each main topic. After making the basic outline, expand it by adding details to all of your paragraphs in the outline, and include specific quotes, paraphrases, or summaries from what you’ve found in your research (don’t forget to cite your sources!). Sandwich the research in between your own thoughts and opinions about the research. (See “A quote sandwich to remember.”)
  1. Make the outline into full sentences. You essentially already have your paper—now you just need to turn all the phrases in your outline into full sentences. You may need to add transitions so that everything flows smoothly, as well as introductory and concluding sentences to each paragraph.
  1. Revise and edit. This is arguably the most important step in the process of writing a paper, so make sure you leave enough time for as much revising as possible. It doesn’t matter if your initial paper is terrible; as long as you devote enough effort to this stage, you could still end up with a great paper.

One of the benefits of this process is that if you follow it, you entirely avoid the problem of staring at a blank page and trying to create a paper out of thin air. Breaking up the process into steps has made writing research papers much less overwhelming for me, and I hope you find it useful as well!

Laura Tibbetts is a French and art major, and her favorite college academic experience so far has been studying abroad in France.

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