Writing a research paper can be a pain. It’s not fun to find yourself staring at your computer the night before your paper is due, wondering why you waited until the last minute. Or maybe you’ve just started your paper, only to find yourself completely overwhelmed by the task at hand.
Don’t worry! Whenever you have a research paper, you can follow this seven-step process to help make writing a breeze:
Step 1: Ensure You Understand the Assignment
This first step may seem silly, but truly take the time to not only understand what the assignment is, but also why your professor is assigning it. By understanding the assignment’s context in terms of your class, you’ll have an idea of what you’ll need to address.
Step 2: Make a Schedule
Let’s be honest: a lot of people make schedules and never follow them. Ideally, a research paper involves writing a little everyday to avoid having to write the entire paper the night before it’s due.
In reality, procrastination is everyone’s enemy, and it’s all too common to pull an all-nighter to write a paper that was assigned weeks ago.
That said, here’s still what’s great about making a schedule: even if you don’t follow it, you at least know how much time you’ll need to write your paper. So if you miss a day of writing, you know that it’ll transfer over to the next day.
For example, let’s say you decide to spend 30 minutes a day working on your paper. If you miss a day, you know that 30 minutes will transfer to the next day. By knowing how much time will roll over, you can determine if it’s worth it to alter your schedule. Are you better off doing an hour tomorrow vs. splitting the hour between two days? The answer depends on what’s happening in your life, but by having a schedule, you can at least make an informed decision on how to spend your time.
Step 3: Gather Your Sources
To write a successful research paper, you’ll need to have a diversity of sources. Gather every piece of writing that could potentially be relevant to your paper. This can include assigned readings, lecture slides, and discussion notes.
This is also the step where you should start creating citations, whether that be in MLA format, APA, Harvard referencing, or whatever style your instructor has chosen. Doing it now means that you won’t accidentally miss citing a source, and you won’t have to worry about doing citations at the end of your paper when your brain is fried.
Once you have potential sources, it’s helpful to organize them by whatever categories are relevant to you. You may organize them by perspectives, ideas, schools of thought, etc. A simple technique is to write each source on a notecard. Then, visually organize the notecards on your desk so you can see how they all connect.
Step 4: Brainstorm
Now that you have your sources, you can start to brainstorm what you want to address in your research paper. Peruse your sources and determine your thesis statement. Once you have your thesis statement, your brainstorming can be more focused. Figure out what concepts, arguments, and sources will be relevant in supporting your thesis.
One helpful strategy during the brainstorming process it to make a mind map. A mind map allows you to see how ideas are interconnected. To get started, write your thesis in the middle of a piece of paper and circle it. Then write other ideas that come to mind around your thesis, and connect them as needed by drawing a line between your thesis and ideas. By the end, you’ll have a web of thoughts.
Step 5: Outline
Next, it’s time to organize! Start by determining how many paragraphs you’ll write. From there, identify how you want your ideas to flow. When you know the big picture, thoroughly outline what each paragraph will look like. Start by determining the paragraph’s main idea, what sources you’ll cite, and your commentary. By the time you finish your outline, you’ll basically have written your entire paper. Ideally, this step should take the longest, but the next step is actually one of the shortest!
Step 6: Write
Because your outline is so thorough, this step should be easy. You’ll essentially reformat and add to your outline. Use this step to ensure ideas smoothly connect and add additional thoughts as they come to you.
Bonus: Don’t forget to add an in-text citation to any information you got from or are quoting from a resource.
Step 7: Edit & Submit
After you finish your first draft, take some time off. This will give your brain time to relax. Once you feel refreshed, take another pass at your paper. Do this however many times you need.
Don’t forget to format your paper as well! Make sure that you know which style your instructor assigned. For example, an APA paper is formatted a little differently from Chicago style format and others.
When you feel confident, go ahead and submit your research paper!
Bonus Step: Attend Lecture and Discussion
Writing a research paper without context is challenging. If you don’t regularly go to class, you won’t understand why your professor is assigning a research paper. It’ll feel like your writing assignment came from a black hole. If, however, you regularly attend lectures and discussions, you’ll know why your professor wants you to write on a particular topic. Additionally, you’ll get a sense of what areas he or she wants you to address, which makes writing that much easier. So be a good student and go to class. 😉