How to Write a Research Paper


Panther Creek Trail, Cohutta Wilderness, Georgia

I love hiking in the mountains. But hiking can be a true pain in the neck if my attitude isn’t right. Same thing with a research paper–it can be a beautiful journey, but if your attitude isn’t right, it can be a real drag. A good hike is the result of good planning. And a good experience writing a research paper is birthed from a good plan.

My students in History of Philosophy here at Southwestern are hard at work researching their paper topics, which are due at the end of the semester. Yesterday, I had a nice conversation with one of them–he’s writing on Plato’s and Aristotle’s respective conceptions of the Forms, doing a comparison/contrast from Plato’s Republic and Aristotle’s Metaphysics. So this post is written to my students who are HARD AT WORK (wink, wink), and anyone else engaged in a research project who is looking to make a plan.

The following isn’t the only plan one could make, but it works for me. Here goes:

1. Pick your topic.

What historical idea, event, or thinker has been of particular interest to you as you have proceeded through the course? When you can identify some broad concept that interests you, then come up with a question you would like to explore in your 10-12 page paper.

The question you ultimately frame will be the overarching issue of your paper. The answer to your question is your thesis statement.

You may not know the answer to your question at the beginning of your reading and research. The important thing at the beginning is to frame a question that you will seek to answer in the length of 10-12 pages. But once you begin the outlining process, you’ll want to know how you are going to answer your question.

You may think you know the answer to your question, but be open to adapting your thinking, or even changing your mind as you delve into your research.

2. Pull your sources.

Hit the library! You want to look for primary sources as well as secondary sources. The primary sources are necessary for you to get a first hand account of the issue you are exploring. The secondary sources provide you with a sense of how the conversation is proceeding among historians and philosophers about your issue. You will need to have enough primary sources to show that you are interacting with the historical figures themselves, and you will need to have enough secondary sources to show that you are up on the status of current research.

How many sources should you have for a 10-12 page paper? I get that question all the time. Think quality, not quantity. Your sources should be relevant, balanced between primary and secondary, and you should be engaging with all the sources you place in your bibliography. For this length of a paper, a good rule of thumb is 8-12 sources. But focus mainly on the kind of sources you are pulling, not so much on the number of sources you have included in your bibliography.

3. Read your sources.

Collect your sources into one place, and start reading through them. Take one source at a time. Start with the primary sources, and look at your secondary sources after you’ve worked your way through those primaries.

You are looking for material that is pertinent to the issue of your paper, that is, the question you raised at the beginning of the process. As you go through your sources, put little post-it markers on pages you will return to later. Those are good because they stick well on the pages but don’t do any damage to the pages when you remove them.

Read through your sources, marking them up with post-its, one at a time. When you’ve gone through all your sources, they should be loaded with post-it stickies.

4. Take notes on your sources.

Now that you have read through your sources, you will want to open up your word processor and compile notes from each of those sources. Go back through your stickies and write notes on the pertinent quotes and ideas from each source. I even copy sections from the sources verbatim into my notes–but I’m careful to keep my notes absolutely separate from any drafts that I write later.

5. Go through your notes and organize them by theme.

Once you’ve gone through all your sources, taken notes from each of them, go ahead and print off those notes. Leave room for yourself in the margins to take notes on your document.

Read through all your notes. As you are reading those notes, write little one to five word descriptions in the margins that encapsulate the ideas being expressed in each of your sources. Underline quotations that you might be able to use in your draft.

Go through your notes with a fine-toothed comb, and you will find yourself backing your key ideas for your paper into a corner.

6. Write a detailed outline of your paper.

Using your notes–and your notes of your notes–you are now ready to write your outline. Your outline will be divided into three sections: your introduction, your body, and your conclusion.

In your introduction, you are aiming to do three things: tell your audience what issue you are going to tackle, tell them what your conclusion is going to be, and tell them how you are going to explain your conclusion. So, the question you came up with at the beginning of the process is your issue. The answer to that question is your thesis statement. And your explanation of how you are going to explain/justify your answer is your methodology.

Each of these three aspects of an introduction are essential. You must address each of these aspects in the first paragraph of your paper.

Your body–the guts of the paper–will be divided into the reasons you have for arriving at your conclusion, your thesis. These reasons should be broad, and you are going to explain each reason in course of your paper’s body. You might have three reasons, or five–not much more than this in a 10-12 page paper. But in your body, locate three to five reasons why you are drawing the conclusion you stated in your thesis.

Your conclusion should be concise–you restate your issue and your thesis. You restate the reasons you came to your conclusion. And you can find a way to bring your paper to an end with a little rhetorical flourish–but keep it short and simple.

So, here is the basic structure of your outline:

I. Introduction

A. Issue: Question you are raising

B. Conclusion: Your thesis statement

C. Methodology: How you arrive at your conclusion (your reasons justifying your conclusion)

II. Reason One

A. Explanation

B. Explanation

C. Explanation

III. Reason Two

A. Explanation

B. Explanation

C. Explanation

III. Reason Three

A. Explanation

B. Explanation

C. Explanation

IV. Conclusion

A. Restate Issue

B. Restate Conclusion

C. Restate Methodology

Throughout the paper, you will need to be interacting with your primary and secondary sources. Number the pages of your notes document so you can quickly move around in your notes as you write the paper.

Writing the outline is the most important part of the process. If you have an organized, logical, and detailed outline, then writing your first draft is easy-peasy. But if your outline reflects fuzzy thinking, is not detailed enough, or is missing some key elements, your draft is going to look awful. Spend time on the outline, and make it right no matter how long it takes (within reason).

7. Write your first draft.

Now that you have a tightly organized, detailed, logical outline, you are ready to write your first draft! At this point, your ideas should be sufficiently developed and organized so that your writing of your draft is as natural as can be. You just follow the yellow-brick road you have laid down in your outline.

Use your sources to support your observations, your insights, and your ideas. Don’t let your sources carry your water for you. When you reference your sources, those references should never stand alone. You should always use them to support your own thoughts and ideas.

Writing the first draft is the fun part. The hard work of reading, research, organization, and framing the intellectual structure of the paper is all done. Writing the draft is like bringing the furniture into the new house. Be creative and have fun.

8. Edit/rewrite.

Go back through your first draft and eliminate form, grammar, spelling, punctuation errors. Clean up fuzzy and illogical thinking. Tidy up sloppy prose. Break up run-on sentences. Make sure you’ve cited all your sources properly (Turabian form, 8th edition as of this writing).

Get someone to read your draft for you–someone who will be honest with you, but someone who has your best interests at heart.

Does your paper address the issue you stated at the beginning?

Does your thesis answer the issue you stated at the beginning?

Do your reasons and explanations flow logically to the thesis? In other words, do your reasons follow one from the next to the next, all the way to the thesis?

Are you interacting with the pertinent primary sources?

Are you also engaging the secondary sources? Are you secondary sources up to date? Are they reputable and respected in the field?

Are you expressing your own voice in your paper, or is your paper just a litany of who-said-what? Do your sources support your conclusion, or are you letting your sources speak for you? Make sure your voice is distinguishable from those of your sources.

Is your prose clean and clear? Are you using active voice? Are you avoiding logical and historical fallacies?

A research project is like putting the pieces together in a puzzle. It’s also like building something from the ground up. And it’s like cooking a dish from scratch. It’s fun, intellectually engaging, and deeply fulfilling. I hope you enjoy the journey. As you read, research, and write, remember to stop and smell the roses and make memories for yourself as you proceed down the path.


2 responses to “How to Write a Research Paper

  1. Great post on how to write a research paper. Valuable reminder for any student, freshman or senior, writing a research paper.

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