Writing a research paper can be incredibly challenging, time-consuming, and absolutely frustrating. I know every student likes to believe that they can write papers and do assignments overnight, but believe me, speaking from personal experience you cannot write a research paper overnight (unless you want to fail of course).
A research paper is a piece of academic writing that provides analysis, interpretation, and argument based on in-depth independent research. The keyword here is “in-depth research”. There are a lot of hours that you have to dedicate to reading research papers, journal articles, and other academic sources to gather enough information and knowledge about the topic that you are writing about.
The main thing that a research paper assesses is not your writing skills, but your skills and scholarly research. You are expected to demonstrate a strong knowledge of your topic, engage with a variety of sources, and make an original contribution to the debate. The things you learn from writing research papers are skills for almost any job in the hard or soft sciences, history, law, medicine, mathematics, and more. Honing your craft now will make life a lot easier in the future.
Choose a Topic
Choosing a research topic can be difficult depending on what level of education you are currently in. If you are an undergraduate it will be a lot easier as 9 out of 10 times your professor will give you a list of topics to choose from if he doesn’t just outright give you a topic to write about. If a professor gives you a list of topics, and not anything specific, from here on, you will need to narrow down the topic of your choice.
Research papers deal with niches. You can’t write about everything there is to know on a single topic, so you really have to narrow down your search to one specific thing. Some helpful tips are to narrow it down to demographics (age, gender, nationality), specific treatments, controversy, specific methodology, or a specific interpretation/viewpoint.
The best tip I can offer is to pick something that you are interested in or something you can easily engage with. This is very important because you will spend weeks if not months researching and writing about your topic. If you’re interested in what you’ve chosen, it might make it a little bit easier because you will be excited to uncover specific information about your niche.
You can still write a successful research paper on a topic that you are not interested in, however, that will mean that you have to endure many hours on an excruciatingly dull topic that you’re not interested in.
Now that you have chosen your topic, it is time to begin your broad research. Huge disclaimer! At a university level, you have to use academic sources for all your research. This most commonly includes journal articles, books, archives, government documents, etc. Things like websites, blogs, online magazines/newspapers, and Wikipedia, are not considered academic sources.
When professors see a non-academic source listed in your reference section, they disregard it, as it is not considered evidence-based research. This step is pretty flexible; different people will research for a paper in different ways. However, it’s important to stay focused and move pretty quickly. After all, you still have to write your research paper.
Narrow Down Your Research
Once you have familiarized yourself with the broad topic of your choice, you have to narrow it down. The kinds of thesis statements university professors are looking for are those that demonstrate critical thinking skills, an in-depth knowledge/understanding of your topic, and if you can back up your claims with evidence-based research. These are among the most lucrative skills to have in academia.
When you are beginning the research on your specific, narrow topic, you are expected to cite at least 20 sources at a freshmen level. This is why I warned you earlier that you should choose something you are interested in because there is a lot of reading. While you are only citing between 20 and 30 sources, you have to go through dozens more to be familiar enough with the topic that you can intelligently write about it without having to paraphrase everything you read in the cited sources.
A good rule of thumb is to do double the amount of research, because you will not be using every single source in your essay, giving you enough wiggle room to only use your best and most informative sources. As always, you have to keep using academic sources throughout. When you are reading a journal article or any academic source do not forget to record what page number you are taking information from, as well as citing the entire source.
This is the part where students tend to lose the most points. You always have to cite where you got your information from. As you are going through your research, and I mentioned this before, you have to keep track of the citation of each source as well as the page numbers that you will be referencing in your essay. If you do not cite a source correctly, it is automatically read as plagiarism and you will get an F on your paper.
Copy and pasting something in your paper and rewording it a bit may have worked in high school, but at a university level, this is not taken lightly. You can’t just copy and paste something and expect it to be good, you really have to dig deep and re-interpret what you’ve read while still staying on topic and not giving any false information. You still have to cite wherever you got that information from even if you have now made it your own.
Citing sources is not taken lightly at a university level, there are plenty of highly intelligent computer software systems that professors use to make sure that everything is cited correctly. If you miss a citation, that is considered academic dishonesty and you will receive an F on your paper. If this continues to happen there’s a real possibility that you will be expelled for plagiarism. This is why I keep emphasizing that citation is very very important.
Writing The Research Paper
Each person has their own unique writing style, so there isn’t one thing I can say that will help every person out there. Some of the helpful tips that I have learned is to always create an outline, organize your research, write a draft, and rewrite it. Working with a system that is organized and clear will help you in the long run.
Another tip I can give about writing a good research paper is to use academic tone and language throughout. It may sound obvious, but a lot of students tend to lapse into a narrative when they’re passionate about the topic they have chosen, make sure to pay attention that everything you write is fully evidence-based research and not your opinion or ideas about the topic.
Lastly, a major critical error that a lot of students make is that they start with a research question, but never actually get around to answering it. Stay on topic! Always answer your research question, that is the only purpose of your paper. Stay on track and stick to the point. This is where your outlines and organization skills will really come in handy.