Ace Your Research Paper

How to Write a Research Paper

By Irene Starygina

Everyone dreads writer’s block at crunch time, especially when you have no idea how to start that final 15-page assignment.  All your attempts at an eloquent and catchy first paragraph amount to the same annoying sentence. While you can always get away with throwing together a two-pager an hour before class starts, it’s probably best not to test your deadline-writing skills when that mammoth project is due. So if you’re not down with hibernating in the library for a whole weekend, but shiver at the thought of daily time budgeting, consider the following tips that can cut your writing time by half.

Develop a solid thesis statement before you start.

Look at a research project as an opportunity to voice your opinion without blatantly saying “I think.” But when you get an assignment, don’t immediately start writing. Instead, take a few days to think of a clear thesis—this is one sentence that focuses on a single main idea and argues a point.  You’ve probably heard this a million times since the fifth grade, but it’s simply a lot easier to write about orca whales than to tackle the whole whale community. The narrower and more precise your thesis is, the less work you will have in the end. Of course, you may have to spend a few extra hours digging up sources—but it’s worth it.  Here’s a good example of a broad and unclear thesis statement, according to

The North and South fought the Civil War for many reasons, some of which were the same and some different.

Here’s the same thesis statement, stronger and more specific:

While both Northerners and Southerners believed they fought against tyranny and oppression, Northerners focused on the oppression of slaves while Southerners defended their own right to self-government.

Again, there’s no need to start writing the paper as soon as you get the assignment. However, if you value your nerves you need to head to the library ASAP. You don’t want to be the person frantically flipping through the online card catalog (and if your school has the manual system, don’t even touch it) only to find out that your ten best sources are already checked out. For English and writing classes, you can often find full texts and summaries on SparkNotes—but the website doesn’t give the publisher’s information you’ll need for a bibliography. And sometimes professors like to see the actual sources, to make sure you’re not making them up. So do yourself a favor and get first dibs—you’ll be glad you did.

Use electronic research resources.

Your college most likely has a subscription to article and journal databases like Lexis Nexis for researching articles, academic journals and court cases. You’ll probably have to log in through your college library’s website. (A librarian can give you a login and password if you need them.) You should never shy away from asking librarians to help you find something.  After all, their job is to help lost students like yourself.

Turn off Gmail Chat (and all other instant messages)!

If you’re addicted to chatting, chances are you probably already spend twice as long on your work. Sure, it’s tempting to keep your IMs open just to see if your crush will message you first, but they’re simply a concentration killer. Be honest with yourself. If you know that you’re prone to distraction, turn chat off for a while. Borrow a friend’s computer that doesn’t have your chat program of choice. Some college computer labs block websites like AIM express, and have a time limit on how long you can occupy a computer, which will force you to work faster. Take advantage of these.

Make an outline—but only if you think it’ll be helpful.

There’s no question that outlines can save you time, but be careful not to fall into the trap of only covering the bare minimum. If you’re the type of person who constantly thinks of new ideas as you write, keeping a notepad by your side through the entire process could be a better aid than a rigid outline. You can also write different sections of your paper in random order, and figure out how to arrange them later.

Use a thesaurus.

Using the same adjectives over and over in a short paper is a sure way to piss off a nitpicky professor. If you’ve stared at your computer for hours and exhausted all of a word’s variations, try out, which gives you a lot more options than Microsoft Word’s thesaurus feature. You can also click on every synonym to get more ideas.

Who’s got time for the AP Stylebook?

If you’re on deadline and not sure if a particular phrase sounds grammatically correct, go to The New York Times’ web site and enter that phrase, surrounded by quotation marks, into the search box at the top of the page. For example, if the phrase “unseasonable weather” sounds weird to you, do a Times search. In this case, the search returns a number of recent articles that use the phrase “unseasonable weather.” Anything that appears in the last two years can be considered recent and acceptable for use in your paper. And if your professor has a problem with it, just show him a printout of the page!

Use proper citation.

There’s nothing more annoying than getting a B- on a great paper because of your bibliography’s incorrect format. We all miss the days when we only had to cite three books and the teacher gave us a handout about proper citation format. Now you have to use a plethora of sources, and the citation format is totally different for fiction sources, non-fiction sources, magazine articles, newspaper articles, academic journals, web sites, primary sources, secondary sources, and so on. If the length of that sentence annoyed you, then flipping through a thick style guidebook may not be for you.  The most common styles are MLA, Chicago, and APA. Make sure you ask your professor which one to use.

Write a kickass conclusion.

The paper’s conclusion will be the section that stands out in the reader’s mind, so don’t leave it for the last minute. Essentially it should re-state the introduction, elaborating a little more on some of its points. By the time you’re ready to write your conclusion, you’ll know a great deal more about the topic and will hopefully have more confidence in your thesis. It’s helpful to take a look back at this point—go over your opening paragraph and thesis statement to make sure they support the body of the paper, and vice versa. 

Finally, proofread on a clear head.

Never rely on Microsoft Word’s suggestions. If you wrote your paper at night, look it over in the morning and let a friend skim it. Get rid of all the redundant words and sentences. Professors won’t care that you’re 50 words short if you present and support your ideas without extra padding. Keep an eye out for contractions and slang. If a sentence goes on for more than two lines, it’s probably a run-on. 

P.S.  Putting the paper in a fancy binder is totally unnecessary. Your paper will probably get ripped out of it for grading and teacher comments anyway.