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A Five-Component Plan for Writing a Research Paper
Suggestions for how to break down a research paper assignment into five components, giving five different deadlines, and not waiting to last minute to finish the paper.
by Katharine Hansen, Ph.D.
Let's say your instructor has assigned you to write a research paper and specified that the paper must be a rhetorical argument that supports a thesis you've developed. You are not merely summarizing information but taking a position and defending it with the best evidence you can find in the literature. You will need to analyze and synthesize. Your teacher may assign the paper over a long period, such as the full semester, with milestone assignments along the way.
But even if these milestones are not assigned, consider reaching the milestones anyway. You will find that you will stay on track with the assignment, thus avoiding panic the week -- or day -- before the paper's due. You can also expect your paper to be much more organized and coherent using this component plan than if you didn't use it.
This article details the five components.
Let's say semesters at your school are 16 weeks. Consider following this plan for your paper, and if your semesters are longer or shorter, adapt the plan accordingly.
1. Topic and abstract: Assuming your topic isn't assigned, plan to develop your topic for your research paper by the fifth week of class and then write an abstract. In part, this exercise is to help you get an early start on your paper. Your abstract should capture the essence of the question, problem, or rhetorical argument you wish to pursue in your paper. The abstract can range anywhere from a long paragraph to a page, double-spaced. A length of 200 words is a good goal to shoot for. Check abstracts in the library for a general feel for the style of an abstract. See our article, How to Write an Abstract, for guidelines and samples. Do not use first person for your abstract. A key phrase should be: "This paper will . . ." (instead of "I will. . ."). Writing an abstract will help crystallize your topic for you and keep you on track in developing the question, problem, or rhetorical argument you plan to pursue in your paper
2. Outline: Writing an outline that is comprehensive enough to give a good sense of how your paper will be organized and what it will say will be an enormous boost for to the logical flow and organization of your paper. Poorly organized papers are the No. 1 student writing peeve among professors, but outlining can help you produce an easy-to-follow paper. See our article, The Power of Outlining When Writing College Papers. Complete your outline by the seventh week of class.
3. Preliminary Bibliography: Preparing a preliminary bibliography ensures that you have gathered your research in a timely manner, and it also will give you a huge head start toward your final paper -- because bibliographies are extremely time-consuming to compile and format. Quantity of sources is not as important as quality and variety. Your bibliography should ideally include more than just books. Consider also consulting academic journals, mass-market and specialty periodicals, and the Internet. Consider also doing original research, such as interviewing individuals or conducting a survey. Try to use the most current sources. A good rule of thumb is to stick to sources that are not more than 10 years old. Of course, many exceptions can be made to this rule, especially if the most important works in a field are more than 10 years old. But do try for current works wherever possible. Don't fall into the trap that a former student did. Writing about "the technology office," he chose sources (all books) that were at least 10 years old, yet he kept talking about "the office of tomorrow." The office of tomorrow from a 1998 source is probably not even the office of today, but the office of yesterday. Be sure you know what citation and bibliographic style your instructor wants you to use. Plan to have your preliminary bibliography prepared by the 11th week of class.
More research guidelines:
- Insert quotations, cite authors that bolster your thesis, and develop a bibliography of healthy size and variety.
- Use the research you've uncovered in a way that logically supports your thesis.
- Check in with your instructor as you're researching and writing your paper if you have questions about whether the research seems adequate.
- Try this guideline: Every paragraph except the introduction and conclusion ought to have a reference to the primary or secondary source material used for your paper. Without a reference to a source in the paragraph, you may not have provided the necessary evidence to demonstrate your point.
Citing your sources within the text and avoiding plagiarism:
- If your assignment doesn't make it clear, ask your instructor which citation style you should use.
- Understand that when you use ideas, facts, and opinions that are not your own -- even when you don't use the author's exact words -- you must give appropriate credit to the author as you incorporate his or her ideas into your paper. If you don't do so, you're committing plagiarism, one of the most serious offenses in academe.
- It's better, when in doubt, to over-cite than under-cite. At least one citation per paragraph is not unreasonable.
Resist the temptation to lift any part of your paper wholesale from the web. One former student carefully cited and paraphrased everything, but I still gave him a low grade because he did almost no writing of his own and took his whole paper from one web source. His effort was just so much less than most of his classmates. When mediocre students turn in suspiciously impressive papers, I often suspect that they were purchased from term-paper mills, written by someone else, or lifted from the Internet. I usually find out. One former student credited some material to web sites, but lifted other material wholesale and word-for-word from a web site without crediting it. I gave him a zero for this 150-point paper. By university policy, I had the right to fail him for the class.
Consider the objectivity of your sources. Another former student wrote about communication at Anheuser-Busch, especially the company's mission statement. A lot of it sounded suspiciously like ad or PR copy, so I went to the Website, and sure enough, he had lifted chunks of it from there. He had credited it, but he had also bought into it, hook, line and sinker, as though Anheuser-Busch would be an objective resource on Anheuser-Busch. He also used no other sources that might have balanced the beer company's obviously biased view.
4. First Draft: Have a first draft ready by week 14 of the semester. (Imagine the luxury of having your paper virtually completed two full weeks before it's due and not having to scramble at the last minute.) The first draft of your paper should be fairly close to what you expect to turn in for your final paper and should include your bibliography. At the first-draft stage, you can begin a process of reading over the paper, editing it, and revising it. You could also ask others to read and critique it. Most importantly, you can ask your instructor to read it and provide feedback. Not all will agree to do so, but many will recognize that you are striving to produce the best possible paper and will be happily provide input. If you have a teaching assistant for your class, that person would also be a good audience for your draft. Based on reader feedback, you will know whether you need to do more research, major reorganization, and/or significant rewriting.
5. Final Paper: The final paper should incorporate revisions (especially based on instructor or teaching-assistant comments on draft). The final paper should be ready the last week of the semester. Again, adjust the dates in this article according to your own school's calendar and your assignment's due dates.
Final Thoughts On Using This Research Paper Plan
Is it crazy to essentially turn one assignment into five components? Not if you want to attain an excellent grade on your paper. Even if your instructor does not assign the interim steps described here, you will.
Questions about some of the terminology used in this article? Get more information (definitions and links) on key academic terms by going to our College Success Glossary.
Katharine Hansen, Ph.D., is an educator, author, and blogger who provides content for EmpoweringSites.com, including MyCollegeSuccessStory.com. Katharine, who earned her PhD in organizational behavior from Union Institute & University, Cincinnati, OH, is author of Dynamic Cover Letters for New Graduates and A Foot in the Door: Networking Your Way into the Hidden Job Market (both published by Ten Speed Press), as well as Top Notch Executive Resumes (Career Press); and with Randall S. Hansen, Ph.D., Dynamic Cover Letters, Write Your Way to a Higher GPA (Ten Speed), and The Complete Idiot's Guide to Study Skills (Alpha). She curates, crafts, and delivers compelling content online, in print, on stage, and in the classroom. Visit her personal Website KatharineHansenPhD.com or reach her by e-mail at kathy(at)astoriedcareer.com. Check out Dr. Hansen on GooglePlus.
What is a research paper? A research paper is a piece of academic writing based on its author’s original research on a particular topic, and the analysis and interpretation of the research findings. It can be either a term paper, a master’s thesis or a doctoral dissertation. This Chapter outlines the logical steps to writing a good research paper. To achieve supreme excellence or perfection in anything you do, you need more than just the knowledge. Like the Olympic athlete aiming for the gold medal, you must have a positive attitude and the belief that you have the ability to achieve it. That is the real start to writing an A+ research paper.
STEP 1. HOW TO START A RESEARCH PAPER? CHOOSE A TOPIC
Choose a topic which interests and challenges you. Your attitude towards the topic may well determine the amount of effort and enthusiasm you put into your research.
Focus on a limited aspect, e.g. narrow it down from “Religion” to “World Religion” to “Buddhism”. Obtain teacher approval for your topic before embarking on a full-scale research. If you are uncertain as to what is expected of you in completing the assignment or project, re-read your assignment sheet carefully or ASK your teacher.
Select a subject you can manage. Avoid subjects that are too technical, learned, or specialized. Avoid topics that have only a very narrow range of source materials.
STEP 2. FIND INFORMATION
Surf the Net.
For general or background information, check out useful URLs, general information online, almanacs or encyclopedias online such as Britannica. Use search engines and other search tools as a starting point.
Pay attention to domain name extensions, e.g., .edu (educational institution), .gov (government), or .org (non-profit organization). These sites represent institutions and tend to be more reliable, but be watchful of possible political bias in some government sites. Be selective of .com (commercial) sites. Many .com sites are excellent; however, a large number of them contain advertisements for products and nothing else. Network Solutions provides a link where you can find out what some of the other extensions stand for. Be wary of the millions of personal home pages on the Net. The quality of these personal homepages vary greatly. Learning how to evaluate websites critically and to search effectively on the Internet can help you eliminate irrelevant sites and waste less of your time.
The recent arrival of a variety of domain name extensions such as .biz (commercial businesses), .pro, .info (info on products / organizations), .name, .ws (WebSite), .cc (Cocos Island) or .sh (St. Helena) or .tv (Tuvalu) may create some confusion as you would not be able to tell whether a .cc or .sh or .tv site is in reality a .com, a .edu, a .gov, a .net, or a .org site. Many of the new extensions have no registration restrictions and are available to anyone who wishes to register a distinct domain name that has not already been taken. For instance, if Books.com is unavailable, you can register as Books.ws or Books.info via a service agent such as Register.com.
To find books in the Library use the OPAC (Online Public Access Catalog).
Check out other print materials available in the Library:
- Almanacs, Atlases, AV Catalogs
- Encyclopedias and Dictionaries
- Government Publications, Guides, Reports
- Magazines, Newspapers
- Vertical Files
- Yellow Pages, Zip or Postal Code and Telephone Directories
Check out online resources, Web based information services, or special resource materials on CDs:
- Online reference materials (including databases, e.g. SIRS, ProQuest, eLibrary, etc.)
- Google Scholar
- Wall Street Executive Library
- Index to Periodicals and Newspapers (e.g. MagPortal.com, OnlineNewspapers.com, etc.)
- Answers.com – an online dictionary and encyclopedia all-in-one resource that you can install on your computer free of charge and find one-click answers quickly.
- Encyclopedias (e.g.Britannica, Canadian Encyclopedia, etc.)
- Magazines and Journals
- International Public Library
- Subject Specific software (e.g. discovering authors, exploring Shakespeare, etc.)
Check out public and university libraries, businesses, government agencies, as well as contact knowledgeable people in your community.
Read and evaluate. Bookmark your favorite Internet sites. Printout, photocopy, and take notes of relevant information.
As you gather your resources, jot down full bibliographical information (author, title, place of publication, publisher, date of publication, page numbers, URLs, creation or modification dates on Web pages, and your date of access) on your work sheet, printout, or enter the information on your laptop or desktop computer for later retrieval. If printing from the Internet, it is wise to set up the browser to print the URL and date of access for every page. Remember that an article without bibliographical information is useless since you cannot cite its source.
STEP 3. MAKE YOUR THESIS STATEMENT
Most research papers normally require a thesis statement. If you are not sure, ask your teacher whether your paper requires it.
A thesis statement is a main idea, a central point of your research paper. The arguments you provide in your paper should be based on this cenral idea, that is why it is so important. Do some critical thinking and write your thesis statement down in one sentence. Your research paper thesis statement is like a declaration of your belief. The main portion of your essay will consist of arguments to support and defend this belief.
A thesis statement should be provided early in your paper – in the introduction part, or in the second paragraph, if your paper is longer.
It is impossible to create a thesis statement immediately when you have just started fulfilling your assignment. Before you write a thesis statement, you should collect, organize and analyze materials and your ideas. You cannot make a finally formulated statement before you have completed your reseach paper. It will naturally change while you develop your ideas.
Stay away from generic and too fuzzy statements and arguments. Use a particular subject. The paper should present something new to the audience to make it interesting and educative to read.
Avoid citing other authors in this section. Present your own ideas in your own words instead of simply copying from other writers.
A thesis statement should do the following:
- Explain the readers how you interpret the subject of the research
- Tell the readers what to expect from your paper
- Answer the question you were asked
- Present your claim which other people may want to dispute
Make sure your thesis is strong.
If you have time and opportunity, show it to your instructor to revise. Otherwise, you may estimate it yourself.
You must check:
- Does my statement answer the question of my assignment?
- Can my position be disputed or opposed? If not, maybe you have just provided a summary instead of creating an argument.
- Is my statement precise enough? It should not be too general and vague.
- Does it pass a so-called “so what” test? Does it provide new/interesting information to your audience or does it simply state a generic fact?
- Does the body of my manuscript support my thesis, or are they different things? Compare them and change if necessary. Remember that changing elements of your work in the process of writing and reviewing is normal.
A well-prepared thesis means well-shaped ideas. It increases credibility of the paper and makes good impression about its author.
More helpful hints about Writing a Research Paper.
STEP 4. MAKE A RESEARCH PAPER OUTLINE
A research paper basically has the following structure:
- Title Page (including the title, the author’s name, the name of a University or colledge, and the publication date)
- Abstract (brief summary of the paper – 250 words or less)
- Introduction (background information on the topic or a brief comment leading into the subject matter – up to 2 pages)
- Manuscript Body, which can be broken down in further sections, depending on the nature of research:
- Materials and Methods
- Results (what are the results obtained)
- Discussion and Conclusion etc.
- Tables, figures, and appendix (optional)
An outline might be formal or informal.
An informal outline (working outline) is a tool helping an author put down and organize their ideas. It is subject to revision, addition and canceling, without paying much attention to form. It helps an author to make their key points clear for him/her and arrange them.
Sometimes the students are asked to submit formal outlines with their research papers.
In a formal outline, numbers and letters are used to arrange topics and subtopics. The letters and numbers of the same kind should be placed directly under one another. The topics denoted by their headings and subheadings should be grouped in a logical order.
All points of a research paper outline must relate to the same major topic that you first mentioned in your capital Roman numeral.
Example of an outline:I. INTRODUCTION - (Brief comment leading into subject matter - Thesis statement on Shakespeare) II. BODY - Shakespeare's Early Life, Marriage, Works, Later Years A. Early life in Stratford 1. Shakespeare's family a. Shakespeare's father b. Shakespeare's mother 2. Shakespeare's marriage a. Life of Anne Hathaway b. Reference in Shakespeare's Poems B. Shakespeare's works 1. Plays a. Tragedies i. Hamlet ii. Romeo and Juliet b. Comedies i. The Tempest ii. Much Ado About Nothing c. Histories i. King John ii. Richard III iii. Henry VIII 2. Sonnets 3. Other poems C. Shakespeare's Later Years 1. Last two plays 2. Retired to Stratford a. Death b. Burial i. Epitaph on his tombstone III. CONCLUSION A. Analytical summary 1. Shakespeare's early life 2. Shakespeare's works 3. Shakespeare's later years B. Thesis reworded C. Concluding statement
The purpose of an outline is to help you think through your topic carefully and organize it logically before you start writing. A good outline is the most important step in writing a good paper. Check your outline to make sure that the points covered flow logically from one to the other. Include in your outline an INTRODUCTION, a BODY, and a CONCLUSION. Make the first outline tentative.
INTRODUCTION – State your thesis and the purpose of your research paper clearly. What is the chief reason you are writing the paper? State also how you plan to approach your topic. Is this a factual report, a book review, a comparison, or an analysis of a problem? Explain briefly the major points you plan to cover in your paper and why readers should be interested in your topic.
BODY – This is where you present your arguments to support your thesis statement. Remember the Rule of 3, i.e. find 3 supporting arguments for each position you take. Begin with a strong argument, then use a stronger one, and end with the strongest argument for your final point.
CONCLUSION – Restate or reword your thesis. Summarize your arguments. Explain why you have come to this particular conclusion.
STEP 5. ORGANIZE YOUR NOTES
Organize all the information you have gathered according to your outline. Critically analyze your research data. Using the best available sources, check for accuracy and verify that the information is factual, up-to-date, and correct. Opposing views should also be noted if they help to support your thesis. This is the most important stage in writing a research paper. Here you will analyze, synthesize, sort, and digest the information you have gathered and hopefully learn something about your topic which is the real purpose of doing a research paper in the first place. You must also be able to effectively communicate your thoughts, ideas, insights, and research findings to others through written words as in a report, an essay, a research or term paper, or through spoken words as in an oral or multimedia presentation with audio-visual aids.
Do not include any information that is not relevant to your topic, and do not include information that you do not understand. Make sure the information that you have noted is carefully recorded and in your own words, if possible. Plagiarism is definitely out of the question. Document all ideas borrowed or quotes used very accurately. As you organize your notes, jot down detailed bibliographical information for each cited paragraph and have it ready to transfer to your Works Cited page.
Devise your own method to organize your notes. One method may be to mark with a different color ink or use a hi-liter to identify sections in your outline, e.g., IA3b – meaning that the item “Accessing WWW” belongs in the following location of your outline:I. Understanding the Internet A. What is the Internet 3. How to "Surf the Net" b. Accessing WWW
Group your notes following the outline codes you have assigned to your notes, e.g., IA2, IA3, IA4, etc. This method will enable you to quickly put all your resources in the right place as you organize your notes according to your outline.
STEP 6. WRITE YOUR FIRST DRAFT
Start with the first topic in your outline. Read all the relevant notes you have gathered that have been marked, e.g. with the capital Roman numeral I.
Summarize, paraphrase or quote directly for each idea you plan to use in your essay. Use a technique that suits you, e.g. write summaries, paraphrases or quotations on note cards, or separate sheets of lined paper. Mark each card or sheet of paper clearly with your outline code or reference, e.g., IB2a or IIC, etc.
Put all your note cards or paper in the order of your outline, e.g. IA, IB, IC. If using a word processor, create meaningful filenames that match your outline codes for easy cut and paste as you type up your final paper, e.g. cut first Introduction paragraph and paste it to IA. Before you know it, you have a well organized term paper completed exactly as outlined.
If it is helpful to you, use a symbol such as “#” to mark the spot where you would like to check back later to edit a paragraph. The unusual symbol will make it easy for you to find the exact location again. Delete the symbol once editing is completed.
STEP 7. REVISE YOUR OUTLINE AND DRAFT
Read your paper for any content errors. Double check the facts and figures. Arrange and rearrange ideas to follow your outline. Reorganize your outline if necessary, but always keep the purpose of your paper and your readers in mind. Use a free grammar and proof reading checker such as Grammarly.
1. Is my thesis statement concise and clear?
2. Did I follow my outline? Did I miss anything?
3. Are my arguments presented in a logical sequence?
4. Are all sources properly cited to ensure that I am not plagiarizing?
5. Have I proved my thesis with strong supporting arguments?
6. Have I made my intentions and points clear in the essay?
Re-read your paper for grammatical errors. Use a dictionary or a thesaurus as needed. Do a spell check. Correct all errors that you can spot and improve the overall quality of the paper to the best of your ability. Get someone else to read it over. Sometimes a second pair of eyes can see mistakes that you missed.
1. Did I begin each paragraph with a proper topic sentence?
2. Have I supported my arguments with documented proof or examples?
3. Any run-on or unfinished sentences?
4. Any unnecessary or repetitious words?
5. Varying lengths of sentences?
6. Does one paragraph or idea flow smoothly into the next?
7. Any spelling or grammatical errors?
8. Quotes accurate in source, spelling, and punctuation?
9. Are all my citations accurate and in correct format?
10. Did I avoid using contractions? Use “cannot” instead of “can’t”, “do not” instead of “don’t”?
11. Did I use third person as much as possible? Avoid using phrases such as “I think”, “I guess”, “I suppose”
12. Have I made my points clear and interesting but remained objective?
13. Did I leave a sense of completion for my reader(s) at the end of the paper?
The Elements of Style, Fourth Edition, by William Strunk, Jr.
For an excellent source on English composition, check out this classic book by William Strunk, Jr. on the Elements of Style. Contents include: Elementary Rules of Usage, Elementary Principles of Composition, Words & Expressions Commonly Misused, An Approach to Style with a List of Reminders: Place yourself in the background, Revise and rewrite, Avoid fancy words, Be clear, Do not inject opinion, Do not take shortcuts at the cost of clarity, … and much more. Details of The Elements of Style by William Strunk, Jr. partially available online at Bartleby.com. Note: William Strunk, Jr. (1869–1946). The Elements of Style was first published in 1918.
There is also a particular formatting style you must follow. It depends on the field of your studies or the requirements of your University/supervisor.
There are several formatting styles typically used. The most commonly used are the APA style and the MLA style. However, there are such style guides as the Chicago Manual of Style, American Medical Association (AMA) Style, and more.
APA (American Psychological Association) style is mostly used to cite sources within the field of social sciences. The detailed information can be found in Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association, (6th ed., 2nd printing).
MLA (Modern Language Association) style is most commonly used for the liberal arts and humanities. The most recent printed guide on it is the MLA Handbook (8th ed.). Instead of providing individual recommendations for each publishing format (printed, online, e-books etc.), this edition recommends a single universal set of guidelines, which writers can apply to any kind of source.
You should necessarily ask your instuctor which formatting style is required for your paper and format it accordingly before submitting.
STEP 8. TYPE FINAL PAPER
All formal reports or essays should be typewritten and printed, preferably on a good quality printer.
Read the assignment sheet again to be sure that you understand fully what is expected of you, and that your essay meets the requirements as specified by your teacher. Know how your essay will be evaluated.
Proofread final paper carefully for spelling, punctuation, missing or duplicated words. Make the effort to ensure that your final paper is clean, tidy, neat, and attractive.
Aim to have your final paper ready a day or two before the deadline. This gives you peace of mind and a chance to triple check. Before handing in your assignment for marking, ask yourself: “Is this the VERY BEST that I can do?”