Steps to Writing a Great Research Paper
by Cathy Keller Brown
As you begin taking more upper-level courses, you
may be distressed to find that your grades hinge on
one assignmenta major research paper.
You may not have written anything longer than a few
pages for yearsor maybe even decadesso the
thoughts of this daunting task creep into your mind
as you drive to class every morning, get dinner on the
table each evening, and try to ease your mind enough
to fall asleep each night.
Writing a long paper is a challenge for most of us.
Few people can easily churn out an A-worthy paper, but
if you follow these seven simple guidelines, you are
certain to increase your odds of acing the assignment,
impressing your professor, and alleviating stress.
1) Know what your instructor wants you to do.
Before you do anything else, make sure you have a clear
understanding of what your instructor expects from you.
Read over the assignment several times and underline
action words like define, describe, classify, compare,
analyze, argue, and evaluate. Throughout the writing
process, keep those terms in mind so that you are always
aware of your task. If the assignment doesnt include
any action words other than write, as in write
a research paper, your teacher probably wants
you to present an argument about your topic and provide
support for the argument. If you are at all unsure,
talk to him/her right away.
2) Begin planning the paper as soon as you
receive the assignment.
After you know what to do, begin defining a good topic.
That can be a time-consuming task, but if you do it
well in the beginning, you will save yourself some heartache
as you get further into the writing process. Keep in
mind that you may need to do some preliminary research
in order to develop a good topic. As you decide what
to write about, think about how long the essay needs
to be and whether your professor expects you to cover
one narrow topic in depth or to survey a broader range
of material. Its always smart to discuss your
topic with your professor, if possible; he/she can help
you determine whether your goals are feasible. If the
professor isnt available, discuss the topic with
Once you have decided what to write about, you might
be ready to jump in and begin researching right away
Resist that urge! Before you begin, think
about your topic. Write down everything you already
know about it and then make a list of questions youd
like to answer in your research. This early
planning step may seem tedious, but it will help guide
your research and make it more productive. Keep in mind
that a tutor or colleague can also help
you during this stage.
3) Begin the research process well in advance.
I cant say this enough. When youre taking
several courses, you will be tempted to delay getting
started on a long-term assignment so that you can manage
more immediate challenges. Your chances of acing this
assignment depend, however, on your discipline and time
management. As soon as youve defined your
topic (if not before), go to the library or search
online for relevant materials. Take advantage of
resources available to you; a librarian can be your
savior during this stressful time because he/she is
trained to know the best ways to track down information.
4) Dont delay the writing process.
When working on research papers, many students mistakenly
compile research for weeks or months and then plan to
write the paper a week (or even a day)
before it is due. This strategy might work for you,
but it can be risky. It is best to interrupt the research
process frequently to review and evaluate
what you have gathered.