Welcome to Questia's 9-step writing guide!
A research paper is your opinion on a topic, informed by research you have done. It is not a summary of others’ thoughts, a personal essay or a review or critique. This can be daunting for new and experienced writers alike. Questia's 9-step writing guide can help keep you focused and guide you down the path to a successful research paper.
Scroll through the guide below, or download your own copy to read offline.
So you sit down at your computer to begin and it just stares back, blank. The temptation to check email or your social media accounts jumps into your head. Don't. Try these steps to get you focused.
Identify tasks and build a schedule
Determine the type of paper you are writing
Here the key is to research and scrutinize the subject of your paper, and then present your analysis from your own standpoint or perspective.
Example: The role of the Catholic Church in Medieval Europe.
Present your stand on an issue and persuade the reader to your point of view. Your research serves as evidence to support your position.
Example: Capital punishment is not an effective crime deterrent.
Write everything down and keep it organized: Notes, research sources, thoughts - everything. It is easier to have all the information you need and not use it, than to be scrambling at the last minute trying to remember where you read something.
Choosing a topic can often be the hardest part of writing a research paper. Here are some tips and ideas to help make this important step easier.
Generate topic ideas
Remember, a topic is the subject of your research paper - what you plan to write about.
Think of what interests you relative to your assignment. For example, if you are taking a course on the history of 19th Century America, what about that period is interesting to you? The Civil War? Westward Expansion?
If you need help choosing a topic, try Questia's topic finder.
Check reference books, encyclopedias, the internet, newspapers, magazines, television, talk to your teacher and peers - you'd be surprised where some good topic ideas can come from. And for tips for doing your preliminary research, see Step 3 - Research and note taking.
Determine if a topic is good for you and your paper
Are you interested in this topic?
You'll do a better job -- and enjoy the process more -- if you're interested in your topic
Is the topic broad enough to be narrowed down?
Your topic needs to be substantive enough that you can write a paper about it but specific enough so that you can cover it sufficiently in your paper.
Are there enough sources to support your paper?
Do some quick research. Can you find books and articles on your topic?
Do you have anything to say about this topic?
You need a position, a point to make about your topic. This ultimately leads to your thesis statement.
If you need help choosing a topic, try Questia's topic finder tool
While listed as a singular step here, research is actually a fluid process that crosses several steps of writing a research paper. You will be doing preliminary research to find your topic and thesis. As you write your paper, you may find yourself needing to do additional research as you go.
Tips for finding sources
Many types of sources exist, each with pros and cons.
Tips for taking notes
Once you have your topic you can create your thesis statement. This is your declaration of what you are going to prove or argue in the rest of your paper.
A good thesis statement...
Common problems with thesis statements
A thesis should not just repeat facts. It needs to represent your position on a topic. Overcome this by asking yourself what it is you will be trying to prove in your paper
Avoid merely announcing the topic. Make your original and specific take on the issue clear to the reader.
Your thesis statement and entire paper need to be based on research, analysis, and evaluation rather than personal taste. When you make a (subjective) judgment call, justify your reasoning.
Can't be proven
If your thesis can't be proven you shouldn't try to prove it. Avoid making universal or pro/con judgments that oversimplify complex issues. A sign of this is the use of "always" or "never" in your thesis statement.
Develop your thesis with help from Questia's thesis builder tool
Creating an outline is the process of organizing your thoughts and what you are going to say. Doing so will make it easier to write your paper. You'll be able to identify areas that need more research or thought or may no longer fit with your paper - and make those adjustments before writing your paper
Steps to creating an outline
- Organize your notes and research to group similar material together.
- Review your thesis statement - is it still what you want to say? If not, change it.
- Identify the main points of your arguments that support your thesis.
- Identify the ideas that support your main points.
- Match your research to your points.
- Order your ideas in a logical flow.
- Identify where you need more research, where your thoughts need more development, and where you have the information that is no longer needed.
Use Questia's Outline tool: Develop your outline with your research, example outlines,
and a step by step outline starter tool just a click away
Now that you have your thesis, research and outline complete, it is time to write your first draft of your paper. It should consist of three main sections:
Tips for writing your draft
Reviewing and revising your paper is the process of reading your draft and making any changes to the content you see fit. Proper revising includes careful thought about your paper's ideas, arguments, supporting research and structure.
Tips for reviewing and revising
Reviewing and revising checklist
Need help figuring out how to take your paper to the next level? Try this checklist for opportunities to improve your paper.
- Is my thesis statement easily identifiable and an accurate summary of my position
- Do my main points support my thesis?
- Do I have enough research and evidence to support what I'm saying?
- Do I have any information that does not relate to my main points?
- Does the order of my paper make sense? Does my information flow logically?
- Are my citations noted?
- Is there anything that reads would find confusing or hard to follow?
Giving proper credit to the sources of facts, ideas, and quotations you have incorporated into your paper is key to avoiding plagiarism. By documenting your sources, you let your reads follow your thought process and see how you have built upon the thoughts of others.
What to credit and what not to credit
You should always credit a source for the following types of information:
- Facts and statistics that are not common knowledge
- Direct or paraphrased quotation and excerpts
- Ideas, thoughts, and opinions expressed by others (as opposed to those ideas, thoughts and opinions that are original to you)
You do not need to indicate a source for information that is commonly known. This includes:
- Common knowledge and accepted wisdom
Example: Since many people like chocolate...
- Commonly known facts
Example: The capital of Texas is Austin
- Reference to or brief mentions of commonly known literary, artistic, and religious works
Example: Just as David slew Goliath
Citation and bibliography styles and formatting
Your instructor will likely specify a particular documentation style to use for your paper. Several established styles (MLA, APA, and Chicago are common) specify: what to include, format, punctuation and more. Check with your instructor on which style you should use.
Questia provides tools while reading books and articles in our library to create citations in any of the three styles mentioned previously. You can generate your bibliography for those items from within your project folders.
Effective proofreading is the final step and enables you to present your paper - and yourself - in the best light possible. It is tempting to skip this step - but don't!
Tips for proofreading
Different methods of proofreading work best for different people. Try some different approaches and see what works best for you.