BY JANE HURST
A research paper is not merely a collection of tidbits from different sources, it is in fact your own statement or argument based on and substantiated through research. As the average research paper is 10-20 pages long, what can you do to make the whole process less painful? Here are 10 tips to write a stellar research paper.
- Know Yourself
If you are someone who likes to write at night, plan on staying up late. If you always procrastinate, clear your schedule to write your paper at the last minute. Do you work best alone? Do you thrive from being surrounded by people? Do you need frequent breaks? Or would you rather work 10 hours straight? While most advice focuses on managing your impulses, the opposite is often more effective. Lean in and accept your quirks for a less painful and more productive experience.
The more time you can give yourself to work on your paper, the better. Unless you are a hopeless procrastinator, in which case, see #1. A month is a good time-frame to develop a 10 – 20 page research paper. This will give you enough time to choose a topic, research it, ask for help, change your topic if needed, write a couple of different drafts, and even take a few days off from your paper, to be able to evaluate it with fresh eyes later.
- Choose a Broad Topic
Unless your heart is set on something you’ve always wanted to delve into, a good approach to choosing your topic is to pick a relatively broad interest, and then narrow it based on the research available to you. For example, consider researching 18th century German literature, and as you read about it, choose a topic that jumps out at you e.g. the representation of night time in the poetry of Novalis, or the unique contribution of Goethe to the Romantic movement, etc. Depending on your assignment, you might be able to stick with a fairly broad topic as well. Always make sure to pick a subject that has been written about widely, so your research will be easier and more robust.
- Pick Your Thesis Later
Let your thesis emerge from your research. It’s a lot easier to start by researching a topic, and then develop a thesis based on the research available, than to come up with an argument and then hunt for supporting evidence. You might also be surprised at how often researching a topic changes your mind on it! If your teacher requires you to submit your thesis statement ahead of time, keep to a broad statement, and resubmit it if during the research and writing phases your thesis changes.
- Mind Map it
Generally speaking, as a writer you either have a ton of ideas that need to be narrowed down, or you have trouble coming up with many ideas and therefore need to expand on one or two initial thoughts. Either way, consider a mind mapping process, Lifehacker has a great post on how to do it. Create a visual diagram of everything you could add to your research paper before moving to the next step.
- Write an Outline
Repeat after me: I will always write an outline. After being all over the place, and exploring many different ideas through a mind map, it is now time to focus on what your paper will cover. Drop everything that’s unnecessary, and focus on what needs to be included. Then work on one chunk at the time. If you have a good outline, it will make the writing process a lot easier and your first draft will be much better.
- Write the First Draft
Now it’s time to put it all together! Don’t try to write a polished or perfect draft, just start by writing your introduction, body, and conclusion. Focus on getting your thoughts on the page: avoid all distractions, write everything as it comes to you, following your outline. Mark the spots where you’d like to add a footnote, quote, or anything else that would require you to stop writing. Depending on your style, you’ll find at the end of your first draft that you either need to trim things down or add more details to reach the assigned length for your paper.
- Review and Polish
Unless you are close to your deadline, take a break and do not look at your paper for a couple of days. Do something else instead, and take your mind completely off it. Then go back to your first draft with fresh eyes and work on polishing your writing, add the footnotes, quotes, and anything else needed to make this an A+ paper.
If you have a chance, ask a friend to read through and give you comments. Preferably someone senior with knowledge on the topic, but if that is not possible, then ask any friend to take a look. Having someone with less knowledge on the topic will check whether your writing is clear and if the big picture makes sense.
- Use citation management Tools
One area where you could use some help is in reference and citation management. If you expect to write a lot of research papers, a dedicated tool like EndNote can be very powerful. If you are not ready to make the investment, Mendeley is a very powerful tool which is worth trying out. It makes it easy when you need to quickly add citations and automatically generate the References section.
- Consider splitting up into multiple files
If your paper is over 50 pages and multiple chapters with many heavy graphics and figures, it can be helpful to break it down into multiple DOC files, with one DOC file per chapter. Editing a single small DOC file can be much easier than dealing with a huge file in Word.
One way to do this is by creating a Master Document in Word which can reference each of the chapters. This has been documented extensively by HowToGeek here.
A perhaps more simple way is to keep all the chapters independent, then convert each chapter to a PDF file (either with Word directly or with an online converter). Then simply merging all the PDF files together into a final single PDF file, and adding a nice front page. This can be achieved either with software such as Adobe or an online PDF merger such as FoxyUtils.
Jane Hurst has been working in education for over 5 years as a teacher. She loves sharing her knowledge with students, is fascinated about edtech and loves reading, a lot. Follow Jane on Twitter.