Let's face it: writing a research report can feel like wrestling a big, hairy monster into 5 pages with footnotes. But if you make and follow a plan from the beginning, you'll write a paper to make yourself proud.
Divide your time
As tempting as it may seem to dive right in and start writing (so you can get it done) a good research paper starts before you start crafting stellar sentences. First, you'll need to brainstorm a topic, then move on to researching.
To keep yourself from getting totally overwhelmed, you'll need to make time for each step. On the day your paper is assigned, use a calendar to plan backwards from the day it's due.
Divide your time into mini assignments, print the calendar, and hang it someplace you'll see it often. Use your judgment based on the assignment and how you do your best work, but a good rough estimate for how to divide up your time is:
25% Researching and taking notes
20% Making an outline
15% Revising and polishing
So, if you have a month to write a paper, you might spend about 3 days brainstorming, a full week each for researching and writing, and 5 to 6 days each on your outline and revision.
Make an outline
An outline is a roadmap to keep you from getting lost when you start to write. It's where you organize the questions you'll answer and the information and subtopics you'll cover in your paper. It's a tool to help you, not another assignment to check off the list. There are lots of ways to make an outline and it makes sense to try out different versions to see what works for you. Here are some examples:
Term Paper Terrence likes to spend lots of time on his outline to make it really specific, down to noting what quotes he'll use where. Terrence finds the more detail he puts into the outline, the easier the paper is to write. For his paper on Sally Ride, the first American woman in outer space, his outline includes a note to discuss the specifics of what she did on her first mission — used the mechanical arm she designed to capture and deploy satellites, completed over 40 experiments — and to follow the specifics with a quote from Ride saying that what she remembers most about her first flight "is that it was fun." Terrence's outline is so detailed that writing the paper is almost like filling in the blanks.
Research Project Rachel feels differently about outlines. She looks through her research and makes a list of broad subtopics she'll cover. For her paper on rhinoceri (you know, more than one rhinoceros) she'll list things like: where they live and what they like to eat — mostly vegetables, they're vegetarians — but she generally doesn't break it down into smaller details. Rachel likes to structure her paper as she writes and revises. She looks back at what she has as she goes and decides on what to write about next. She often changes the structure of earlier parts based on what she's writing later on. Compared to Terrence, she spends a lot more time writing and revising, but not nearly as much on the outline itself.
Write your intro… for now
Once you've got your topic, research, and outline in hand, it's time to start writing. In your introduction, sometimes called your thesis statement or lead paragraph, you'll outline exactly what someone reading this paper can expect to learn from it. It's a tantalizing look at all the neat stuff the reader can look forward to finding out about.
Don't worry about getting the first sentences absolutely perfect on your first try. Sometimes it's better to keep writing and adjust later. Your introduction will usually be between one and three paragraphs long and will act almost like a summary of the topics to come.
Give each paragraph the meaning it deserves
Every paragraph tells a story, or at least it should. There should be a point to it, a piece of information you're explaining. Often the first sentence of the paragraph will serve as a bridge or link from the previous paragraph and as an introduction to what the new paragraph is about. The next few sentences will provide examples or information to back up the first sentence.
You have time specifically put aside for revision, but as you write do keep in mind that every sentence should have a reason for being and that reason is to support the paragraph as a whole. Likewise, every paragraph should have information that helps give meaning to the topic. Extra words and ideas are sure to sneak in there and clutter up your writing. It's your job to keep those words and sentences out of your paper. There's a fine balance between providing enough explanation and examples and making your paper unclear with extra words and thoughts.
Wrap it all up in the end
A good conclusion is related to a good introduction. They're like cousins, not entirely the same, but with many of the same qualities. At the end of the paper, you're wrapping up all your ideas and reminding the reader of what he learned. There usually isn't new information; it's more about revisiting the big ideas. A conclusion is often just a paragraph long or it might be two or three. Imagine saying to your reader, "As you can see from reading my paper…" The rest of that statement is the end of your paper.
Revision is your friend
Here's a secret: writing is hard, but revising effectively might be even harder. But it's worth the effort because this is the step that takes your okay, pretty good paper and transforms it into an assignment that really shines.
Revision or editing is not, I repeat, is not the same as re-writing the whole thing from scratch. You're not starting from square one here and you most likely don't need to scrap everything. What you are doing is taking a close and careful look at each word, sentence, and paragraph to make sure you've made the best choices. Here are some questions to ask yourself as you revise:
- Is everything spelled correctly?
- Are there any extra words, sentences, or paragraphs that don't add to the paper and should be deleted?
- Are all the ideas explained with description or examples so they'd make sense to someone who doesn't know anything about the topic?
- Do the ideas build so that by the end of the paper, the reader understands more than at the beginning?
- Does the paper deliver what it promises in the introduction and conclusion? Does it make a point?
Often revising works best if you take it in two or three passes rather than one big editing session. You're working to balance your paper, so you'll probably make changes at the end that will affect the beginning and vice versa.
It's very helpful to have someone else read your work to check if anything is unclear, confusing, or in need of better explanation. Ask a classmate, a friend, or a parent to mark places that could use improvement. Even the best professional writers benefit from using editors — and you can too.
Record your sources
Your assignment will probably instruct you on how to record and present all the sources you used for information:
- Endnotes are found within the body of the paper. They include the author and page numbers in parentheses to show where you got your information.
- Footnotes give similar information to endnotes, but they are placed at the bottom of the page, usually in a smaller typeface.
- A bibliography is a list of all the books, articles, and Web sites you used for information. It's sometimes paired with endnotes or footnotes, or it can stand alone.
Recording and using sources responsibly will prevent you from plagiarizing — a serious offense whether intentional or by accident. When in doubt, record a source rather than leaving it out.
Follow through on the final details
When it's time to hand in your assignment, make sure you have a clean copy that hasn't been crushed in your backpack or stained by yesterday's lunch. Include a title page with your name and the date. You've already done the work, so why not make it look as good as it can?
Now, take a moment to pat yourself on the back. Writing a good research paper is a huge deal and you deserve to feel proud for a job well done.
Amy KL Borrell, when researching, first highlights, then makes notes in the margins, then writes one fact each — with page number and book — on index cards.