Writing a research paper “isn’t over until it’s over.” Allow plenty of time to revise and edit your research paper. You started out without knowing what you were going to write about, and now you have in your hand, or on your screen, pages filled with information. What you have is a rough draft—and no one’s rough draft is perfect. To turn that draft into a finished paper you feel proud to hand in, read it again from beginning to end, and then make some improvements. This process is called revising and editing. Revision allows you to perfect your prose, sharpen the vocabulary, and ensure that others’ ideas are properly represented. As you revise, you will want to make sure that:
- Your introduction engages the reader and clearly presents a thesis that responds to your assignment.
- The body of your paper supports the thesis with laser-like focus.
- Your conclusion convinces your readers of the importance of what you wrote.
Revision often requires changing the structure of your work to achieve a more logical presentation, one that is more descriptive, or one that ensures you have met the parameters of your assignment. More than anything else, it requires that you check all the facts and quotations you used and ensure that you have cited them properly and have not plagiarized a writer.
Check Each Part of Your Research Paper
The first step in the revising and editing process is to start reading your draft from the beginning and make sure that each part—the introduction, body, and conclusion—does the job it’s supposed to do. For each part of your draft, ask yourself the questions on the following checklist. If your answer to any question is “no,” make the revisions necessary to change your answer to “yes.”
Check Your Introduction:
- Does your introduction capture your readers’ attention?
- Does your introduction contain a thesis statement that clearly states the main idea of your paper?
Check the Body of Your Paper:
- Does every paragraph in the body of your paper support your thesis statement?
- Does every paragraph state a main idea in a topic sentence?
- Does every sentence in each paragraph support the main idea of the paragraph?
- Have you taken out any information that is irrelevant, or beside the point?
- Do your paragraphs provide enough support for the main idea of your paper as it appears in your thesis statement?
- In every paragraph, do you provide enough support for the main idea expressed in its topic sentence?
- Do your paragraphs flow in a logical order?
- Do the sentences in each paragraph flow in a logical order?
- Have you used transitions?
Check Your Conclusion:
- Does your conclusion sum up the main points in your paper?
- Does your conclusion help readers answer the question, “So what?”
Your paper is really shaping up now. But a truly excellent research paper has to do even more than get a yes answer to every question in the preceding checklists. It needs to be well written. In other words, it has to sound good and be free of errors in spelling, grammar, and punctuation.
If you’re writing your paper on a computer, of course you can use the spell-checker function. That part of your word processing program picks up most spelling errors. But it doesn’t catch all of them. For example, if you’ve typed the word though incorrectly by leaving out the letter h at the beginning, the word comes out as tough. Your spell checker does not catch that as a mistake because tough is a word. So whether you work on a computer or not, be sure to read through your paper—word for word—to correct any spelling errors. If you aren’t sure how to spell a word, look it up.
Check Grammar and Punctuation
A good knowledge of the rules of language helps you make sure your paper is free of grammar and punctuation errors. You can use the following lists to help you avoid common errors. However, if you have specific questions about the rules of grammar, usage, and mechanics, your language arts textbook explains all of the rules and offers further examples.
If you find that in your paper you have used the same word over and over, replace the repeated word with another one that has a similar meaning. Too much repetition makes
writing sound boring. Another kind of repetition to avoid is using the same type of sentence too many times in a row. This can make writing sound boring, too. Varying your
sentences makes your writing livelier and more interesting to readers.
Proofread Your Research Paper
After revising and editing your draft, put it away for a day or two—if you have time, of course. Then look at it again. Mistakes that you might have missed pop out at you after you and your paper have had a little vacation from each other. At this point, do your final fixes, making sure everything is as good as you can make it. If you’ve written your paper on a computer, print it out for proofreading. Often, writers see mistakes on paper that they miss on a computer screen. After you proofread, you can type in your corrections.
Another way to catch mistakes and to find areas that still need improvement is to read your work aloud to yourself. Hearing the words in your paper is a particularly good way to call
attention to problems such as repetition, improper use of pronouns, and mistakes in subject-verb agreement.
Another good idea is to ask someone else to read your paper and give you feedback. A pair of eyes besides your own can pick up details that you may miss. Your reader, whether a classmate or an adult, should not change your paper. He or she should only suggest additional changes and improvements, which you can make yourself.
Plagiarism, in its most basic definition, means representing other people’s work and ideas as your own. Turning in a research paper that you borrowed, or stole from another student or downloaded from the Internet constitutes plagiarism. So does copying portions of text directly from your sources or from other texts you encountered in your research. It is a serious offense that, in school, can result in a range of penalties—from failing an assignment, earning a black mark on your academic record, to even being expelled. In the workplace, it can result in the loss of your professional reputation and the respect of your colleagues. It can affect your ability to earn promotions or find another job.
Plagiarism is not always deliberate. It can happen inadvertently when students do not understand how to properly present others’ work within their own papers. Even when you go to great lengths to write a paper, plagiarism can occur if you fail to properly cite the words and ideas of others. Plagiarism can happen if:
- You borrow short phrases from your research sources but fail to cite the source.
- You paraphrase an idea from your research using your own words but you fail to cite the original author.
- You represent another students’ work, even a short passage from it, as your own.
- You turn in a paper that you previously submitted as an assignment for another class. (Yes! It is possible to plagiarize yourself.)
More often than not, plagiarism results from a writer’s failure to properly paraphrase or summarize another’s work or to correctly cite quoted material. Therefore, it is important to understand how to avoid plagiarism and to incorporate strategies for avoiding it in your writing routine. Plagiarism is easy to avoid if you have properly documented your research and if you follow the guidelines of an editorial style book, such as those published by the Modern Language Association (MLA) or the American Psychological Association (APA), to properly cite the research sources you documented.
Choosing a Documentation Style
“Style” refers to the way you present information and write what you have to say. Style guides prescribe conventions for writing and documenting your sources. Numerous styles abound.The three main styles are:
- MLA (Modern Language Association) style: used by the vast majority of high schools, colleges, and in literature, linguistics, and the humanities programs.
- APA (American Psychological Association) style: widely used in the scientific community. Most of example research papers on this site use APA style
- Chicago Manual of Style: typically used in books, magazines, corporate publications, and other popular outlets.
Styles aim to bring consistency to the way in which information is presented.They are designed to promote intellectual integrity and protect writers against plagiarism by specifying
the ways in which information should be reported,quoted, paraphrased, and summarized.
In the vast majority of cases, students producing research papers will follow MLA style, although APA style is also used in the academic community.MLA style is widely used among high schools and in undergraduate courses at the college and university level. Straightforward and easy to master, MLA style was developed more than 50 years ago and is also widely used by collegiate presses and scholarly publications.
Upper-level and graduate-level science courses, and other disciplines that present findings in case studies, whitepapers, and reports, typically follow APA style. Your selection of style, however, should always be based upon what your teacher or professor assigns.
Learning the Basics
we review some of the basics of each style and provide a sample paper to illustrate basic MLA format.Students and serious researchers are advised to refer to the style guide of the association whose style they will follow.
Volumes have been published on the rules and recommendations of both styles. The MLA publishes the widely used MLA Handbook for Writers of Research, as well as the MLA Style Manual and Guide to Scholarly Publishing which offers more detailed guidance for graduate theses, dissertations, and papers to be published in journals. The APA offers a variety of style guides, including Mastering APA Style and the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association, as well as extensive information online, including a narrated tutorial, at www.apastyle.org.
Numerous online writing labs (OWLs) sponsored by university writing programs, such as the ones below, also provide extensive resources to help you brainstorm, outline, and write
papers, as well as avoid plagiarism:
- Purdue University: https://owl.english.purdue.edu/
- University of Wisconsin: http://writing.wisc.edu/Handbook/Documentation.html
- University of North Carolina: http://writingcenter.unc.edu/
Basic Formatting Guidelines
- Never submit a handwritten paper.
- Papers should be typewritten on plain white 8 1⁄2 x 11-inch paper.
- Use 1-inch margins on all sides.
- Double-space the paper.
- Text should be justified flush left, leaving the right-hand margin ragged.
- Create a header to run consecutively on all pages, flush right, one-half inch from the top of the page.
- Use quotation marks around the titles of articles and underline or italicize the titles of books and other long works.
- Avoid using all caps, underlining, or italics for emphasis.
Other formatting considerations are particular to the style you choose.
MLA Style Formatting Basics
- Include your name, your instructor’s name, the name of the course, and the date in the top left corner of the first page.
- Use a 12-point font that will be easy to read, such as Times New Roman or Arial.
- Use 1-inch margins for all sides of the paper—top and bottom, right and left.
- Create a header with your last name and the page number to appear in the upper right-hand corner of all other pages that follow the first page.
- Avoid separate title pages. Instead insert one blank line (no more) beneath the date and center the title.
- Never add blank lines or extra white space to the paper. Your teacher will suspect you are wasting space to fill a page requirement.
- Type the title in title case, capitalizing the initial letter of keywords.
- Center the title two lines under the header and just above the first line of text on the first page.
- Insert one blank line (no more) beneath the title and begin writing.Do not include extra white space above or below the title.
- Do not boldface or italicize the title and do not use special fonts.The title should be the same size and typeface as the rest of the paper.
- Justify your text flush left.
- Indent quoted excerpts by five spaces on the left and right-hand sides of the quoted text.
- Double space the entire essay including header information, your works cited page, and quoted excerpts.
- Be sure your works cited entries are formatted in the same style and size text as your paper.This is something you should especially watch if you used a citation generator; most produce the citation in their own fonts.
- Indent paragraphs five spaces, or 1⁄2 inch; do not add extra white space between paragraphs.
- Use one space after punctuation.
APA Style Formatting Basics
APA style was developed by social and behavioral scientists to govern the structure and presentation of scientific writing. Unlike MLA style, APA style calls for a separate title page and unique sections within the paper.The sections include:
- The title page
- An abstract summarizing the paper
- An introduction
- A description of the scientific methodology the researcher used
- A summary of the results
- A discussion of the issues
The references page is equivalent to the MLA’s works cited page. It is a list of the sources cited within the paper. As in MLA style, the referenced works should be alphabetized by author’s last name, listed separately, and formatted with hanging indents. Unlike MLA style, APA style makes liberal use of headings and uses five different levels of headings,each with unique formatting requirements. Check the APA Web site or style guide for details.When using APA style, remember to:
- Use a serif typeface, such as Times New Roman, for the text.
- Use a sans serif typeface, such as Arial, for headings.
- Create separate pages for the title page, abstract, the beginning of the text, references, and each appendix, figure, illustration, or table you use in the paper.
- Use captions with charts, tables, figures, illustrations, and other graphics.
Any direct quotations or specific information you use from your sources must be attributed to your source, either by mentioning the author in the text or through an in-text citation. Quotation marks must appear around any words or phrases that appear exactly as they did in the original document. If you mention the author to introduce the quotation, you will need to follow it with a page citation to ensure that you avoid plagiarism, as shown in the example below:
Anne-Marie Minnow explained the importance of the Hadron supercollider as “an innovation that will advance scientific understanding by light-years.” (127)
If you do not include the author’s name in your text, you will need to incorporate the author’s last name in front of the page number in the citation, as shown in the example below:
The Hadron supercollider promises to be “an innovation that will advance scientific understanding by light-years.” (Minnow 127)
Note that the first example is a narrative reference in which the writer mentions the full name of the author in order to introduce, or set up, the quotation. In the second example, the citation follows the quotation to identify who the author is. In both cases, it is clear the words being quoted belong to Minnow and, in addition to using in-text citations like those shown above, you will need to cite the source on your works cited page.
Paraphrasing and Summarizing
Paraphrasing and summarizing are ways of discussing the work and ideas of others without quoting them directly. We summarize a discussion or reading to make it more succinct so that it can fit more neatly into our own discussion.We paraphrase a discussion in order to make it clearer or more relevant to our thesis and our audience. For all practical purposes, summary and paraphrase mean the same thing—using your own words to represent another’s ideas. It is equally as important to cite authors whose ideas you summarize or paraphrase as it is to cite those you quote.
Tips for Summarizing and Paraphrasing
- Whenever you summarize or paraphrase, write your understanding of the text you are summarizing. Avoid looking at the text as you do.This will help ensure that you do not inadvertently borrow the writer’s phrases. When you have finished, compare what you have written to the author’s words and correct any inaccuracies, again using your own words. If you used significant words or phrases from the original text, be sure to enclose them in quotation marks.
- As you incorporate your summaries and paraphrases into your paper, cite them as carefully as you cite quoted material.
- Be especially cautious when using word processing tools like Microsoft Word’s AutoSummarize. AutoSummarize shortens a page of text, highlighting key points and phrases that can be inserted into a research paper. Instructors are aware of these features, and many do not consider them legitimate. It is arguable, after all, whether this is you or the word processor doing the job. If you do use this feature, be sure that you edit the autosummary to quote the words and phrases that the word processor extracted from the original and be sure that you cite the source.
- Whenever you summarize or paraphrase, begin with a signal phrase to introduce the material. Be sure to cite the material as you would cite a quotation.