How to start a research paper? Research paper writing begins with a writing assignment the instructor gives you. This assignment may be specific, or it may be general. It may assign you a research topic and point you in the direction the research should take. Or it may offer a great deal of flexibility, allowing you to pick your topic and stage your own research. The assignment serves as a road map to what you must do. It is your first clue to what your professor expects of you. If you have a thorough understanding of the assignment, you will be better able to deliver what is expected of you.
Tackling a research paper is, in many ways, like preparing to run a race.You have no hope of finishing among the leaders if you have no idea where the finishing line is or how to get there. That may sound sophomoric but the vast majority of research papers that end in failure do so because the writer proceeded with no clear understanding of what was expected and delivered something off the mark.
The first step you take in tackling the paper should point you in the direction of a successful finish. You need to know what is expected of you and how to prepare to deliver it. By understanding where you need to end up, you will spare yourself a lot of trial and error in writing.
First Steps in Writing a Research Paper:
- Interpret the assignment given.
- Identify your instructor’s the expectations and grading criteria.
- Analyze the audience of your paper.
- Choose a topic.
- Write a thesis statement.
- Write a proposal.
Step 1: Interpreting the Assignment
Knowing precisely what you need to produce is the first step to producing a perfect paper. Not only will it spare you the frustration of assembling material that may not be appropriate to the assignment, but it will assure you of a better grade. One of the first questions on an instructor’s mind is: Did this student understand the assignment? A student’s ability to deliver what the assignment requests shows the teacher or professor that the student possesses the skills to properly interpret instructions and identify expectations.
Research papers typically begin with an assignment that identifies your teacher’s expectations and provides the information you need to know to complete the assignment.
What You Should Know before You Start
What is the purpose of the assignment? What does your instructor expect you to learn?
- Is there an assigned topic? Can you choose your own?
- What kinds of sources should you use?
- How many sources should you use?
- Are print and online sources equally acceptable?
- When is the paper due?
- How long should it be?
- How should the paper be formatted?
- How should bibliographic information be presented?
- What are the qualities of a paper that gets an A, B, C, or D?
You cannot produce a good research paper if you do not know what “goodness”means to your professor or instructor who will be evaluating it. More important are those expectations that actually tell you what you are supposed to do. Writing assignments are often written very deliberately to test how well students read, interpret, and respond to the expectations that are outlined. Your professor may want to know how well you can summarize new ideas and complex material, or whether you can present a logical argument to support an opinion or advocate an idea. Another assignment might spell out how you should conduct your research by specifying the types of sources you should consult. Other instructors may use words like analyze, discuss, or investigate to describe what is expected. Students should not take these words lightly because they have specific meanings. You must learn to recognize the goals and expectations in an assignment.
When you receive a research paper assignment, read it thoroughly and be prepared to ask your professor about anything that is unclear to you. Make a list of the stated goals and expectations. Though you already have these on the assignment sheet but writing them down will make them concreted in your mind and help you to remember them. If you receive the criteria for how your research paper will be graded, examine them as closely as you do the assignment to determine what you are expected to do in order to achieve the grade you want. If your instructor does not provide the grading criteria, ask what they are. An example of typical university grading criteria appears below:
Step 2: Identifying Grade Criteria
A Grade: A research paper that merits an A demonstrates a generally high degree of competence and control of language. Typically, such a paper meets all of the following criteria:
- Responds to the assignment thoroughly, thoughtfully, and with insight or originality.
- Demonstrates strong reading comprehension of the assigned texts.
- Is well-developed and supports analysis with effective textual evidence, reasons, examples, and details.
- Is well-focused and well-organized, demonstrating strong control over the conventions of analytical writing.
- Demonstrates facility with language, using effective vocabulary and sentence variety.
- Demonstrates strong control of grammar, the rules of usage, and mechanics of standard English but may have minor errors.
B Grade: A research paper that receives a B is written in a clearly competent manner and displays generally consistent control of language. Typically, such a paper meets all of the following criteria:
- Responds to all elements of the assignment competently and thoughtfully.
- Demonstrates an adequate understanding of the readings.
- Is adequately developed, using appropriate textual evidences, reasons, examples, and details.
- Is focused and effectively organized, demonstrating control of the conventions of analytical writing.
- Demonstrates strong language competence and uses appropriate vocabulary and sentence variety.
- Shows good control of grammar, the rules of usage, and mechanics of standard English, although it may have some errors and minor lapses in quality.
C Grade: A research paper that earns a grade of C demonstrates some competence but is limited in one or more of the following ways:
- Does not address all parts of the writing assignment.
- Does not demonstrate an adequate understanding of the readings.
- Is thinly developed, often relying on assertions with little textual evidence or few relevant reasons, examples, and details.
- Is adequately focused and/or adequately organized, but connections between the parts could be more explicit.
- Demonstrates limited facility with language and minimal sentence variety.
- Demonstrates inconsistent control of grammar, usage, and the mechanics of writing.
Grade of D: A research paper receives a grade of D if it has one or more of the following flaws:
- Is unclear and/or seriously limited in its response to the writing assignment.
- Demonstrates a limited reading or misreading of the texts.
- Is unfocused and/or disorganized, demonstrating little control of the conventions of analytical writing.
- Demonstrates serious errors in the use of language, which may interfere with meaning.
- Demonstrates serious errors in grammar, usage, and mechanics, which may interfere with meaning.
Grade of F: A research paper receives a grade of F when it:
- Demonstrates little or no ability to develop an organized response to the writing assignment.
- Contains severe writing errors that persistently obscure meaning.
Make sure to note any specific information or ideas that the assignment asks you to discuss in your research paper. It helps to ask any questions you may have, and take notes. Any information you receive will help you in your pursuit of the “perfect” research paper.
Make every effort to ensure that you understand what your professor is requesting. That way, you know what to deliver.
Types of Writing Assignments
Writing assignments in schools and universities are not created equal. The approach you take to receive an A in a paper written for one class will not necessary work well for you in another. You should expect that any research paper assignment, whether it is given at the high school or college level, will differ according to the class you are taking and the expectations of your professor. Even within a class, a professor’s expectations are likely to change from one assignment to another. Getting a good grade is not a function of “psyching out” your professor. It is a function of understanding the assignment and what you are being expected to do.
High School Research Paper
On a high school level, research papers are generally assigned to test an ability to look up information and explain it adequately in student’s own words. Here is a list of the kinds of assignments typically given in high school and what they mean:
- Summary: An abbreviated account of a larger article, book, or other work. Examples: Book report,movie review, or a summary of something you read in the news or saw on TV.
- Description: A detailed account of what things look like. Descriptions that help readers “see” what you are talking about are especially useful to clarify events, conditions, or concepts that might be unfamiliar to the reader. Good descriptions make appropriate use of adjectives and adverbs, metaphors, similes, and examples to build readers’ understanding. Examples: A history report about life in another time or a geography report about the culture and industries in another country.
- Explanation: A description that tells why certain conditions exist or certain events occur. Explanations attempt to identify the cause or causes that create an effect. They attempt to answer the question,“Why”? Examples: A science report.
- Process: A description of conditions that must exist and actions that must be taken to produce an outcome. Examples: Instructions someone should follow to do something successfully, such as following the steps in an experiment, or directions to a destination.
- Narrative: A story about something that happened. Narratives are often told in chronological order with a beginning, middle, and end. Examples:“What I Did on My Summer Vacation”
College and University Research Paper
At the college and university levels, a much more is expected from students. Writing assignments become more complex. Instead of simply asking you to summarize or describe something, the assignment typically will present you with a challenge. Often, too, the assignment is not even called an “assignment.” Instead, it is called a “writing prompt,” meaning that the purpose of the assignment is to “prompt” your thinking and elicit a thorough written response from you. Writing prompts usually call upon the writer to use a combination of the approaches learned in high school (those listed above), as well as employ other approaches and strategies to advance new ideas, opinions, and arguments about the topic
The path to producing a perfect research paper begins with understanding what those goals are and how to identify them in the assignment. Below is a list of terms that professors often use in writing prompts and what they mean:
- Analyze relationships among facts, trends, theories, and issues. Point out their significant likes and differences and tell why they are meaningful.
- Argue in defense of (or against) a concept, opinion, position, thesis, or point of view. Strong arguments apply logic and point out fallacies, errors, and “fuzzy” thinking.
- Categorize or classify items, concepts, or events by sorting them in sets of predefined qualities or conditions according to their similarities.
- Compare and contrast two or more events, ideas, or opinions by identifying their similarities and/or differences.
- Define the meaning of an unfamiliar term, phrase, or concept by describing the concept behind it.
- Discuss the implications of your research or various points of view on your topic by looking at different sides of the issue and pointing out their merits.
- Examine a topic in minute detail by describing it as if it were under a microscope.
- Illustrate a concept by using many significant details to describe it.
- Interpret a set of facts or events by explaining their significance and importance to your reader, or to other audiences with other needs or interests.
- Give your opinion by telling what you think about the topic and provide an explanation about why you think it.
- Reason (the verb, not the noun) by presenting the logical thought process required to support a specific conclusion.
- Synthesize information from a variety of sources to support a single thesis, opinion, or conclusion.
- Theorize by presenting your own hypothesis, or best guess, about why things are the way they are.
Step 3: Analyzing the Audience
A key test of a good research paper is how well it resonates with your audience. It is useful, before you begin, to create a profile of a theoretical reader.
Rather than focus on your professor as your audience, assume you are writing for intelligent people of the same age and educational level as yourself. Assume that they have not read the material you have researched and that you will need to provide enough background to ensure that your audience will understand and respond to your arguments. You will determine how to present your information and ideas according to the effect you hope they will have on the reader.
What You Should Know about Members of Your Audience
- Approximate age.
- Approximate educational level.
- Experiences they have in common.
- Why they would be interested in your topic.
- How much the average reader should already know about your topic.
- What questions a reader is likely to have.
- How that reader might react to your arguments.
Step 4: Choosing a Topic
Topics for some research papers will be assigned to you by your instructor, along with very specific requirements that you must follow in completing the paper. Others allow you to choose the topic you will research.
Many writing assignments are deliberately open-ended, allowing students to pick their own topics and pursue their own research. If your assignment is open-ended,you will have lots of latitude to research a topic that interests you, based on whatever guidelines or parameters your instructor specifies. The challenge then becomes finding a good research paper topic and devising a thesis and arguments to support it.
Below is an example of an open-ended writing assignment from a freshman English Composition class. It was designed to determine how effectively students can identify a topic, construct their own thesis statements, find sources to support the thesis, and use that research to present arguments their audience would find convincing.
Example open-ended assignment:
Pick an issue that interests you and find at least three newspaper articles or editorials from different sources that express differing points of view on the issue.Produce a five-page paper, including four pages plus a Works Cited page, that analyzes the various points of view.What appears to be the best course of action, based on the merits of the arguments that the articles present? Be sure to use arguments from each of your sources as you explore the issue. Paraphrase, summarize, and quote them accurately and be sure to cite them according to MLA style.
Open-ended writing assignments can be fun. They allow you to pursue your own topics of interest but they can also be frustrating because they require you to make decisions that your instructors make for you in specific assignments. Students often get lost and don’t know what to write about, or they spend a lot of time gathering research on vague topics that do not address their thesis.
The task becomes much easier if you already have a topic, one that is specific and focused and offers something to say. Coming up with one is the challenge but it is not as difficult as it sounds. Most of us know more—a lot more—than we think we know about the world around us and the subjects studied in schools colleges, and universities. At a minimum, people usually hold opinions about what is happening in our world, and, whether they realize it or not, they formed those opinions based on information and experience we gathered somewhere. If you find yourself stuck for a good research paper topic, ask yourself a few questions. You will find you have a lot more to say about those topics that you are involved with or that captured your interest than topics others might suggest, including your instructor.
Here are some things to consider when choosing a research paper topic:
- Your hobbies and special interests.
- Class discussions that caught your attention and aroused your interest.
- Things you have read that caught your attention and aroused your interest.
- True stories you have heard about on the radio or saw on TV that provoked a reaction from you and made you happy, sad, angry, or disgusted.
- Things you have overheard that you would like to know more about.
- Your hopes for the future.
- Your worries about the future.
- Things you dream about.
- Issues you think someone should do something about.
Make a list of everything that comes to mind. You can use this list to begin brainstorming. You can even make games you play a starting point of your research paper: people playing Total War series can be interested in some period in history, like Ancient Rome or Napoleonic Wars, the fans of Fallout games may find it interesting to research technologies, nuclear weapons, or the physics of radioactive materials. Just write whatever comes to you.
When you have finished the list, pick the topic that most interests you—one that you actually want to write about and that you feel you would have a lot to say about. Open-ended writing assignments tend to be large, even massive, projects. They are often assigned weeks ahead of when they are due in order to give you plenty of time to find sources to support your arguments. See our collection of research paper topics, maybe you’ll find something interesting.
After you have picked a research paper topic, begin to focus it by writing down anything you can think about the topic of your choice.Things to consider as you narrow your topic:
- Your opinion about it.
- Interesting things you have heard about it.
- Things you have read about it.
- Others’ observations on it.
- Any facts, assumptions, rumors,myths, and even the misrepresentations you have heard about it.
If you are assigned a research topic, you do not have a lot of flexibility. If the assignment requires you to write about a specific topic, simply write about it. Never stray from an assignment and head off in a direction all your own unless you first get approval from your professor. One of the best ways to ensure a bad grade is to write a research paper on a topic that in no way resembles the one you were assigned. No matter how perfect your research or how brilliant your style, you will most likely receive an F if you fail to produce what the assignment requests.
Instructors usually construct writing assignments with learning goals in mind. A student’s failure to correctly respond to an assignment means that he or she has not met those learning goals. Moreover, it raises a red flag to the instructor who may question whether the student understood the assignment or, worse, whether the student got lazy and desperate and found a well-written essay on the Internet and decided to submit it instead.
If you want to research a topic that was not assigned, ask your instructor if you can. Often, an instructor will be happy to let you follow your interests and conduct your own research, but always ask permission before you do.
Step 5: Developing a Working Thesis
A thesis statement is a claim that you intend to prove using sound, well-reasoned arguments drawn from careful research. It will be the central statement in your research paper when you actually sit down to write. Usually, your working thesis will not be the one that you actually present in your paper.
A working thesis simply aims to get you started on writing your research paper. You need it as an idea to guide you. Professors and writing instructors often refer to this process of developing an idea into a working thesis as “invention.” When you have finished this “invention” stage, you will find that you have the basis for a thesis statement and a good sense of direction in identifying the research you will need to support it.
The working thesis should be aimed at helping you narrow and manage your paper topic. A working thesis that is phrased in the form of a question can help guide your research. A good working thesis makes the job more manageable. Keep it focused and avoid making it too general. Theses that are too general often ramble and result in research papers that lose focus and therefore earn low grades.
Here are some examples of questions for working theses that are general and not well focused:
- Should more money be spent on education?
- How can the government balance the budget?
- Why should we study art?
- What should we do about global warming?
- How can we eliminate poverty?
- How should we respond to the energy crisis?
The following examples, however, are focused on specific issues that can be more easily researched:
- Should more government-backed student loans be made available?
- Should cuts in military spending be enacted before cutting domestic spending to balance the national budget?
- Should the study of art history or the creative arts receive greater emphasis in America’s high schools?
- Is wind energy a viable alternative to fossil fuels?
- Will the extension of unemployment benefits improve life for the nation’s unemployed?
- Will the sale of electric vehicles reduce American dependence on foreign oil?
Step 6: Writing a Proposal
Research proposals are only occasionally required in high school courses, sometimes in freshman-level college courses, and often in upper-level college business and science courses. However, even if your research paper assignment does not require you to submit a proposal, it is a good idea to develop one for your own purposes. A proposal helps you to organize ideas that can guide the research process. Research proposals allow you to start the thought process needed to focus your ideas. A good research proposal will identify the topic, present a working thesis, and offer a plan to prove it.
Think of your research proposal as an outline for how you will pursue your investigation and structure your research paper.
- Your proposal should:
- Identify your topic.
- Present a working thesis.
- Identify how you will conduct your research.
- Present a hypothesis for what you expect to prove.
Having completed these 6 steps we can proceed to the main part in research paper writing – doing your research.