How to Write a Decent Research Paper

How to Write a Decent Research Paper

by Shannon Stockdale-Elftman


When I think back to those years I spent in middle school and college, there are still two words capable of unleashing nightmares… Research Paper.

Though in our modern age, writing a research paper has certain advantages, it is no less daunting now than it was decades ago. The sheer scope of topics to write about is overwhelming, as are the numerous sources of information. Add the internet to the traditional books, periodicals, and magazines, and you've got all the makings for a huge migraine. And this is all before you even start the actual writing and formatting. Despite all this, don't throw your hands up in frustration and swear never to write another research paper again. Believe me when I tell you that the skills learned from writing technical and research papers will be called on long after you leave school. Though it's been years since I've written a research paper, I myself use the skills I've learned in research to write articles, essays, and even fiction work.

So, without any more whining, pleading, or rants about how unjust your English teacher is, let's go over a few basic steps for writing a research paper.

While these steps are presented in sequential order, anyone who has ever tried to write a research paper knows that the process doesn't always move from point A to point B. This is just a basic outline to help you organize your thoughts and ideas.



Step One: Selecting a Research

Paper Topic

by Shannon Stockdale-Elftman


Selecting a research paper topic. So, your teacher has just assigned a research paper. What do you do now? Well, if you've been given free reign, and allowed to choose a research paper topic of your own, your first step is to decide exactly what you want to write about.

Now when I say free reign, I don't mean you can write on the finer points of playing base guitar for your health class. I'm sure your teacher has placed certain restrictions on your paper, and the topics. We need to keep those restrictions in mind as we look for topics.

When thinking up topic ideas, there are a few questions you need to ask yourself.

  • Is there an ample amount of information about this research paper topic? Enough that I can use at least three different sources? Note: You want to try to avoid very recent subjects, like new medical advancements, or breakthroughs in a certain field, as there will not be enough information for an entire research topic.

  • Does the research paper topic encourage research in the number and types of sources required by the assignment? Note: Most instructors will ask you to get your information from several different types of sources like books, newspapers, magazines, and websites. They may also want a minimum number of sources.

  • Is the research paper topic something I can find solid evidence for or against, and reach a defendable conclusion based on this evidence? Note: This means that you have to try and steer clear of topics based purely on belief and opinion, such as why girls are superior to boys at kick ball, or why Christie Golden is the best writer ever. These are considered opinions.

  • Is the topic too broad or too narrow for the required number of pages, and the length of time I have to complete the assignment? Note: How do you judge if a topic is too broad or too narrow? Start in the library. If you can find several books on the same thing you plan to write your paper on, then chances are the topic is too broad. If, however, you have a hard time finding a few references to your topic in the library, then it might be too narrow. Ask yourself questions about your topic until you either bring it down to manageable size, or make it bigger according to your needs.


So, now you have a pretty good idea of what you want to write about. As you start your research, your topic may change slightly to fit with your research, but for now, you're on the right track.


Your aim for finding a topic is actually simple. All you need is one question, one simple yet open-ended question that will give your paper focus. For example, the question "How did the Roman Empire affect the world?" is so broad you could spend the rest of your life answering it and never be done. However, something along the lines of: "How did Roman medical practices influence modern day medicine?" or "How did Roman architecture influence modern architecture?" is much more focused and can be answered in less than 20 pages. The question you ask should sum up the point of your research paper, and its answer will become your main goal. Next you gather as much factual information as you can to help answer your question.


Step Two: Finding Research Paper Answers

by Shannon Stockdale-Elftman


Research is where the whole thing starts to get a little tricky. It's so easy to get bogged down and disorganized when trying to put together a piece like this. Believe me, I know. So, before we begin with the actual research, I want to give you a few pointers on how to organize your material, and ideas so that when it comes time to write you have everything you need at hand.

For starters, you're going to need a notebook to hold any questions that pop into your mind while thinking about your topic. It will also be the place where you log general notes on how the paper is coming together and what direction it is going in. This notebook can also be used for making a rough outline of your paper (a necessity if the paper is over a page long) and is a good place for writing rough drafts. The notebook is also a good place to start compiling a working bibliography.

A working bibliography is simply a file of potential sources of information for your paper. Keep a running list of all the sources that look promising, then after you've collected anywhere from three to thirty sources-depending on how many you'll need for the paper-then you decide which ones look most promising and start with those. This can save you time, not only during the actual research, but also when writing the real bibliography for your paper. Later on, I will give you a breakdown of all the information you will need for your working bibliography.

Some people also use note cards when working on a paper to actually document the information they've found in their sources, and the name of the source they found it from. This allows for easy organization of the information. Others find the note cards hard to keep track of and just a general pain in the butt, so they write out that information in their notebooks instead. Any direct quotes, statistics, or summarized ideas should be written down, along with the name of the source that it came from. Which style you use doesn't really matter, as long as it’s one that is easy for you to keep track of.

Another thing that might come in handy is a spare folder. Occasionally making copies of some of the information you come across will come in handy (or if using the web, printouts). Using a folder to keep track of this loose-leaf paper will keep everything together.

Now, I know the mere thought of entering a library is causing some of you to have a panic attack. "Library? I can think of twenty things I'd rather be doing." In our modern age it seems so much simpler to look everything up on the internet, while sitting in our comfortable pajamas and fuzzy slippers. Well, sure, I suppose that's easier. But don't count the library out as a viable source of information. For starters, those librarians know their stuff. They can be an invaluable resource to you as you hunt down information; they know what sources are reputable and where to find them, and they are even good at internet research. Basically, they are everything you could want in a research partner and more.

Having said all that, I know that a good portion of the information you use will come from the internet. So, a few words of caution and ideas for where to begin your search.

The thing that is so wonderful about the internet is also the thing that makes it an occasionally unreliable source. All the people using it. Anyone with a computer and a mind to do so, can claim they are an authority on something. And perhaps a lot of them are, but when you're not sure how reputable a site is, it's a good idea to use your own common sense. Usually sites put together by organizations, universities and other schools, the government, news groups, and libraries will be your best bet. Other than that, you need to use your own judgment on what makes a source believable.

The following is a list of URL's that is a good place to begin your search:

General Information:





Social Sciences


Business and Economics:


Ethnic and Gender Studies:

Web Search Engines:

Another way the internet comes in handy is that you can actually see what books your local library has before even venturing there. Simply find your local library's website and chances are their entire catalog is there. Most libraries will also let you reserve the books online or by phone, so they are ready when you get there. Can't get any easier than that.

Documenting Sources

The following is a list of the information you will need to compile for your working bibliography.

For books

  • Name(s) of author(s), editor(s), translator(s), or others listed.

  • Title and subtitle

  • Publication information:

    • Place of publication

    • Publisher's name

    • Date of publication

  • Other important data, such as edition or volume number

For periodical articles

  • Name(s) of author(s)

  • Title and subtitle of article

  • Title of periodical

  • Publication information:

    • Volume number and issue number (if any) in which article appears

    • Date of issue

    • Page numbers on which article appears

For electronic sources

  • Name(s) of author(s)

  • Title and subtitle

  • Publication data for books and articles (see above)

  • Date of release, online posting, or latest revision

  • Medium (online, CD-ROM, etc.)

  • Format of online source (Web site, Web page, e-mail, etc.)

  • Date you consulted the source

  • Complete electronic address (unless sources were obtained through a subscription service and have no permanent address)

  • For sources obtained through a subscription service:

    • Name of database

    • Name of service

  • Electronic address of the service's home page or search terms used to find the source.


When compiling your working bibliography, it is a good idea to write it down exactly as it must be sited for your paper's bibliography. This will save you time and mistakes in the long run.