There comes a time in every student’s college career when they will be required to write a research paper for the first time. A research paper is more than a book report or a literature review, in which you’re just reporting on your findings. In fact, a research paper has to make an argument, analyze a particular viewpoint, or interpret another’s ideas. As such, it is a combination of your own opinions and analyses and information you’ve found from outside sources. The prompt for a research paper could be as simple as “Analyze this piece of artwork or literature,” but you may be given more specific directions. Often, it depends on your professor.
Research papers are extended essays. Often the page requirement is between five and 10 pages, but this depends on the question and the amount of research you are expected to do. Within the introduction you need to state your thesis. Your thesis is a one-sentence statement that describes your argument and what you intend to prove in the remainder of your paper. For instance, if you were being asked to analyze a piece of artwork, your thesis could be something along the lines of “Jackson Pollock’s bold style is indicative of his volatile mental health.” Throughout the rest of the paper, then, you would make arguments showing that his painting technique, choice of colors, and wild, unpredictable designs are directly related to his mood swings and alcoholism.
A good research paper is not written in first person. Using the phrases “I think” or “I believe that” serve only to undermine the statements that follow. Use direct language (nothing vague like “it seems” or “kind of”) and state your thesis and arguments as fact. When doing research for your paper, you will come across a ton of material that seems like it would be relevant to your thesis. Use discretion in what you choose to include, however. Something that seems relevant to the subject (Jackson Pollock being married) may be less important to your thesis than something else (Jackson Pollock having an affair). Don’t be afraid to cut out material that is only tangentially relevant to your argument. Your paper should be direct; it should not lead your readers on a meandering path unrelated to your main argument.
Provide evidence from other sources (journal articles, textbooks, and nonfiction literary works) to support your arguments. Interviews with trusted scholars and newspaper articles may also be appropriate sources to cite. All sources cited within a research paper need to be scholarly (this means no Wikipedia and for the most part, no websites that end in .com). Generally, you need at least five sources to write a thorough paper, though your professor may ask that you find more. Don’t go overboard with your sources though; your voice needs to shine through.
Here are some other tips to making sure your research paper is worthy of an A:
- Make sure that you understand the question before you even consider starting to research or write. A prompt that asks you to “analyze” is different from one that asks you to “interpret” or “argue.” While you need to have an arguable thesis statement no matter what, the content of your paper will differ based on the question you’re answering.
- Start researching and outlining a topic soon after you get your assignment. While many college students can crank out a research paper in an afternoon, it’ll be obvious that you haven’t spent much time developing your ideas. Instead, start writing an outline of your thoughts a few weeks out from the deadline; you’ll have much more time to write a detailed, thoughtful paper if you’ve got notes to work from.
- Don’t be afraid to change your thesis as you learn more about your topic. As long as you can coherently make an argument one way or another throughout your entire paper, you have a working thesis.
- Don’t state the obvious when writing your thesis statement. “Underage teens shouldn’t drink alcohol” is obvious. It doesn’t say anything new. “The United States should change the legal drinking age to 19” is a statement that would make the reader want to learn more and ask “why.”
- Don’t try to fill up space by manipulating your font size, spacing, or page margins. Your professors know every trick in the book. Floral language is also unwelcome and unnecessary in a research paper. If you’re having trouble reaching the page count, talk to your professor during office hours and ask for suggestions.
- Cite your sources appropriately. At most colleges, plagiarism, even when it’s unintentional, can lead to academic probation and an automatic failing grade on the assignment. Obviously, this is something that should be avoided at all costs. Ask your professor the preferred format (MLA, APA, or something else), learn the citation guidelines, and use them. You must cite when you directly quote from a source, but you also need to use a citation when you paraphrase text or if an idea you’ve written about is not your own.
- Have a friend, parent, or even your professor read over what you’ve written once you’ve written a first draft. They’ll catch grammatical errors that you’re less likely to see, since you’ve been staring at the assignment for hours already, and they can offer advice on whether your arguments are sound or if they need some strengthening. It may be particularly helpful to ask someone who is unfamiliar with the topic; they can tell you if everything makes sense and if there is anything that needs clarifying.
Writing a research paper isn’t everyone’s idea of fun, especially if it’s not for a class that truly interests you, but following these tips will help make it easier. That, and a lot of practice.