With many college students bracing themselves for the end of the semester, I wanted to share some of my tips for writing a research paper! Keep in mind that while these tips helped me, they may not be as beneficial to everyone.
When you first start planning your paper, start broad with your topic. Chances are the research you’ll be doing will help give you ideas on different avenues you can take that will lead to more specific, concrete ideas.
Find as much information on your topic as possible. Even if you don’t think it is completely relevant to you topic, you should still save it. Once you have a few different sources, read through all of them and highlight any information that you may use. After you’ve read all the sources you can pick which ones will actually be useful for your paper. As an example, I once had probably 15-20 different sources for a paper I was writing, but I ended up only using 5 or 6.
Create an outline. An outline really helps you visualize what areas of your paper need more attention and which ones don’t. Under each section or subsection, add the titles of the sources you think may use there. Jot down all of the thoughts/questions that you have about your topic! You can weed through them all and decide on which ones are relevant later – just get them all down while you’re thinking about them.
Utilize your school’s library resources! There are a ton of databases that are available to you as a student. Sometimes your professor will even list some that are relevant depending on the course (for example, which databases are good for finding documents for History or for Anthropology). Below is an example of the recommended databases for English students available through the University of Michigan-Dearborn’s library. I used JSTOR and ProQuest Research Library all of the time as a student.
Start broad when searching in databases (or whatever way you’re gathering research). If you get too specific you might miss some results. Even once you’ve gotten a better idea of what exactly you’ll be writing about you still want to only enter a few keywords in the database. For example, last year I helped my brother gather research for a paper on environmental injustice at the state and local level. While looking for articles in the databases, we used phrases such as “environmental injustice,” “environmental injustice low income,” “environmental injustice Michigan,” and “environmental racism.” As we found articles, we were introduced to new concepts or phrases that we then searched for in the databases.
Also look for additional sources that may benefit you in the reference section of your sources. Most scholarly articles contain references to publications by other authors (see below).
Once you begin writing your paper, write the introduction last. If you don’t want to do that, try writing a very broad introduction that you can add more details to and make make more specific later. Saving the bulk of your introduction for last allows you to see the direction your paper ultimately went in which helps you write an introduction that properly and effectively introduces your topic.
Once you have a rough draft, have someone else unfamiliar with your topic read your paper. They can give you advice/thoughts on the flow, any grammatical errors, and general feedback. It doesn’t matter how many times I read my own papers – someone almost always found a minor error that I missed, found something that was repetitive, or suggested moving some sentences or a paragraph to a spot that made more sense.
Try to connect the topic you are writing about to something currently happening. For example, if you’re writing a paper on health disparities among lower-class Americans, you could discuss how the coronavirus impacted them using newspaper articles or data. If you were writing about a Jane Austen book, you could show how the themes in her books are still relevant today. As an additional example, in the above mentioned paper that I helped my brother with he talked about the Flint water crisis. In his conclusion he included relevant information from a newspaper article that discussed the most recent court proceedings related to the crisis. I believe that circling back to something that was mentioned earlier leaves an impact on readers because it shows how your topic is still impacting people today.
Again, everyone has their own way of writing a research paper! These are things that I found worked for me after a lot of trial and error. If you ever find yourself stuck either in the planning, researching, or drafting step I hope these tips help you.
Have a great rest of your week!