Co-authored by Renae Hintze
It’s a beautiful sunny day, you had a big delicious breakfast, and you show up bright-eyed and bushy-tailed for your first class of the day. Just as you’re getting comfortable in your chair, your teacher hits you with it:
A 5-page, size 12 font research paper… due in 2 weeks.
The sky goes black, your breakfast turns to a brick in your stomach. A research paper? FIVE pages long? Why???
Maybe I’m being a little over-dramatic here. But not all of us are born gifted writers. In fact, I think it’s safe to say that most of us struggle a little or a lot with writing a research paper.
But fear not!! I can help you through it. If you follow these 11 steps I promise you will write a better essay, faster.
1. Start early
We all do it. We wait until the LAST day to start an assignment, and then something goes wrong at the LAST minute, and Woops! We get a bad grade.
ALWAYS start your essays early. This is what I recommend. Especially since writing a research paper requires more effort than a regular paper might.
I have a 3-week timeline you can follow when writing a research paper. YES, 3 weeks!! It may sound like waaay too early to start, but it gives you enough time to:
- Outline and write your paper
- Check for errors
- Get pointers from your teacher on what to improve
All of this = a better grade on your assignment. You’re already going through all the effort — why not be positive that you’ll get the best results??
2. Read the Guidelines
Ever taken a shirt out of the dryer to find it has shrunk 10 sizes too small?
It’s because the shirt probably wasn’t meant to go in the dryer, and if you had read the tag, you’d have saved yourself one whole article of clothing!
Before you even START on writing a research paper, READ THE GUIDELINES.
- What is your teacher looking for in your essay?
- Are there any specific things you need to include?
This way, you don’t have to finish your essay only to find that it needs to be re-done!
3. Brainstorm research paper topics
Sometimes we’re assigned essays where we know exactly what we want to write about before we start.
Write an essay on my favorite place to travel?? I know where I’M going to choose!
But there are probably more times where we DON’T know exactly what we want to write about, and we may even experience writer’s block.
To overcome that writer’s block, or simply avoid it happening in the first place, we can use a skill called mind-mapping (or brainstorming) to come up with a topic that is relevant and that we’re interested in writing about!
Here’s an example of a mind-map I just did for Influential People!
By writing whatever came to my mind and connecting those thoughts, I was able to come up with quite a few influential people to write about — I could come up with EVEN MORE if I kept writing!!
See here I can choose to write about Hillary Clinton and how she may have an influence on women and women’s rights in society.
Following this method, you can determine your own research paper topics to write about in a way that’s quick and painless.
4. Write out your questions
To get the BEST research, you have to ask questions. Questions on questions on questions. The idea is that you get to the root of whatever you are talking about so you can write a quality essay on it.
Let’s say you have the question: “How do I write a research paper?”
Can you answer this without more information?
Not so easy, right? That’s because when you “write a research paper”, you do a lot of smaller things that ADD UP to “writing a research paper”.
Break your questions down. Ask until you can’t ask anymore, or until it’s no longer relevant to your topic. This is how you can achieve quality research.
5. Do the research
It IS a research paper, after all. But you don’t want to just type all your questions into Google and pick the first source you see. Not every piece of information on the internet is true, or accurate.
Here’s a way you can easily check your sources for credibility: Look for the who, what, and when.
- Who is the author of the source?
- What are they known for?
- Do they have a background in the subject they wrote about?
- Does the author reference other sources?
- Are those sources credible too?
- What does the “Main” or “Home” page of a website look like?
- Is it professional looking?
- Is there an organization sponsoring the information, and do they seem legitimate
- Do they specialize in the subject?
- When was the source generated — today, last week, a month, a year ago?
- Has there been new or additional information provided since this information was published?
Double-check all your sources this way. Because this is a research paper, your writing is meaningless without other sources to back it up.
Keep track of your credible sources!
When you find useful information from a credible source, DON’T LET IT GO. You need to save the original place you found that information from so that you can cite it in your essay, and later on in the bibliography.
You don’t want to have to go back later and dig up the information a second time just to list the source you got it from!
To help with this, you may be familiar with the option to “Bookmark” your pages online — do this for online sources.
There IS another tool you can use to keep track of your sources. It’s called Diigo, and it’s what we use at Student-Tutor to build an online database of valuable educational resources!
You can create a Diigo account and one free group for your links. Check out this video on how to use Diigo to save all your sources in one convenient location.
Now, of course there are other ways besides the Internet to get information, and there’s nothing wrong with cracking open a well-written book to enrich your essay’s content!
Ways to get information when writing a research paper
- The Internet
6. Create a Thesis Statement
How to write a thesis statement is something that a lot of people overlook. That’s a mistake.
The thesis statement is part of your research paper outline but deserves its own step. That’s because the thesis statement is SUPER important! It is what sets the stage for the entire essay.
How do you write a thesis statement?
Here’s a color-coded example:
7. Create an outline
Once you have constructed your thesis, the rest of the outline is pretty simple. It should mimic the structure of your thesis!
Here’s a color-coded research paper outline you can follow:
8. Write your research paper
Here it is — the dreaded writing. But see how far we’ve already come?
We already know what we’re going to write about, and where we’re going to write it. That’s a lot easier than taking a pen straight to your paper and hoping for some magical, monk-like inspiration to come, am I right?
As you write, be sure to pin-point the places where you are inserting sources. I’ll talk about in-text citations in just a moment!
Here are some basic tips for writing your essay from International Student:
- Generally, don’t use “I/My” unless it’s a personal narrative
- Use specific examples to support your statements
- Vary your language — don’t use the same adjective 5 times in a row
9. Cite your sources
This goes along with the second step — make sure to check your essay guidelines and find out BEFOREHAND what kind of citation style your teacher wants you to use.
Like I promised earlier, Purdue University has a great article that provides instructions on and examples on how to cite different types of sources WITHIN your text. Reference this when you’re not sure what to do.
As a general rule of thumb, in-text citations usually go AFTER the sentence drawing from the source, but BEFORE the period of that sentence, in parentheses. If more than one sentence is referencing the same source, try to place it at the last of those sentences.
However, no matter what you cite INSIDE your writing, all the sources you use for the paper need to be included in your bibliography.
This goes on a separate page, after your main essay and may be titled “Works Cited” or “Bibliography”. (Make sure to check the guidelines, and ask your teacher!)
For this, I’m going to introduce you to an awesome, totally free citation tool called EasyBib.
Important Tip: Make sure that when you use EasyBib, you are filling in a template provided by EasyBib and NOT asking EasyBib to pull information directly from the source. EasyBib can’t always find information that is there, and your citation will be incomplete without it!
By selecting “Manual Cite”, EasyBib will provide you with a template for filling in the necessary information to create your citation.
You can then ask EasyBib to generate the source in the citation format you’ve selected. Copy and paste that source into your bibliography — easy!
10. Read your essay
Why do I need to read my essay if I wrote it?
You’d be surprised what you’ll catch the second, third, and bazillionth time around reading your own writing! Not that you have to read THIS a bazillion times… just once or twice over will do.
I recommend that you read your essay once-through, and the second time read it aloud. Reading your essay aloud reinforces your words and makes it easier to recognize when something is phrased strangely, or if you are using a word too often.
11. Have someone else read your essay
Lastly it is always important that someone else besides you read your essay before you submit it.
Find a professional who can give you constructive feedback on how to improve your essay — this may be a tutor or a teacher. It can also be someone who specializes in the subject you are writing about.
The absolute BEST person to review your essay would be the teacher that assigned it to you.
And yes, many teachers WILL read the essay they assigned before it is due and give you pointers on how to make it better. They want you to succeed and they’re the ones grading it — I think it’s safe to say they know what they’re talking about!
For most of us, writing a research paper is no walk in the park. Unfortunately, it’s important that you know how to do it!
Let’s review the steps to make this process as PAINLESS as possible:
- Start early — 3 weeks in advance!
- Read the guidelines
- Mind map/Brainstorm research paper topics
- Write out your questions
- Do the research (Remember to keep track of your sources!)
- Create a Thesis Statement
- Create an outline
- Write your essay
- Cite your sources (In-text and in your bibliography)
- Read your essay (twice and once aloud!)
- Have someone ELSE read your essay — try your teacher first.
Do you have experience writing a research paper? What process did you use, and was it effective? Tell us about it in the comments below!
Hello! My name is Todd. I help students eliminate academic stress, boost confidence, and reach their wildest dreams through college tips and digital age knowledge they are not teaching in school. I am a former tutor for seven years, $85,000 scholarship recipient, Huffington Post contributor, lead SAT & ACT course developer, and have worked with thousands of students and parents to ensure a brighter future for the next generation. Currently, I am traveling across America delivering presentations, rock climbing, adventuring, and helping inspire the leaders of tomorrow. Let's become friends! Follow my journey via my YouTube Vlog for inspirational value added tips!
HOW TO WRITE A PAPER AT THE LAST MINUTE
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Many students put a lot of effort into not doing their work. As the end of the year approaches and final assignments mount, they'll find they have to try a lot harder to not get the work done.
A week ago, tomorrow seemed a long way off, but the deadline looms: The four- or six- or eight-page paper must be turned in. But what if you've skipped a lot of classes or haven't read your textbook? What if you don't even own it yet?!
Then you're in trouble, but of course, it's not your fault. Life is hard and complicated.
At least that's what your professor will say when you get your paper back marked with a letter from the nether regions of the alphabet.
But it doesn't have to be that way. Writing final papers in a hurry is a skill just like, say, painting a fence. In fact, the two jobs have one common technique: use a lot of whitewash.
Here are five easy ways to write a good paper, at the last minute, with limited knowledge of the subject matter. You canUt be completely ignorant about your topic, but these methods may help conceal the flaws.
1.) Your point
This sounds easy, but it's actually the hardest part of the process. The teacher wants you to answer a question or defend a viewpoint in your paper.
Sometimes teachers give you a specific question, while other times you are given a general topic. Either way, the first thing you must do is think about what the teacher is asking for. Once you know that, you have a point to argue.
For example: What caused the fall of the Roman Empire? or Discuss how the fall of the Roman Empire might have occurred.
Think back on anything you might have read or heard in class on the topic, and try to plug in the missing factor that will turn that question into an answer. That's your thesis statement.
One thing to remember is that it doesn't have to be spectacular, or specific. Write about what you know. Don't try to guess "what the teacher wants," and don't be afraid to take a chance.
Keep in mind that a paper is written to defend a viewpoint. If there weren't multiple viewpoints, there would be no need for argument.
A thesis statement: The invention of the aqueduct caused the fall of the Roman Empire.
Just make sure that you can support whatever it is you're arguing. Don't start something you can't finish, and make sure you have in your first paragraph that one simple sentence explaining the point of your paper. With that, you have created a direction for your argument. Now, all you have to do is follow the path.
2.) For why or wherefore?
Don't try to sound smart. Keep your paper simple. A straightforward, easy-to-follow argument will get you an "A" every time.
Sometimes, when we're not sure what we're talking about, we try to use big words. For one, they fill up space and can inflate a three-page paper by almost half a page. But don't do it.
If length is your worry, then manipulate the type font and margins when you're finished.
When using big words to sound intelligent, the opposite often occurs. Last-minute papers turn into jumbled messes of multiple instances of "Therefore, as to whether..." and "Indeed, it is clear the fact that...." We try to mimic the rhythms of scholarly rhetoric, and end up sounding moronic.
For example: Therefore, the aqueducts of the Romans having been made of lead, the water supply for the city may well have been contaminated and caused many to go mad from lead poisoning.
That sentence fluffs up the paper, but is dull and boring. Too many words. Basic bad writing.
A better example would be: Many Romans suffered from madness brought on by lead poisoning because the city's water supply was contaminated by lead-lined aqueducts.
The latter sentence is precise. Remember, good writing is clear writing. Clear writing should include active verbs and simple subjects. Don't think your argument has to be complicated to be good.
A teacher will read a straightforward sentence as an indication that you know what youUre talking about, and, indeed, you will. The trick is pulling the right information from your mind, and stating it precisely.
Take whatever kernel of information you got from the class and narrow it down into simple statements. By doing that, you've taken the reins of your paper, and the rest is easy.
3.) Last-minute research
After scraping together an argument and writing down everything that you know can support it, you may find you've only got half a page of material.
Don't panic. Take your information and quickly look it up in the index of your textbook. Turn to those pages, and see if there is anything you missed (or never bothered to read) that might support your argument.
If there's any chance that your thesis will work, you should find something. When you do, quote it. That's the best way to stay close to what you know, fill up the pages, and still write a legitimately good paper.
Never plagiarize, but don't be afraid to use other people's arguments to support your own. Just make sure you credit them.
Remember, you have your point. Just pour through the book, finding anything that remotely relates to it. Make things work.
Again, take chances. Even if a particular passage only dimly supports your argument, use it. Just make sure that you explain how the quote relates to your point. That's called "putting it in context.". You have to set the quote up before slamming it down into your paper.
Simply explain why you think it supports your thesis, explain in simple terms what the quote says, and then quote away!
An example of a quote: According to the medical dictionary, "small doses of lead over a long period of time can cause increasing fits of psychosis."
(Then take a chance and make a connection.)
Water rushing over the lead-lined aqueducts carried just enough of the harmful element to slowly drive the entire population of Rome insane. The textbook states that the downfall of the empire began long before the aqueduct came into wide use. But the wealthy began using aqueducts long before they snaked through the city.
(Then, perhaps, another chance and another quote.)
The wealthy held all the political power in Rome, and made almost all decisions affecting the city. As the textbook states, "The ruling class of the Roman Empire was designated by their wealth."
There, you've just made a pretty good argument. Keep digging through the book, and don't be afraid to cheat a little. Remember, the bigger the quote, the longer the setup. You'll fill those pages in no time.
4.) 1-2-3 structure
Now that you've got your thesis, the rest is easy. The next thing to do is plan to write your paper in three parts.
The first is your opening paragraph. That's where you place your thesis statement (either as the first or last sentence.) The rest of the paragraph should be setup; explain your thesis. As a high-school English teacher once told me, "Say what you are going to say." That's step one.
Step two is the long part: "say it." You've got to support the claims you've made in the opening paragraph. Start each paragraph in this section with a straightforward "minithesis," and explain it (see Part 3.)
Here's a good example of a string of minithesis topics:
- The rulers of Rome were wealthy.
- The wealthy had aqueducts before the rest of the city.
- The empire began its decline before aqueducts were widespread.
- [D The fall of Rome is often attributed to poor leadership.
- The leadership was poor because the rulers were crazy with lead poisoning.
There, you've said it. Now comes the third step. "Say that you've said it." A final, wrap-up paragraph should summarize what you said in the second step. End with your thesis statement, but start it with a "therefore."
Therefore, the invention of the aqueduct caused the fall of the Roman Empire.
5.) Don't screw up
Now that you've gone through all four steps of writing a good last-minute paper, don't let stupid mistakes drop your grade.
Proofread. Make sure you cite sources. Manipulate the font and margins a little to meet the page-length requirement, but make sure you don't go too far. If you followed all these steps, you wonUt need to overdo it.
A solid argument is still a solid argument whether it's two pages or 10 pages long. The professor wants to know that you know what you're talking about.
Creating four-inch margins and overlooking obvious spelling mistakes will indicate the paper was a rush job, and may arouse suspicion. Even if there are only the tiniest holes in your argument, the teacher may go back and try to find them.
If you give yourself about five hours to go through these steps, you should come away with a pretty decent paper. Keep in mind that if you had slaved over it for weeks, you probably would get a better grade.
However, the grade you do receive may be worth the time you blew off enjoying the first warm weeks of spring, or the late nights you spent in the bar instead of in the library. Obviously, the more time you have, the better your grade.
Even if you awake and find you have only one-half hour to start and finish a paper or miss the deadline, there is still something you can do.
Go back to sleep.
Rome wasn't built in a day, but it takes a few hours to explain why it fell.