Writing is easier than it seems. In this article, I have provided a systematic approach to completing even the most challenging research paper. While the assignment may differ, the method is essentially the same. The good news is that it does not take any fancy equipment, it does not require the most refined writing skills, and learning the process will save you time, reduce frustration, and help you to prevent plagiarism. You can do it!

Some reminders

scheduleCredit: wikimedia commonsYou need time to write your paper.  If you have 5 weeks, great! If you have 5 days, not as great, but not as good, either. If you have 5 hours, you will need to accept that you will probably not get the grade you want, but what you deserve. Regardless, avoid the temptation to copy (see below). You’re better off cutting corners than doing anything that might get you accused of plagiarism.

Copying is not writing. Say that five times. Burn it into your brain. Remember it at every instance. Never copy. Never, ever, ever copy. If you’re copying, you’re not writing. If you’re copying, you’re plagiarizing. Really. Do not do it. A best practice is never to right click on your mouse to copy text from one place to your paper. Always take notes on the content you are researching. Use your own words.

Quoting is also not writing. That is not to say that you should never quote, but avoid quoting 95% of the time. If you’re tempted to quote a passage that you read, ask yourself if it measures up to this standard:

quotation marksCredit: wikimedia

  • Is the quote famous? For example, the quote “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country” is one of the most famous quotes of the 20th century. Those words were spoken by a famous person--President John F. Kennedy--at his inauguration in January of 1961. Those are words that should be quoted.
  • Is the quote an official record of something? For example, if you need to use a portion of the Constitution or a portion of one of the poems of Edgar Allen Poe, then quoting is the proper thing to do.
  • Is the quote so good that paraphrasing it would reduce its importance? Be careful with this one. Because the caveat to this is, are you quoting it because you can’t figure out how to say it in your own words? In those instances, quoting is just lazy. Take the time read the passage. Set it aside, pull out the main idea that you remember and start recreating it in your own words.
  • Is the quote from a notable figure? For example, has a well-known scholar in the field of your study written about this topic? Has a US president commented on the topic or given a speech? These are good times to quote.
  • Is the quote short? Is it half a sentence? Have you used only 2 sentences or so of quoted material in your paper? If so, then feel free to quote.

In every other circumstance, avoid quoting. Remember, your instructor wants to read YOUR writing, not the writing of someone else. They can do that on their own! Don’t waste their time or insult their intelligence by passing off something you’ve copied as your own, either. We can tell. We really can.

1. Topic and Thesis Statement

Choosing your topic and thesis statement are the most important parts of the process, aside from actually completing the paper and turning it in. Some things to consider when determining a topic:

  • what are your constraints?
  • what are you passionate about?
  • what is worthwhile?

If you are provided a topic, then the choice has been taken away from you. That does not mean, however, that you cannot choose to write about a specific angle of the topic that you find interesting. Discuss the options with your instructor. 

light bulbCredit: wikimediaIf you have some choice in the matter, then write about a topic relevant to your course, but which you have interest or even passion. If the class is not one in which you have a real interest, try figuring out a way that you can tie in a topic that you are interested in which the course material. For example, if you were taking a class on US History, maybe you could write about the history of racial integration in professional sports. While not political history directly, the topic is part of the history of the civil rights movement in the United States. Again, ask your instructor. It is likely that they would like you to write about something in which you have a particular interest.

Your thesis statement is the main idea of your paper. Your thesis statement may be what you are setting out to prove, to explain, or to review. Your thesis statement is typically the “why” of your topic and is found in the last paragraph of your introduction: “This paper will discuss and why relates/explains/uncovers…”. In the rest of your paper, you endeavor to provide supporting documentation from your research to prove your sub points you will make to support your thesis.

2. Research

Essay or Term Paper? Term papers are different from personal essays. A personal essay is typically one that is about yourself, or about an issue in which you share your personal opinion. In a term paper, you will begin the process by conducting research on your topic. The term paper is about the research and your ability to analyze the information using critical thinking to draw conclusions based on the research. A term paper is not about your personal opinion unless the assignment calls for you to write a persuasive essay, which can combine research, facts, data, analysis, and your informed opinion based on that research. Be sure to ask your instructor if you are unclear about the type of term paper you are to write.

For our purposes, we are going to assume you are writing a standard academic term paper, which is your overview and analysis of the research you have conducted. Thus, you must start with the research.

academic journalsCredit: wikimediaUsing the right type of sources is important. Be sure to use scholarly sources, including peer reviewed journal articles, academic texts, newspaper articles (if appropriate for your topic), and industry magazines or newsletters. A peer-reviewed article is an academic journal article written by scholars in the field you are studying, in which they conduct a study and report their findings. Alternatively, such scholars may write an article reviewing the literature in the field, or discussing best practices. Such articles are then submitted to academic journals for publication, but are first subjected to a review by fellow peers in the same field or industry to check for accuracy, validity, and integrity. Using peer-reviewed articles will provide you with the highest quality content, and will demonstrate to your instructor and to your reader that you respect their time enough to have reviewed the relevant scholarly research on the topic and included some of it in your paper.

libraryCredit: wikimediaAcademic texts are also good sources of information. Such texts may include your textbook for your class as well as texts you find in your school’s library or your local library. Many institutions’ online libraries include digital copies of texts. Depending on how you conduct your search in your school’s online library, you may be able to find books related to your topic. There are also repositories of open source texts, such as Google Books. Just note the age of the book you are reviewing. If your topic concerns recent developments or ideas, you should avoid using any sources that are more than a few years old. Alternatively, if you are studying historical issues, finding an older text could provide you with insight into the era. Just remember, though, that thoughts or innovations since that time may have changed and you should note that in your paper.

newspaperCredit: pureclipart.comNewspaper articles are another option, if allowed by your instructor. However, it is very important to use quality news sources. With the proliferation of information on the Internet, news sources will vary in the quality. Unless guided otherwise, it is a good idea to stick to articles from news sources that also have a print component, have a long history of publishing, and have strict editorial standards. Thus, using the Chicago Tribune is a better option than using Huffington Post. The former has a long history of publication in the United States, has a reputation to maintain, and uses only trained journalists or literary authors to create content. In contrast, the latter is an online news source that may have quality stories written by qualified journalists using a strict editorial process, however, it also uses citizen journalists that are not subject to the same standards. Many online versions of television news do this as well. It can be hard to tell the difference. Thus, make it a practice to use options like the former rather than the latter.

Finally, industry magazines, newsletters, or trade publications can provide insight into the state of the practice in the field you are researching. For example, the Chronicle of Higher Education writes about topics related to higher education in the United States. Airways Magazine publishes articles related to the aviation industry. Computer Product News publishes articles related to the computer hardware industry. 

Be careful when reviewing their information, as it is written from an industry perspective and thus some bias may be evident. It is acceptable to use the information in your paper, however, you should indicate what the perspective is, and seek to provide an alternate frame of reference.be carefulCredit: freesignage.com

You should avoid getting information from sources other than those listed above. While excellent information can be found on other types of websites, you should take the next step by finding the original source of information rather than using an unscholarly source.

pile of booksCredit: hopkins.typepad.comCollect more articles or books than you will need. You will scan many more sources than you collect. You will collect more sources than you will paraphrase. You will take more notes on sources than you will actually use in your term paper. At each step, your goal is to obtain the essential information and analysis that the author is providing.

After you have found the relevant sources, begin actively reading them. Have a pen and note pad available or use your computer. If you printed out the article, circle main ideas, key points, or useful analysis. Take notes in the margin. After you read an article, set it aside and out of view.  Write down or type out everything you remember about the article.

  • What were the key points?
  • What conclusions did the author reach?
  • How did the article relate to your topic?
  • What intrigued you?
  • What did you agree with or disagree with?

Doing this for each article will give you an excellent collection of notes to use for your paper. Use a separate piece of paper or a separate document on your computer for each source. After you have written everything about the article or book that you feel is relevant, write the source information at the top so you remember later where you found the research. This will be essential to have when you are citing and referencing your paper.

You may notice that you have many more notes from one source than all others. While this is understandable and somewhat natural, you should endeavor to use balance in your paper. Avoid using material primarily from one source, as that does not provide your researched conclusions to have needed validity of differing perspectives or academic research. Thus, you may need to do a bit more research to get that diversity. How many sources do you need? Enough to demonstrate supporting details for your main ideas, while indicating that the research that you used shares some common ideas as well as some differing viewpoints.


3. Thesis statement - revisited

Your next step is to sit back and review your research. What are the main points that you discovered? Is your thesis statement still useful or should you tweak it somewhat? You should probably not be making major alterations to your thesis statement at this point but you might have uncovered a different reason or different angle in writing about your topic.

Cocktail partyCredit: artandliving.netUse the cocktail party test. If you were at a cocktail party, and someone casually asked you what you were studying in school, what would tell them about your paper? Remember, they are not going to want the 15-minute answer of everything that you researched, but rather, the 1-minute answer. What would you say to them that distilled all the key points you discovered in research? That is the thesis of your paper.

4. Annotated bibliography

Create an annotated bibliography from your notes. Essentially you have already done this when you conducted your research, but this step will make writing your final paper much easier.

On your computer, open a new document and list all the sources you used in taking notes. Then, refine how those sources are listed by first getting them in the proper format based on the style you are required to use (APA, MLA, or Chicago/Turabian). Finally, alphabetize the sources by the first letter in each source as it is formatted properly. Typically, that is the author’s first letter of their last name, but this may change based on style and content listed in the source.

Next, type out your notes under each source. As you type your notes, start rewording them into a more academic style. Start thinking about grammar and spelling as you write. Reword some sentences, combine some ideas, and start creating paragraphs based on your notes. You can read more about creating an annotated bibliography.

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5. Paraphrase instead of quote!

As mentioned at the beginning of this article, your job as you are taking notes or redoing your notes in your annotated bibliography is to paraphrase the information. Avoid quoting, and never copy. Quoting is typically just lazy, and copying is illegal and unethical.

Even if you cite the source of what you are copying, it is still illegal and unethical. The consequences can range from receiving a failing grade on your assignment, to failing the course, to being suspended or expelled from school, to going through legal actions. Just don’t do it.

SynthesisCredit: slideshare.netYour ultimate goal with your writing is to synthesize. This is different from summarizing the information. Synthesizing means that you’ve reviewed all of your research and you have found some common themes or points across several different sources. Write one common down on a separate page and then cite all of the sources from where you developed that common theme. You will include citations from each source right in the text of your paper. Go theme by theme, listing all the sources for each common theme.


6. Sort, then outline or mind map

Now that you have an annotated bibliography and your common themes, you will outline your paper. This will likely be very easy for you, as you now have a good feel for the research and the key themes you have developed.

You should have an introduction section, three or more supporting sections, and a conclusion. You might decide that you like mind maps instead, as they are a visual tool that can help you see connections between ideas and supporting points. You can draw mind maps on a sheet of paper, however there are some nice free programs available on the Internet, such as Mind Meister

mind mapCredit: Tara Ross


Once you have developed your outline or mind map, you can begin to fill it in with the content of your annotated bibliography. This should be done in a Word document so you can work from it, ultimately developing your rough draft.

7. Rough draft

After you have developed your outline and filled it in with content from your annotated bibliography and your common themes, you will start forming each section. A section needs to have:

  • a main idea that supports your thesis statement
  • supporting details

You already have your supporting details, so you need to form everything into a cohesive section using complete sentences, good grammar, and topical paragraphs.

Critical thinkingCredit: tessahstech.blogspot.comAt this point you also want to ensure that from the details, the main ideas, the supporting points, and the common themes that you have some analysis. Using critical thinking, develop conclusions based on what you have learned. In each section and then at the end, provide analysis of these key issues. This is not your opinion. This is your analysis of the facts and what you have uncovered. This is your chance to figuratively play lawyer by presenting all the facts to the jury and showing them the logical conclusions to be made.

Ensure that your paper has an introduction and a conclusion. Authors typically write these two sections at the end, and for good reason. Now that you have all the main points and supporting details, you need to tell the reader in the introduction what the topic is and why it is important. Give an overview of key facts, and end that paragraph with , “This paper will discuss…”, which, as mentioned before is your thesis statement.

Likewise, your conclusion is your opportunity to reiterate key themes and explain the analysis you have developed.

8. Writing, grammar, and tips for getting through writer's block

If you follow each of these steps, you will dramatically reduce problems with your writing, and all but eliminate writer's block. Writing is a process, and through using the process outlined here, you will constantly be refining your writing style. Here are some writing issues to consider:

-Write in third person. Avoid all personal pronouns throughout your paper and in academic writing in general. Thus, be sure to remove I, you, we, us, our, ours, yours, me, mine, etc. Use third person instead.

-Avoid helping verbs. Delete helping verbs such as have, has, had, was, were, or being before a verb or gerund. The explorers had seen the eagles flying overhead should be The explorers saw the eagles flying overhead.

-Use the active voice. Active voice means that the subject is doing something. Subject + verb + rest of sentence.

The Senator voted for the bill.

The baseball player hit a home run.

The artist painted on canvas.

Active voice is characteristic because it is direct, concise, and strong.

A passive voice is the opposite.

The bill was voted on by the Senator.

A home run was hit by the baseball player.

Canvas was used by the artist.

Passive voice sounds weak, and wordy. It also requires the use of a lot of helping verbs such as "was" or "has" before the verb. Active voice requires direct language, with limited helping verbs.

-Avoid contractions. An academic research paper requires the full spelling of words and a scholarly tone. Thus, exchange don’t, won’t, can’t with do not, will not, or cannot.

-Use apostrophes appropriately. There is no apostrophe to make a word or date plural. The 1980’s should just be the 1980s. Likewise, American’s should just be Americans.

-Say something! Avoid non-substantive writing. Stick to facts and details. Again, this will be greatly minimized if you use the steps above.No fluffCredit: Tara Ross

-Be specific. Give important information by including, facts, names, dates, events, ideas, laws, amendments, mathematical calculations, and scientific theories.

- Economy of expression. Avoid wordiness. Phrases such as due to the fact of should just be because. When all is said and done should just be In conclusion.

-Your opinion matters little. Not to be mean, but you are researching the experts in the field because they are experts. Your opinion is not the purpose of the paper. You are developing an informed opinion as you develop your research and writing about it, but exchange your opinion for your analysis. Your opinion is not substantiated. Your analysis is the conclusions you developed after you reviewed all the evidence.

9. Citations and Reference list

In each paragraph of your paper, you should include, at minimum, one in-text citation, or footnote. Typically, you will have many more than that. However, because every paragraph is substantive based on research you are presenting, every paragraph needs to indicate the source of that information.

Likewise, you will need a reference page or bibliography for your paper. Depending on the style you use, the reference page may include only the sources you have listed as in-text citations or it may include other sources you examined.

10. Editing and the Final version

Your final version comes after several revisions of your rough draft. You should read your rough draft several times, taking into consideration the writing tips noted above. Before your final version, read your draft aloud as you may catch errors that you did not catch while reading it silently.

Check for formatting. Your school may have provided you with a template for your paper, which you should use as it already has the headers, the margins, and the page numbers formatted for you. Likewise, your reference page will have very specific formatting requirements. Be sure to check the appropriate style manual for the rules.

Working ahead of schedule!Credit: www.brertechnical.comSave your paper in several places, including your computer, on an external device as well as in the cloud. You can also email the paper to yourself as another option.

Work ahead on this process. Do not wait until the last moment, as you want to give yourself time to do a good job. In addition, computers crash, emergencies happen, and work may need you for an overtime shift at the last minute. Having your paper done early will ensure that you are responsible with your work and the investment you made in school.

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