How to Write a Research Paper

Research paper, term paper, reference paper, investigative theme – they all mean one thing and that is the preparation of a paper that must use sources to document given facts. Questions usually abound: Where should one start? How are resources organized? How are notes taken? What is a bibliography?

Writing a research paper can be overwhelming. Breaking it down into steps helps.

1) Choosing a topic

Finding a topic of interest is a good start because searching for information is more fun if the person is intrigued by the subject matter. A topic usually begins as a broad category. Then, it must be narrowed. For instance, a subject of interest might be American history. However, it is much too broad a category to be covered adequately in one paper. Narrowing the topic would mean choosing one instance of historical significance or one person in American history to research.

2) Finding material

Before a paper can be written, the material on a subject must be gathered. Public and Internet libraries offer excellent resources. Books that might not be on the local library’s shelf can be requested from another library by “inter-library loan.” Current magazine and newspaper articles are also good resources, and in fact, often have the most recent information on subjects. Internet surfing can produce results leading the researcher to other books or web sites offering up-to-date sources.

3) Taking notes

As possible resources are scanned, those with information that will be useful in writing the paper should be set aside. Other sources that are not applicable may be returned. Note-taking can begin with the most valuable source – the book, magazine, or Internet article that is most comprehensive – and then progress through all the sources that have been collected.

One notecard should be used for each major point. Information incident to the source can be written in a corner of the notecard: the name of the book or article, the place and year it was published, and the company that did the publishing. Magazine volume numbers or month and year designations should also be notated. This will be useful later in making the bibliography.

Incident notes are those that list people, places, events, dates, and times. Summary notes recapitulate general information in concise phrases and sentences that can later become a part of the body of the paper. Facts should be translated from the source into the writer’s own words. When more than three words in a row are copied, the words should be quoted and the author is given credit within the text.

4) Grouping ideas

When enough information has been gathered to adequately address the topic, note cards should then be grouped by major points. Organization by grouping leads easily into the making of an outline.

5) Making an outline

The first outline is preliminary. It can change as the paper develops, but it is crucial in that it offers a place to begin, an organization of the writer’s research and thoughts, and a place for all of this to culminate in an ending. Outlines can utilize the traditional I, II, and III of Roman numerals or they can be simple lists, depending on the person preparing the paper and on whether the recipient of the paper requires the outline in a certain form to be turned in as a part of the assignment.

6) Writing the paper

A research paper should be written in the third person. That means it is not presented from the standpoint of “I’ telling the story or as a means of direction, using the word “you.” Third-person writing tells a story or presents information from the standpoint of a narrator. The writing of the paper is facilitated by using the outline for the organization and the note cards for the recollection of facts.

7) Proofing for errors

The best way to proofread any paper is to read it aloud. Introducing another of the five senses activates other parts of the brain to make the writer more focused. Spelling must be checked, as well as grammar and punctuation usage. Revisions should be made to the first draft before final typing.

8) Typing the paper

Research papers should be double-spaced and typed using a font that is easily read such as Times New Roman or Arial. Writing should only be on one side of each sheet of paper.

9) Preparing the Bibliography

The purpose of the bibliography is to list each source from which information was obtained in the preparation of the research paper. Entries should be alphabetized by authors, and where there is no author, by title. Names of books and magazines may be underlined or typed in italics. Specific article titles should be placed within quotation marks.

Each source in a bibliography is written in the following order: author (where there is one), title, place published, company that published, and year. Magazines are notated with the article title first followed by the name of the magazine, volume, month/date/year. Online and email sources are similar, still giving credit to the author and title of the article first. Online should be indicated in brackets and the web site given. When computer software is used as a source, this should also be designated by the use of brackets.

Bibliography samples:

Book with no designated author –
The Stone Age Dictionary of Elementary Language. Boston: Heritage Publishing Company, 1969.

Book with author –
Baker, Samm. The Permissible Lie. Anchorage: Alaskan Publishing Company, 1998.

Magazine article –
“Moment Musical,” Lyre Gazette, 70:106, November 27, 1989.

Online source –
Meyer, Anne. “The Tip-of-the-Tongue Phenomenum.” [On-line.] Memory & Cognition, 20:715.

Email source –
Fundermont, Dan. “Commentary on Brahms.” Available email:

Computer software –
Miller, Thomas. The Monitor Tester (Version 4.0) [Computer software]. Houston: Psytek Services, 2000.

(Note: all articles, books, web sites, and email addresses are fictitious and are only for the purpose of demonstrating bibliography format.)

Research papers may be delivered in a variety of folder styles and choices. The one most appropriate for the recipient of the paper should be chosen. The presentation of the research paper is, after all, the first impression that the reader will have.

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