How to put together a research paper

What students should do when they’re stuck on where to start

Joshua Schuetz
Staff Writer

Research papers are unpleasant and stressful for many, if not most students. Quite a few tend to procrastinate until the last minute, having to rapidly assemble a paper (complete with sources) in a short period of time.

If you’re in a major that has more writing intensive and research-based classes and assignments, you might have multiple research papers in the same period of time. Especially in the last month or two of the semester, that situation can cause enormous amounts of stress.

Here are a few ways to handle research papers.

First, make sure that your topic is as narrow and specific as possible. It’s tempting to pick a broad topic because it is more familiar or impressive, but it’s going to make the paper more ponderous and difficult to synthesize. Pick a narrow topic with plenty of sources to draw from. If you need to, try asking your professors for advice on what topic to pick.

That leads me to my second point: use office hours. Professors are usually more than happy to provide assistance in finding sources and topics, and many will also accept rough drafts. They can also clarify requirements and suggest pathways forward if you’re stuck. 

Third, assemble your collection of sources before you break ground on a paper. Try to have more than the minimum amount of required sources as well, since you might find that you actually need more sources for the paper, or you might find that one of your sources isn’t what you need. Read your sources and write down notes about what you want to draw from them along with page numbers. That way, you can easily access the pages in your source that you want to cite in your paper.

Fourth, make sure that you write a rough draft first. Submit it to your professor (if they accept rough drafts) and edit it thereafter. Although it might be a rough draft, make sure that your paper doesn’t have any glaring inconsistencies or flaws. The worse your rough draft is, the more intensive and difficult the editing process will be.

My fifth piece of advice is to break down assignments ahead of time. Suppose that you have a twelve page paper to write. Break ground on it early and write three or four pages per day, when all of your sources and notes have been assembled. That makes a longer paper much less intimidating, and you won’t get completely exhausted before you get it done.

Finally, for the love of all that is holy, do not procrastinate. Procrastination, taken to excess, leads to lower-quality papers and extreme stress. It’s far better to do a little bit each day for two months than to do a crippling amount of work in two days. 

Header photo courtesy of Flickr.

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