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Research Papers

Of all of the assignments, this one presents the greatest challenge to undergraduate students. Doing good research and writing requires a serious effort, and it need not be as dreaded as some students make it out to be. The following guidelines are designed to demystify the process of creating a good research paper. Included are time-tested strategies to help you deal with some necessary steps in the process, and special insights.

A. Choosing Your Topic
B. Overcoming Writer’s Block and Procrastination
C. Narrowing the Topic
D. Research Question
E. Research Thesis
F. Research Methods and Resources
G. Outline
H. First Draft
I. Editing the Drafts


A. Choosing Your Topic
Some professors require you to write on a topic you select from a list of recommended topics, and many allow you to choose your own topic. Choosing an appropriate research topic is crucial to producing a quality research paper. Unfortunately, many students give little thought to their topic. To get started developing a topic, you should ask yourself the following questions:

  • Does the proposed topic relate to the course and the assignment? For example, does the topic stem from material covered in the texts or lectures?
  • Is the topic something that you can adequately cover in the required number of pages?
  • Is the topic something you (and possibly your professor) would find interesting, rather than something that is easy to cover?

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B. Overcoming Writer’s Block and Procrastination
If you are having trouble finding an interesting and suitable topic, writer’s block may be the culprit. Frequently, students become frustrated because they cannot translate their general interests into a workable research topic (that should be narrow and particular). Here are three techniques for you to use in overcoming writer’s block:

1. Free writing is a technique that allows you to write your way into a topic by avoiding that part of your mind that refuses to write or that cannot think of anything to put on paper.

  • Try to write without stopping for a certain amount of time (e.g., ten minutes), or for a given length of paper (e.g., one page).
  • Put down any thoughts or words on paper and use these words to suggest other words or thoughts.
  • Keep writing even if it means writing the same word several times. Do not go back and read or revise what you have already written. Once you have finished (ten minutes or one page), review what you have written. Try to find out what interests you, as well as your perspective and position on issues.

2. Brainstorming is a technique that is a form of list-making that requires you to list everything that seems even remotely related to your topic.

  • The idea is for you to focus intently on the topic for a fixed amount of time and to push yourself to list every idea and detail that comes to mind.
  • Like free writing, the trick is to short-circuit the internal editor long enough to advance thinking and organization on a given topic.

3. Clustering is a technique that is a form of free association that combines writing and nonlinear drawing. Your cluster radiates out from your topic.

  • When you get an idea related to the basic topic, try to move beyond it by branching out and pursuing its implication.
  • As new ideas are generated from the branching out, you can continue with other branches.
  • The result should be a cluster of ideas, some of which are useful, and some of which are not.

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C. Narrowing the Topic
You may be one of those students who at first chooses a topic that is too broad to cover in the semester schedule, or a topic that is too complex to be thoroughly covered within the allotted page requirement. If the professor says the topic is too broad, don't worry--this is a common problem that frequently plagues professors, too! Virtually all research must be refined not only during the research process but also during the writing process. The sooner you get comfortable with this fact, the easier and more enjoyable the whole research and writing process will be.

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D. Research Question
Keep the following tips in mind:

  • The research question you develop should be a complete question consisting of one or two sentences. Generally, the shorter and simpler the research question, the better.
  • Your research question should be something you can answer systematically using sources (primary and secondary), reasoning and persuasion.
  • You should begin devising the research question at the same time they develop (and narrow) the research topic.

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E. Research Thesis
The thesis is the most important and central idea or assertion that you wish to convey in the paper.
A good thesis should:

  • Narrow the topic to a single idea that you want to convey to the readers in the essay.
  • Clarify the purpose, position and attitude in the paper.
  • Be stated somewhere in the paper’s introduction because it tells readers why they are reading your paper.
  • Be a work in progress. Many students (and many writers for that matter) typically revise their thesis as they complete the research and writing stages. This is a good strategy for you to use.

You, as a writer, need a thesis because a working thesis helps you to stay on track during the research and writing process.

Reviewing the thesis reminds you of why you are pouring over primary documents in the first place.

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F. Research Methods and Resources
You need to select the appropriate methods you will want to use to research a topic, address the question and argue your thesis.

Methods will include examining books, articles, and other written sources on the topic. At this point students should know the difference between primary and secondary sources.

  • Primary sources: historical documents (e.g., treaties), official reports or memoranda, hearing transcripts, interviews, etc.
  • Secondary sources: books and articles that often analyze primary sources.

To achieve a balance, the research should include a mixture of primary and secondary sources. Going beyond just a review of what other say strengthens an essay’s main argument.

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G. Outline
Many student writers procrastinate and, as a result, experience false starts because they do not have a plan for writing drafts and continuing the research.

The key to staying on track is for you to develop and stick to a working outline. Outline styles vary and can range from loose and general to tight and specific.

An outline, regardless of the form chosen, helps you to:

  • clarify thinking,
  • explore further patterns of thought, and
  • devise strategies to fulfill intentions of the research question and thesis.

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H. First Draft
For most writers, getting the first draft on paper is the most uncomfortable step in the writing process. The reason for this is that writers expect thoughts to flow in a logical and clear manner, and often they do not. As a result, anything first put on paper usually falls short of expectations.

To overcome this problem, you must remind yourself that often you will need to develop several drafts before you complete the paper and that no one else will see the paper. The initial discomfort usually goes away once you have your initial thoughts on paper.

You may sometimes experience problems when the outline is an insufficient guide to what you want to say. If this happens, go back and add specifics to the outline. Use the outline to begin thinking about transitions and subheadings. At some point a very detailed outline actually resembles a first draft. What remains is a matter of filling in the blank spots to complete the first draft.

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I. Editing the Drafts
The key for you to produce a quality research paper is to produce several drafts, with each succeeding draft being a refined version of the prior draft.

The necessary process of revision involves improving both the underlying meaning and structure of your essay as well as the mechanics of sentences and paragraphs.

The following checklist comes from The Little, Brown Handbook written by H. Ramsey Fowler and Jane E. Aaron (New York, Harper Collins Publishers, 1992: pp. 53, 59).

For revising your essay's underlying meaning and structure, consider the following:

  • Does the body of the essay carry out the purpose and central idea expressed in your thesis sentence?
  • Are there adequate details, examples, or reasons to support each of your main points?
  • Does each paragraph relate clearly to the thesis sentence?
  • Does your introduction engage and focus your readers’ attention?
  • Does your conclusion provide a sense of completion?
  • For editing your essay’s mechanics, consider the following:
  • Are your sentences grammatical?
  • Are your sentences clear and concise/
  • Is your use of commas, semicolons, colons, periods and other forms of punctuation correct?
  • Is your use of capitals, italics, abbreviations, numbers and hyphens correct?
  • Do the words you use exactly convey your meaning and feeling?
  • Are your words spelled correctly? Be aware that spell check is not a foolproof way to determine this.

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