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How to write research papers that impress your professors
Follow five essential steps to build your foundation for success
A great research paper shows your professor that you can select, assemble and synthesize scholarly information, think critically about its meaning and draw logical conclusions. It then illustrates this information in a clear and concise manner.
In addition, it checks the following boxes:
Has a variety of authoritative sources. Scholarly articles, ebooks and conference papers from respected, peer-reviewed sources. Forget the broad internet search. Rely on your university library’s website for access to the content your professor wants you to use.
Is written in an authentic voice. Your voice! Consistency is key with voice. Using your own voice throughout your paper shows your professor you understand the content.
Has a point of view. A great paper will tell your professor a story. It will start with a theme. Then, presents evidence that supports that theme and builds to a logical conclusion. It will wrap up with that logical conclusion. Extra points for telling the reader (your professor) what you believe should happen next.
You can deliver on all three of these essentials (and save time) by building the right foundation of content and understanding. Review the following steps and incorporate them into your process and writing.
Five Key Steps for writing a great research paper
- Get organized with a reference manager.
Check with your university library about access to a reference manager like RefWorks or EndNote. These handy time-savers make it easy to store the information you find in one place, so you never have to wonder where you found that perfect article with that perfect quote. Reference managers are also essentials for staying on top of relevant research. For example, EndNote will alert you if any of your stored papers have been retracted. Bonus: when it’s time to write your paper, you can add footnotes and create bibliographies automatically.
- Select a focused topic that you care about.
First things first: make sure you understand the assignment. If you have any doubts, discuss the assignment with your professor. Then, do some background reading to find a topic that interests you. A potential stumbling block here is choosing a topic that’s too broad, like “climate change,” where the amount of research is too overwhelming for a single paper. Dig in deeper and find a more focused path, like “climate change and ocean health.”
- Build knowledge and understanding with newspapers and videos from your university library.
Before wading into scholarly resources, get familiar with your topic in language designed for popular understanding. Newspapers and documentaries are a great way to gain foundational knowledge and boost your interest. Again, skip the broad internet search. Instead, use the reliable resources that your university library includes in its collection. Many libraries have historical archives of papers like The New York Times and The Guardian so you can look at coverage over time. More and more libraries have streaming video content that you can download and watch on your laptop. In addition to free content for students, library video services like Academic Video Online enable you to bookmark clips for future reference.
Once you feel grounded in your topic, start building a rough outline for your paper: write your thesis statement and think about the kind of evidence you’ll need.
- Save time finding scholarly information by using an “aggregated” database platform.
By now you know to go directly to your university library when you’re ready to find scholarly articles on your topic, right? That’s where you’ll find comprehensive academic platforms like ProQuest, which will search for your topic across thousands of scholarly journals and ebooks and millions of dissertations. Select the most promising works for exploration and add them to your reference manager.
Pro Tip: Found a perfect article? Look it up in the Web of Science™ (access it on your library’s website). The search results will show you the article’s “citation network,” which is a group of closely related publications that cite the same foundational research. Exploring a citation network can also help you track the advancement and evolution of research and can lead to all sorts of surprising discoveries when you start to explore the connections between research and ideas.
- Review the information you collected.
Reading all that content may seem daunting, but there are ways to make it more manageable. For scholarly articles: read abstracts, summaries and conclusions. Then, scan the body of the article for relevant passages and quotes. With ebooks: zero in on appropriate chapters through keyword searches. Store all the relevant content and quotes in your reference manager.
- Get organized with a reference manager.
Recap: Using the five steps to write your paper
Now you’re ready to write your paper, relying on this solid foundation that sets you up for success:
- You have a focused topic that satisfies the assignment.
- You understand the topic and can write about it in your own words.
- You have a thesis statement and a rough outline.
- You assembled an impressive array of scholarly content that is relevant to your topic and meets your professor’s standards.
- It’s all organized and at your fingertips in a reference manager.
Get more tips and techniques for producing great research papers by checking out Clarivate’s Research Smarter series. Find great resources like the Web of Science and ProQuest One Academic in your university library.