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12.1 Creating a Rough Draft for a Research Paper
- Apply strategies for drafting an effective introduction and conclusion.
- Identify when and how to summarize, paraphrase, and directly quote information from research sources.
- Apply guidelines for citing sources within the body of the paper and the bibliography.
- Use primary and secondary research to support ideas.
- Identify the purposes for which writers use each type of research.
At last, you are ready to begin writing the rough draft of your research paper. Putting your thinking and research into words is exciting. It can also be challenging. In this section, you will learn strategies for handling the more challenging aspects of writing a research paper, such as integrating material from your sources, citing information correctly, and avoiding any misuse of your sources.
The Structure of a Research Paper
Research papers generally follow the same basic structure: an introduction that presents the writer’s thesis, a body section that develops the thesis with supporting points and evidence, and a conclusion that revisits the thesis and provides additional insights or suggestions for further research.
Your writing voice will come across most strongly in your introduction and conclusion, as you work to attract your readers’ interest and establish your thesis. These sections usually do not cite sources at length. They focus on the big picture, not specific details. In contrast, the body of your paper will cite sources extensively. As you present your ideas, you will support your points with details from your research.
Writing Your Introduction
There are several approaches to writing an introduction, each of which fulfills the same goals. The introduction should get readers’ attention, provide background information, and present the writer’s thesis. Many writers like to begin with one of the following catchy openers:
- A surprising fact
- A thought-provoking question
- An attention-getting quote
- A brief anecdote that illustrates a larger concept
- A connection between your topic and your readers’ experiences
The next few sentences place the opening in context by presenting background information. From there, the writer builds toward a thesis, which is traditionally placed at the end of the introduction. Think of your thesis as a signpost that lets readers know in what direction the paper is headed.
Jorge decided to begin his research paper by connecting his topic to readers’ daily experiences. Read the first draft of his introduction. The thesis is underlined. Note how Jorge progresses from the opening sentences to background information to his thesis.
Beyond the Hype: Evaluating Low-Carb Diets
Over the past decade, increasing numbers of Americans have jumped on the low-carb bandwagon. Some studies estimate that approximately 40 million Americans, or about 20 percent of the population, are attempting to restrict their intake of food high in carbohydrates (Sanders and Katz, 2004; Hirsch, 2004). Proponents of low-carb diets say they are not only the most effective way to lose weight, but they also yield health benefits such as lower blood pressure and improved cholesterol levels. Meanwhile, some doctors claim that low-carb diets are overrated and caution that their long-term effects are unknown. Although following a low-carbohydrate diet can benefit some people, these diets are not necessarily the best option for everyone who wants to lose weight or improve their health.
Write the introductory paragraph of your research paper. Try using one of the techniques listed in this section to write an engaging introduction. Be sure to include background information about the topic that leads to your thesis.
Writers often work out of sequence when writing a research paper. If you find yourself struggling to write an engaging introduction, you may wish to write the body of your paper first. Writing the body sections first will help you clarify your main points. Writing the introduction should then be easier. You may have a better sense of how to introduce the paper after you have drafted some or all of the body.
Writing Your Conclusion
In your introduction, you tell readers where they are headed. In your conclusion, you recap where they have been. For this reason, some writers prefer to write their conclusions soon after they have written their introduction. However, this method may not work for all writers. Other writers prefer to write their conclusion at the end of the paper, after writing the body paragraphs. No process is absolutely right or absolutely wrong; find the one that best suits you.
No matter when you compose the conclusion, it should sum up your main ideas and revisit your thesis. The conclusion should not simply echo the introduction or rely on bland summary statements, such as “In this paper, I have demonstrated that.…” In fact, avoid repeating your thesis verbatim from the introduction. Restate it in different words that reflect the new perspective gained through your research. That helps keep your ideas fresh for your readers. An effective writer might conclude a paper by asking a new question the research inspired, revisiting an anecdote presented earlier, or reminding readers of how the topic relates to their lives.
Writing at Work
If your job involves writing or reading scientific papers, it helps to understand how professional researchers use the structure described in this section. A scientific paper begins with an abstract that briefly summarizes the entire paper. The introduction explains the purpose of the research, briefly summarizes previous research, and presents the researchers’ hypothesis. The body provides details about the study, such as who participated in it, what the researchers measured, and what results they recorded. The conclusion presents the researchers’ interpretation of the data, or what they learned.
Using Source Material in Your Paper
One of the challenges of writing a research paper is successfully integrating your ideas with material from your sources. Your paper must explain what you think, or it will read like a disconnected string of facts and quotations. However, you also need to support your ideas with research, or they will seem insubstantial. How do you strike the right balance?
You have already taken a step in the right direction by writing your introduction. The introduction and conclusion function like the frame around a picture. They define and limit your topic and place your research in context.
In the body paragraphs of your paper, you will need to integrate ideas carefully at the paragraph level and at the sentence level. You will use topic sentences in your paragraphs to make sure readers understand the significance of any facts, details, or quotations you cite. You will also include sentences that transition between ideas from your research, either within a paragraph or between paragraphs. At the sentence level, you will need to think carefully about how you introduce paraphrased and quoted material.
Earlier you learned about summarizing, paraphrasing, and quoting when taking notes. In the next few sections, you will learn how to use these techniques in the body of your paper to weave in source material to support your ideas.
When you summarize material from a source, you zero in on the main points and restate them concisely in your own words. This technique is appropriate when only the major ideas are relevant to your paper or when you need to simplify complex information into a few key points for your readers.
Be sure to review the source material as you summarize it. Identify the main idea and restate it as concisely as you can—preferably in one sentence. Depending on your purpose, you may also add another sentence or two condensing any important details or examples. Check your summary to make sure it is accurate and complete.
In his draft, Jorge summarized research materials that presented scientists’ findings about low-carbohydrate diets. Read the following passage from a trade magazine article and Jorge’s summary of the article.
Assessing the Efficacy of Low-Carbohydrate Diets
Adrienne Howell, Ph.D.
Over the past few years, a number of clinical studies have explored whether high-protein, low-carbohydrate diets are more effective for weight loss than other frequently recommended diet plans, such as diets that drastically curtail fat intake (Pritikin) or that emphasize consuming lean meats, grains, vegetables, and a moderate amount of unsaturated fats (the Mediterranean diet). A 2009 study found that obese teenagers who followed a low-carbohydrate diet lost an average of 15.6 kilograms over a six-month period, whereas teenagers following a low-fat diet or a Mediterranean diet lost an average of 11.1 kilograms and 9.3 kilograms respectively. Two 2010 studies that measured weight loss for obese adults following these same three diet plans found similar results. Over three months, subjects on the low-carbohydrate diet plan lost anywhere from four to six kilograms more than subjects who followed other diet plans.
In three recent studies, researchers compared outcomes for obese subjects who followed either a low-carbohydrate diet, a low-fat diet, or a Mediterranean diet and found that subjects following a low-carbohydrate diet lost more weight in the same time (Howell, 2010).
A summary restates ideas in your own words—but for specialized or clinical terms, you may need to use terms that appear in the original source. For instance, Jorge used the term obese in his summary because related words such as heavy or overweight have a different clinical meaning.
On a separate sheet of paper, practice summarizing by writing a one-sentence summary of the same passage that Jorge already summarized.
When you paraphrase material from a source, restate the information from an entire sentence or passage in your own words, using your own original sentence structure. A paraphrased source differs from a summarized source in that you focus on restating the ideas, not condensing them.
Again, it is important to check your paraphrase against the source material to make sure it is both accurate and original. Inexperienced writers sometimes use the thesaurus method of paraphrasing—that is, they simply rewrite the source material, replacing most of the words with synonyms. This constitutes a misuse of sources. A true paraphrase restates ideas using the writer’s own language and style.
In his draft, Jorge frequently paraphrased details from sources. At times, he needed to rewrite a sentence more than once to ensure he was paraphrasing ideas correctly. Read the passage from a website. Then read Jorge’s initial attempt at paraphrasing it, followed by the final version of his paraphrase.
Dieters nearly always get great results soon after they begin following a low-carbohydrate diet, but these results tend to taper off after the first few months, particularly because many dieters find it difficult to follow a low-carbohydrate diet plan consistently.
People usually see encouraging outcomes shortly after they go on a low-carbohydrate diet, but their progress slows down after a short while, especially because most discover that it is a challenge to adhere to the diet strictly (Heinz, 2009).
After reviewing the paraphrased sentence, Jorge realized he was following the original source too closely. He did not want to quote the full passage verbatim, so he again attempted to restate the idea in his own style.
Because it is hard for dieters to stick to a low-carbohydrate eating plan, the initial success of these diets is short-lived (Heinz, 2009).
On a separate sheet of paper, follow these steps to practice paraphrasing.
- Choose an important idea or detail from your notes.
- Without looking at the original source, restate the idea in your own words.
- Check your paraphrase against the original text in the source. Make sure both your language and your sentence structure are original.
- Revise your paraphrase if necessary.
Quoting Sources Directly
Most of the time, you will summarize or paraphrase source material instead of quoting directly. Doing so shows that you understand your research well enough to write about it confidently in your own words. However, direct quotes can be powerful when used sparingly and with purpose.
Quoting directly can sometimes help you make a point in a colorful way. If an author’s words are especially vivid, memorable, or well phrased, quoting them may help hold your reader’s interest. Direct quotations from an interviewee or an eyewitness may help you personalize an issue for readers. And when you analyze primary sources, such as a historical speech or a work of literature, quoting extensively is often necessary to illustrate your points. These are valid reasons to use quotations.
Less experienced writers, however, sometimes overuse direct quotations in a research paper because it seems easier than paraphrasing. At best, this reduces the effectiveness of the quotations. At worst, it results in a paper that seems haphazardly pasted together from outside sources. Use quotations sparingly for greater impact.
When you do choose to quote directly from a source, follow these guidelines:
- Make sure you have transcribed the original statement accurately.
- Represent the author’s ideas honestly. Quote enough of the original text to reflect the author’s point accurately.
- Never use a stand-alone quotation. Always integrate the quoted material into your own sentence.
- Use ellipses (…) if you need to omit a word or phrase. Use brackets [ ] if you need to replace a word or phrase.
- Make sure any omissions or changed words do not alter the meaning of the original text. Omit or replace words only when absolutely necessary to shorten the text or to make it grammatically correct within your sentence.
- Remember to include correctly formatted citations that follow the assigned style guide.
Jorge interviewed a dietician as part of his research, and he decided to quote her words in his paper. Read an excerpt from the interview and Jorge’s use of it, which follows.
Personally, I don’t really buy into all of the hype about low-carbohydrate miracle diets like Atkins and so on. Sure, for some people, they are great, but for most, any sensible eating and exercise plan would work just as well.
Registered dietician Dana Kwon (2010) admits, “Personally, I don’t really buy into all of the hype.…Sure, for some people, [low-carbohydrate diets] are great, but for most, any sensible eating and exercise plan would work just as well.”
Notice how Jorge smoothly integrated the quoted material by starting the sentence with an introductory phrase. His use of ellipses and brackets did not change the source’s meaning.
Documenting Source Material
Throughout the writing process, be scrupulous about documenting information taken from sources. The purpose of doing so is twofold:
- To give credit to other writers or researchers for their ideas
- To allow your reader to follow up and learn more about the topic if desired
You will cite sources within the body of your paper and at the end of the paper in your bibliography. For this assignment, you will use the citation format used by the American Psychological Association (also known as APA style). For information on the format used by the Modern Language Association (MLA style), see Chapter 13 “APA and MLA Documentation and Formatting” .
Citing Sources in the Body of Your Paper
In-text citations document your sources within the body of your paper. These include two vital pieces of information: the author’s name and the year the source material was published. When quoting a print source, also include in the citation the page number where the quoted material originally appears. The page number will follow the year in the in-text citation. Page numbers are necessary only when content has been directly quoted, not when it has been summarized or paraphrased.
Within a paragraph, this information may appear as part of your introduction to the material or as a parenthetical citation at the end of a sentence. Read the examples that follow. For more information about in-text citations for other source types, see Chapter 13 “APA and MLA Documentation and Formatting” .
Leibowitz (2008) found that low-carbohydrate diets often helped subjects with Type II diabetes maintain a healthy weight and control blood-sugar levels.
The introduction to the source material includes the author’s name followed by the year of publication in parentheses.
Low-carbohydrate diets often help subjects with Type II diabetes maintain a healthy weight and control blood-sugar levels (Leibowitz, 2008).
The parenthetical citation at the end of the sentence includes the author’s name, a comma, and the year the source was published. The period at the end of the sentence comes after the parentheses.
Creating a List of References
Each of the sources you cite in the body text will appear in a references list at the end of your paper. While in-text citations provide the most basic information about the source, your references section will include additional publication details. In general, you will include the following information:
- The author’s last name followed by his or her first (and sometimes middle) initial
- The year the source was published
- The source title
- For articles in periodicals, the full name of the periodical, along with the volume and issue number and the pages where the article appeared
Additional information may be included for different types of sources, such as online sources. For a detailed guide to APA or MLA citations, see Chapter 13 “APA and MLA Documentation and Formatting” . A sample reference list is provided with the final draft of Jorge’s paper later in this chapter.
Using Primary and Secondary Research
As you write your draft, be mindful of how you are using primary and secondary source material to support your points. Recall that primary sources present firsthand information. Secondary sources are one step removed from primary sources. They present a writer’s analysis or interpretation of primary source materials. How you balance primary and secondary source material in your paper will depend on the topic and assignment.
Using Primary Sources Effectively
Some types of research papers must use primary sources extensively to achieve their purpose. Any paper that analyzes a primary text or presents the writer’s own experimental research falls in this category. Here are a few examples:
- A paper for a literature course analyzing several poems by Emily Dickinson
- A paper for a political science course comparing televised speeches delivered by two presidential candidates
- A paper for a communications course discussing gender biases in television commercials
- A paper for a business administration course that discusses the results of a survey the writer conducted with local businesses to gather information about their work-from-home and flextime policies
- A paper for an elementary education course that discusses the results of an experiment the writer conducted to compare the effectiveness of two different methods of mathematics instruction
For these types of papers, primary research is the main focus. If you are writing about a work (including nonprint works, such as a movie or a painting), it is crucial to gather information and ideas from the original work, rather than relying solely on others’ interpretations. And, of course, if you take the time to design and conduct your own field research, such as a survey, a series of interviews, or an experiment, you will want to discuss it in detail. For example, the interviews may provide interesting responses that you want to share with your reader.
Using Secondary Sources Effectively
For some assignments, it makes sense to rely more on secondary sources than primary sources. If you are not analyzing a text or conducting your own field research, you will need to use secondary sources extensively.
As much as possible, use secondary sources that are closely linked to primary research, such as a journal article presenting the results of the authors’ scientific study or a book that cites interviews and case studies. These sources are more reliable and add more value to your paper than sources that are further removed from primary research. For instance, a popular magazine article on junk-food addiction might be several steps removed from the original scientific study on which it is loosely based. As a result, the article may distort, sensationalize, or misinterpret the scientists’ findings.
Even if your paper is largely based on primary sources, you may use secondary sources to develop your ideas. For instance, an analysis of Alfred Hitchcock’s films would focus on the films themselves as a primary source, but might also cite commentary from critics. A paper that presents an original experiment would include some discussion of similar prior research in the field.
Jorge knew he did not have the time, resources, or experience needed to conduct original experimental research for his paper. Because he was relying on secondary sources to support his ideas, he made a point of citing sources that were not far removed from primary research.
Some sources could be considered primary or secondary sources, depending on the writer’s purpose for using them. For instance, if a writer’s purpose is to inform readers about how the No Child Left Behind legislation has affected elementary education, a Time magazine article on the subject would be a secondary source. However, suppose the writer’s purpose is to analyze how the news media has portrayed the effects of the No Child Left Behind legislation. In that case, articles about the legislation in news magazines like Time , Newsweek , and US News & World Report would be primary sources. They provide firsthand examples of the media coverage the writer is analyzing.
Your research paper presents your thinking about a topic, supported and developed by other people’s ideas and information. It is crucial to always distinguish between the two—as you conduct research, as you plan your paper, and as you write. Failure to do so can lead to plagiarism.
Intentional and Accidental Plagiarism
Plagiarism is the act of misrepresenting someone else’s work as your own. Sometimes a writer plagiarizes work on purpose—for instance, by purchasing an essay from a website and submitting it as original course work. In other cases, a writer may commit accidental plagiarism due to carelessness, haste, or misunderstanding. To avoid unintentional plagiarism, follow these guidelines:
- Understand what types of information must be cited.
- Understand what constitutes fair use of a source.
- Keep source materials and notes carefully organized.
- Follow guidelines for summarizing, paraphrasing, and quoting sources.
When to Cite
Any idea or fact taken from an outside source must be cited, in both the body of your paper and the references list. The only exceptions are facts or general statements that are common knowledge. Common-knowledge facts or general statements are commonly supported by and found in multiple sources. For example, a writer would not need to cite the statement that most breads, pastas, and cereals are high in carbohydrates; this is well known and well documented. However, if a writer explained in detail the differences among the chemical structures of carbohydrates, proteins, and fats, a citation would be necessary. When in doubt, cite.
In recent years, issues related to the fair use of sources have been prevalent in popular culture. Recording artists, for example, may disagree about the extent to which one has the right to sample another’s music. For academic purposes, however, the guidelines for fair use are reasonably straightforward.
Writers may quote from or paraphrase material from previously published works without formally obtaining the copyright holder’s permission. Fair use means that the writer legitimately uses brief excerpts from source material to support and develop his or her own ideas. For instance, a columnist may excerpt a few sentences from a novel when writing a book review. However, quoting or paraphrasing another’s work at excessive length, to the extent that large sections of the writing are unoriginal, is not fair use.
As he worked on his draft, Jorge was careful to cite his sources correctly and not to rely excessively on any one source. Occasionally, however, he caught himself quoting a source at great length. In those instances, he highlighted the paragraph in question so that he could go back to it later and revise. Read the example, along with Jorge’s revision.
Heinz (2009) found that “subjects in the low-carbohydrate group (30% carbohydrates; 40% protein, 30% fat) had a mean weight loss of 10 kg (22 lbs) over a 4-month period.” These results were “noticeably better than results for subjects on a low-fat diet (45% carbohydrates, 35% protein, 20% fat)” whose average weight loss was only “7 kg (15.4 lbs) in the same period.” From this, it can be concluded that “low-carbohydrate diets obtain more rapid results.” Other researchers agree that “at least in the short term, patients following low-carbohydrate diets enjoy greater success” than those who follow alternative plans (Johnson & Crowe, 2010).
After reviewing the paragraph, Jorge realized that he had drifted into unoriginal writing. Most of the paragraph was taken verbatim from a single article. Although Jorge had enclosed the material in quotation marks, he knew it was not an appropriate way to use the research in his paper.
Low-carbohydrate diets may indeed be superior to other diet plans for short-term weight loss. In a study comparing low-carbohydrate diets and low-fat diets, Heinz (2009) found that subjects who followed a low-carbohydrate plan (30% of total calories) for 4 months lost, on average, about 3 kilograms more than subjects who followed a low-fat diet for the same time. Heinz concluded that these plans yield quick results, an idea supported by a similar study conducted by Johnson and Crowe (2010). What remains to be seen, however, is whether this initial success can be sustained for longer periods.
As Jorge revised the paragraph, he realized he did not need to quote these sources directly. Instead, he paraphrased their most important findings. He also made sure to include a topic sentence stating the main idea of the paragraph and a concluding sentence that transitioned to the next major topic in his essay.
Working with Sources Carefully
Disorganization and carelessness sometimes lead to plagiarism. For instance, a writer may be unable to provide a complete, accurate citation if he didn’t record bibliographical information. A writer may cut and paste a passage from a website into her paper and later forget where the material came from. A writer who procrastinates may rush through a draft, which easily leads to sloppy paraphrasing and inaccurate quotations. Any of these actions can create the appearance of plagiarism and lead to negative consequences.
Carefully organizing your time and notes is the best guard against these forms of plagiarism. Maintain a detailed working bibliography and thorough notes throughout the research process. Check original sources again to clear up any uncertainties. Allow plenty of time for writing your draft so there is no temptation to cut corners.
Citing other people’s work appropriately is just as important in the workplace as it is in school. If you need to consult outside sources to research a document you are creating, follow the general guidelines already discussed, as well as any industry-specific citation guidelines. For more extensive use of others’ work—for instance, requesting permission to link to another company’s website on your own corporate website—always follow your employer’s established procedures.
The concepts and strategies discussed in this section of Chapter 12 “Writing a Research Paper” connect to a larger issue—academic integrity. You maintain your integrity as a member of an academic community by representing your work and others’ work honestly and by using other people’s work only in legitimately accepted ways. It is a point of honor taken seriously in every academic discipline and career field.
Academic integrity violations have serious educational and professional consequences. Even when cheating and plagiarism go undetected, they still result in a student’s failure to learn necessary research and writing skills. Students who are found guilty of academic integrity violations face consequences ranging from a failing grade to expulsion from the university. Employees may be fired for plagiarism and do irreparable damage to their professional reputation. In short, it is never worth the risk.
- An effective research paper focuses on the writer’s ideas. The introduction and conclusion present and revisit the writer’s thesis. The body of the paper develops the thesis and related points with information from research.
- Ideas and information taken from outside sources must be cited in the body of the paper and in the references section.
- Material taken from sources should be used to develop the writer’s ideas. Summarizing and paraphrasing are usually most effective for this purpose.
- A summary concisely restates the main ideas of a source in the writer’s own words.
- A paraphrase restates ideas from a source using the writer’s own words and sentence structures.
- Direct quotations should be used sparingly. Ellipses and brackets must be used to indicate words that were omitted or changed for conciseness or grammatical correctness.
- Always represent material from outside sources accurately.
- Plagiarism has serious academic and professional consequences. To avoid accidental plagiarism, keep research materials organized, understand guidelines for fair use and appropriate citation of sources, and review the paper to make sure these guidelines are followed.
Writing for Success Copyright © 2015 by University of Minnesota is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License , except where otherwise noted.
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How to Draft a Research Paper
The blog “Making a Research Paper Outline” spoke about how to create a basic outline before you begin writing the paper. Not only does that make things clear from the get-go, but also makes the process of writing a research paper systematic. It helps lay the initial framework for your paper.
Next Up: Drafting your research paper
Preparing a first draft is where you test your outline and elaborate on the ideas to support your thesis. It is not the final product.
Title Page A properly formatted title page is very quick and easy to do. It’s the first page of your paper, so a blatant mistake here will create a bad impression, now who would want that?
Most title pages have a lot of wide space and must contain all the necessary information in a clean manner. We will not be talking about the format of the title page as it is bound to be different for different universities or departments even. So it is advised to inquire about the specific requirements for your department and university. Some universities follow certain standards in which case the format remains the same throughout. We shall address that in another article.
Abstract An abstract summarizes the major aspects of the entire paper in a prescribed sequence. It includes the overall basis of the study and the research problems you investigated, the basic layout of the study, findings or trends found as a result of the study and a brief summary of your interpretations and conclusions. It speaks of the major aspects of your paper and helps the reader decide whether they want to read the rest of it. Hence, the abstract must be thought through and written well.
Introduction First and foremost to writing your introduction is, writing the thesis. Your thesis should state the main idea in brief terms. After you have a working thesis, talk about the body of your paper before you write the rest of the introduction. Each paragraph in the body should explore one specific topic that proves, or summarizes your thesis. Revise your introduction several times to refine it. Be sure your introduction provides a preview to the topic you are presenting in your paper.
Body The rest of the paper, starting from the body will contain the actual data that you have strived to collect over the research period. A transition should be maintained from the end of your introduction to your first topic. This transition from one topic to another throughout the paper should be carefully examined, ensuring this will create a smooth flow from one topic to another.
Material and Methods This broadly falls into the body of the research paper. The data collected over the course of the study needs to be interpreted in a well-defined manner to make the most of the data. The materials used, the algorithms, statistics and equations become an integral part of this section.
Conclusion A good conclusion should make a strong statement, ensures that any questions raised in your paper have been answered. It is important that you do not introduce new information or ideas in your conclusion. It is generally at this point you realize that you have not yet made certain arguments you wished to make or pointed out evidence that you feel is important to understand the paper. Worry not, for this is a draft and make notes of the points that cross your mind, so that, when you write your final paper its perfect or at least close to perfect.
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The Savvy Scientist
Experiences of a London PhD student and beyond
How to Write the First Draft of an Academic Research Paper
Actually making a start and putting together a first draft can certainly be the biggest stumbling block to getting a paper submitted. Unless you make a start, it’ll never progress! Drafting your first paper is even more difficult when you don’t yet have experience writing papers and submitting them to journals.
I know from experience how daunting the prospect can be and just how easy it is to unnecessarily procrastinate for months. But it doesn’t have to be difficult and the main thing is making a start. I’m here to try and help making the process less daunting for you!
This guide to drafting your first academic paper forms part of the publishing series . I suggest reading these associated posts in particular:
- What to publish
- When to publish
- Where to publish
What to include in your first draft of an academic research paper
Let me start by saying that no one should be expecting for your first draft to be perfect! I wasted months of time on my first paper because I wanted to perfect everything, down to the wording, before sharing it with my supervisor. This is completely the wrong approach!
Instead of perfecting your first draft, just work to form the rough structure of your paper around whatever you want your key message to be. We discussed this further in the separate post: Deciding what to publish from your PhD work . Simply try to ensure your first draft roughly tells the story of what you want your main message to be.
It is absolutely fine for your first draft to be a rough cut, it should simply serve as a starting point. Therefore for example you can include extra figures you’re not sure about to be able to discuss with your co-authors whether or not they should be included. Throughout the drafting process you want to aiming to make your key message as clear and robust as possible but for now it’s fine to not be sure on the finer details. It may help to look at your favourite papers from the literature to get an idea what papers in your field typically include.
For now, don’t worry the quality of the written text, or finalising your figures. You want to use the first draft to form the rough structure and be a starting point for discussion with co-authors.
Let’s now discuss how to structure your first draft.
Structuring your first draft
If you already have a certain journal in mind to submit your paper to, how you structure your draft may slightly depend upon the format that the journal asks for. It’s a good idea to check their Author Instructions page which should include a “Guide for Authors”: a walkthrough of each section of the paper. Oftentimes there may even be a template you can download including section titles and advice for structuring your text.
If you don’t yet have a journal in mind, don’t worry. For the most part all journals follow the same format. For an original research paper, usually you’ll include sections as follows:
- Abstract – typically around 200-250 words or less.
- Conclusions – sometimes appears as the final paragraph of the discussion section.
Then followed by Author Contributions, Funding sources, Acknowledgments, Conflicts of Interest, any Supplementary files or Appendix and finally the list of References. None of these sections you really have to worry about at this stage.
Let’s go through roughly what to include in each section:
- A brief review of previous literature to set the scene;
- The motivation for the study;
- The aims of your study;
- Sometimes you may include a very brief overview of your main findings. See what other papers in the journal do.
Always include enough detail for someone else to be able to repeat your experiments, including:
- How many samples did you test? How did you process them? Were there inclusion/exclusion criteria?
- If you synthesised or processed physical samples, what materials have you used? Include processing temperatures, durations of each step etc.
- What equipment and consumables did you use? Include the item code, model number and manufacturer.
- How did you process the data? Name the software package, version and operations you performed.
- Details of any statistical analysis: software packages, models, methods, inclusion/exclusion criteria and so forth.
In all instances where you followed a method developed in another paper, include a reference to that paper. Not only is it good practice to give credit where it is due but you’ll have an easier time with peer review demonstrating you’re following the convention.
Remember, you shouldn’t be discussing findings in your results section, simply presenting them. Therefore there shouldn’t really be any suggesting why the results are a certain way. The exception is where the journal specifically allows results and discussion sections to be combined. Further on in this post is a section about choosing figures and results to include in your paper, and most of these will appear in your results section.
- Your results should aim to convince the reader of your key message.
- Be conscious that when first looking at your paper, most readers will go straight to looking at your figures.
- Cite every figure you include, in the order you include them. Clearly explain what is being presented.
The way I was taught to write a discussion was to simply use four paragraphs/sections covering:
- Your key finding . You can even start it with the sentence “The most important finding of this work was”
- Comparison to previous literature . How do your findings compare to other papers? What was the same? What was different? How do your findings progress the field? What would you recommend next?
- Limitations . Every study has limitations, don’t try and hide them. Be honest with what wasn’t ideal during your study. Examples may be: small sample size, imperfect analysis, impractical sample processing. If you can, cite other papers which relate to these limitations: either in regards to why it’s not such a big problem, how it is common problem, or potential solutions or improvements for future studies. In any case, be honest. You can recommend future work to overcome these limitations if appropriate.
- Conclusions . Give a brief set of conclusions with reference to the potential impact of your work for future studies.
You can see how I used exactly this format for a recent paper available here .
Eager to learn more about the steps involved in publishing your first paper? My academic publishing series is now available as a free eBook which you can read offline. Click the button below for access.
In which order should you write the sections of the first draft?
Everyone writes papers differently, so what works for me may not work well for you. Personally once I start a document for a new paper, I typically write notes for each section as I think of them but go with the following strategy to get the text written.
Generally it is acknowledged that the methods section is an easy section to write, so I would suggest starting there. Even if you’ve got writer’s block, writing your methods is pretty robotic and shouldn’t require much thought. It simply involves writing down the process you went through to collect all your data. Writing the methods is an easy starting point which should give you confidence to dive into the other sections. In the above graphic I’ve separated the conclusions from the discussion but often the conclusions will simply be the final paragraph of the discussion section.
After the methods you can start drafting your key results and your discussion will naturally follow from there. If you follow the structure for the discussion as outlined in the section above, it should also be formulaic and pretty easy to write if you’ve got a clear message.
By all means crack on with the introduction whenever you fancy. If you’re in the mood to write it, don’t stop yourself! I personally like to write notes for it and include key references as I’m going along, but write the bulk of it after the methods, results and the bulk of the discussion.
Usually it is recommended to write the abstract last once everything else is finalised.
Choosing which figures to present
Remember you’re creating a story around your key message. As such all your figures should be helping to convince your reader of your key message.
- Be aware that there are sometimes limits on the maximum number of figures you’re allowed to include (around 8) in the main text of your paper. Usually you can move figures to a supplementary section if necessary. Prioritise the most impactful figures to illustrate your main point.
- Each figure should aim to address a certain point around your key message to convince readers. You can combine figures as panels within a larger figure but only do so if they address the same overall point. Don’t confuse readers by combining loads of unrelated things just because you’re running out of space!
- Always make sure the caption fully describes what the figure is showing. The figure and caption should explain what is going on without the reader having to read any of the main text. What type of equipment generated the data? How many samples were tested? What do the error bars show? What is the scale? For stats: what is the p-value?
You may need a figure to describe your methods but after that usually you’ll try to include figures in an order which tells a story. Importantly: this order may not be the one in which experiments actually took place. You’re trying to tell a story to get a message across, not write a diary! It’s no problem to move sections of results around if it makes for a more convincing message, especially for readers who may only have a quick glance through your paper.
For example you may wish to start with your key finding, then follow with any validation work, then finally include more details to convince the reader. It will really depend on what suits the work you’re doing, but remember that you have full control and your aim should be to make a clear story.
My top tips for putting together your first draft of the paper
My main bit of advice is to get a first draft put together pretty quickly otherwise you risking wasting lots of time like I did! I wish I had sent the initial drafts of my first paper to my supervisor sooner. I spent far too long trying to perfect it down to the exact phrasing of sentences. There is no point getting to this level of detail if there is potentially an improved completely different direction to take the paper in!
What I’ve found to work really well is to set deadlines with your supervisor to ensure you are making progress to submission. You don’t have to have the full paper available all at once. I have had calendar invites set up saying by a certain date I’d have sections of the paper sent across, and to limit procrastination no date was more than four weeks away.
After your supervisor(s) has had a look, send it across to any co-authors. It may take a few iterations until everyone is happy. Once you have the backing of your coauthors, don’t be scared to submit your manuscript slightly sooner than you feel comfortable.
A reviewer is pretty unlikely to outright reject your paper if they want more experiments to be carried out: they’ll ask for what they want in the review process.
Always think about the next publication
Once you start writing, you may struggle deciding what to include and what not to. Remember though that this doesn’t mean you need to delay publishing if you already have a clear story. Unless all your work sits together very neatly, please resist the urge to include everything in a single paper.
If you’ve got results you’d like to publish but they don’t sit nicely with the main message of this paper, you can always consider publishing them separately later. It is much more important to create a clear message with a coherent story than to include extra work just because you did it!
Although some academics shun the “salami slice” connotations of having many smaller papers, it doesn’t always make sense to force different experiments together in to one paper. I recently published two different papers in the same special issue of a journal, both were related but had very different messages:
- Quantifying 3D Strain in Scaffold Implants for Regenerative Medicine
- Exploratory Full-Field Mechanical Analysis across the Osteochondral Tissue—Biomaterial Interface in an Ovine Model
It wouldn’t have made for a stronger paper to combine them because in essence they were telling separate stories.
It’s fine for your first draft if you’re not exactly sure what to include. Once you’ve got the rough form of the paper sorted, you can add or reduce bits as necessary. The key thing is to get a first draft done to get the framework for the paper. No one is expecting it to be perfect!
Word vs LaTex
I know some people enjoy using LaTex for their documents, but I’ve never used it. Everyone I’ve always worked with uses Word, so even if I was keen to use LaTex I’m not sure that it would be that easy to collaborate on documents to track changes etc. Journals will often request the paper to be submitted as a Word document so probably save using LaTex for your own internal reports or theses.
Keep your data, files and figures organised
This point extends far beyond your first draft of a paper! Once you start iterating on papers, it becomes more important than ever to know where all your key files are. Ensure you keep different version of documents clearly labelled.
Be prepared for reviewers to ask for modifications to figures or data to be reanalysed.
What I do is keep a folder for the paper and include the main working draft plus other relevant documents like notes or draft of the cover letter. I then have subfolders for data, figures and old drafts.
Aim to present figures with a clear message which are easy to “get”
Making figures is the focus of a whole other post which will follow this one. In short:
A lot of readers will initially flick through your paper and skip straight to your figures. It’s really important that the figures tell the story clearly and can be understood by just looking at the figure and caption. Also, if the readers don’t like the look of your figures, or can’t understand them, they’re less likely to bother reading the rest of the paper. Again, have a look at how published papers present their work to get some ideas.
You’ll want to make your figures in such a way that they can be amended easily to account for any adjustments suggested by co-authors or reviewers. I use a combination of Excel and Photoshop for most of my figures. There are lots of alternatives depending on what you’re presenting, GIMP is a free alternative to Photoshop.
If you make them in Paint and someone suggests making some alterations, it could take you ages. Instead if you make them in a non-binding software like Photoshop you can easily make non-destructive changes element by element.
It is worth spending time creating nice figures. Having polished figures makes your submission look more professional, ensuring the underlying science is easy to understand is critical too. Plus you can use them elsewhere, such as in presentations or other documents.
Got a draft? What happens next
The hard work is far from over once you have your first draft but you’ve overcome a really big hurdle in the journey to getting your work published. Now it’s time to discuss your draft with co-authors, incorporating feedback and changes into subsequent drafts.
There is no certain number of drafts you should expect to go through before submission, just know that you could endlessly spend time finding things to add (discussed here ) and you should be very conscious to avoid doing! For my papers I think it took around four drafts until we felt happy enough to submit. Not all of your co-authors have to give feedback for every draft, I’d suggest the main people you’ll be liaising with will be your supervisor(s) though it’s certainly important that everyone has an opportunity to help.
Once all of the authors, including yourself, are happy with the paper, speak to your supervisor for how to proceed with submission. Some supervisors like to lead the submission whereas others prefer for the student to do so, and then to transfer “corresponding authorship” at the final stages before publication.
In any case, be prepared to feel vulnerable when you do eventually submit the research paper to a journal. This can be completely normal, your work is going to get critiqued! But remember that you’ve done great and rather than leave the data on a computer you’re motivated to pursue publication in turn helping progress your field. Well done!
I hope this post has helped with your first draft of a paper! Remember that you can find the other posts in the series here: Writing an academic journal paper series. Next we’ll be covering creating figures and dealing with reviewers.
Please let me know what you thought of it or if there are any other details of publishing which you’d like help with .
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- About the Author
- For Instructors
- What is Qualitative Research
- Ethnicity and Race
- Narrative Rich Data
- Descriptive Data
- First Hand Accounts
- Emotions as Data
- The Complexity of Memory
- Simplifications as a Source of Contradiction
- The Use of Negative Cases and Unexpected Findings
- Avoid Yes/No Questions
- Avoid ”Multiple-choice“ and Double-barreled Questions
- Don’t Switch Topics Too Frequently
- Avoid the ‘Why‘ Question
- Avoid Asking for Little Known Facts
- Avoid Imposing Concepts
- Avoid Leading Questions
- Listen Attentively
- Ask About Sensitive Issues Skillfully
- Adjust Questions to the Respondent’s Situation
- Ask for Clarification
- Ask Open-ended Questions
- Ask the Respondent to Tell a Story
- Ask Questions to Elicit the Personal Voice
- Field Notes
- Conventions for Transcribing Interviews
- Process of Reflection
- Married Women’s Occupation
- Ethnic Assimilation
- The Heterosexual Nuclear Family
- The Research Relationship
- Finding a Focus
- Possible Research Topics
- Open Coding
- Focused Coding
- Developing an Analytical Lens
- Formulating the Research Question
- Using the Literature
Drafting the Research Paper
- Revising the Draft
- Selection of Respondents
- The Interview Archive
Objectives of Writing a Draft
In drafting a qualitative research paper, the objective is to have an intitial go at presenting the analysis, while at the same time continuing to do the analysis. In the draft you will bring together and attempt to synthesise the ideas you developed through the steps of reading, coding and memoing. These ideas will be further refined and organized as you write the draft.
Features of a Draft Paper
The draft should include:
- a statement of your research question
- an organized presentation of your analysis according to themes or concepts
- evidence from the data to support your analysis
- reflection on how your analysis emerged, perhaps including your preconceptions and how these changed
- reflection on how well you have been able to answer your research question with the data you have
- reflection on your contribution to the existing literature
Early Rough Draft of a Research Paper
First Generation Italian Women Immigrants in Toronto In this paper I will examine the self-identity of first generation Italian women immigrants in Toronto. I will present data from interviews with immigrant families, which are archived in the "Lives and Legacies" database. I am interested in identifying patterns in the way women present themselves as individuals, as women, as family members, as Italians, as immigrants, as workers, and in other ways. My research question is the following: how do first generation Italian women immigrants define their identities in their accounts of their lives, and in statements of their values? My question is important so we can broaden our understanding of older Italian women beyond popular stereotypes. When we listen to Italian women speaking in their own words, and take into account the context of their lives, we can have a fuller understanding of who they are. My research is based on qualitative analysis of interviews with seven first-generation Italian immigrant women and one French-Canadian woman who married a first-generation Italian immigrant in northern Quebec. The respondents ranged in age from 88 to 54 years. All of them had married and now had adult children, and in some cases, grandchildren. Three were widows. In another three cases, the women's husbands participated in the interview. The oldest member of the study came to Canada in 1928, whereas all the others immigrated between 1950 and 1965. All of the respondents settled in Toronto for their adult lives. Reviewing the literature, it is striking that some studies of Italian ethnic identity do not consider Italian women in their own right. This may be because the largest body of literature is concerned to explain how immigrant culture is changing, and what factors will lead to its perpetuation or diminution in future generations. Therefore, there has been less written about identity formation specifically among Italian immigrant women or men. An exception is a survey study of male Italian immigrants in Calgary (Aliaga 1994). However, even in this study of men, the gender dimension is ignored as conclusions are assumed to pertain to all Italians. In this paper I argue that gender identity is a facet of ethnic identity that must be distinguished in order to understand the preservation and transformation of Italian culture in Canada. Most of the literature reviewed sees family as central to Italian immigrant identity, and my findings agree. For example, Eyles and Perri's (1993) life history study of three generations of the Ninni family found that the family was a close-knit group. Rituals such as Sunday dinner sustained the close family bonds. Also family members supported one another through difficult circumstances such as bankruptcy and financial problems. They also celebrated fortunate life events together. These authors argue that into the third generation, "in many ways, 'family' has replaced ethnicity as the central focus of Ninni life" (p. 117). Eyles and Perri's conclusion opposes "family" and "ethnicity" as though they are separate identities, when, in fact, ethnic identity is multi-dimensional. The identity of "Italian family" may give meaning to social identities of "family" and "Italian," as well as "immigrant." Eyles and Perri also did not compare the meanings of family and ethnicity for women and men. They present the case as though the Ninni family as a whole shares a social identity without examining the unique identities of women and men. Cameron and Lalonde (1994) agree that self-identity is multi-dimensional and context specific. "We view ethnic identity as reflected in a constellation of social categorizations in which the self is located" (p. 515). Ethnic identification can be formed on two levels: on the interpersonal level in relation to family and friends, and on the level of the social, in relation to categories such as "Italian," "Italian-Canadian," "Catholic," and "immigrant." However, in their quantitative, comparative study of two generations of Italian immigrants, they did not isolate gender as an aspect of interpersonal or social identity. Nevertheless, their findings about social identity of first generation Italians are relevant to this analysis because 70% of their participants were female. They found that first generation Italians exhibit a strongly collective social identity. In other words, they see the self as sharing values with social groups such as the family, Italians, immigrants, friends, people of their age, religion and social class. They conclude that first generation Italian self-identity is collectivist. Franc Sturino's (1980) study of Southern Italian immigrants in Toronto similarly placed an emphasis on family. He emphasized the cooperation and reciprocity between nuclear family, the family circle and kindred groups. The nuclear family can be seen as a cooperative economic unit with a marked division of roles. The father is the authority figure by virtue of being the family "provider" through his waged work or the family enterprise, as well as through home ownership. The mother has the role of caring for the provider and managing the household. "For the immigrant wife, her primary sphere of influence remained her home and children" (p. 92). Sturino argues that women's waged work did not threaten their husband's status for three reasons: first, it was often "home work" that could be integrated with domestic responsibilities; second, it was low-wage work and did not compete with his role as breadwinner; and third, "women's wage was often seen as an extension of her role as the family's shopper" (p. 92). Haddad and Lam (1994) further examine the effects on the family of wives sharing breadwinning with husbands. They confirmed the finding of a strong sexual division of labour whereby, "women, even those few who were engaged in paid work, were 'housewives' and responsible for the household and children while men were the 'workers'" (p. 173). They documented how the home was a place of rest for men and a place of around the clock labour for women. The effect of women's work outside the home was to place on them a double burden of domestic and paid work. It also resulted in domestic chores being done in more isolation. However, in about half the cases, women gained more decision-making power vis-à-vis their husbands. Haddad and Lam's study had little subjective reporting of women's interpretations of their work and family arrangements, except to say that most women and men generally found their arrangements were "equal," "efficient" and "how things are supposed to be" (p. 174). They also note that women had little choice because of poor labour market opportunities. Finally, Franca Iacovetta (1993) similarly shows that women's paid work is consistent with their collectivist, familial identities. Women's paid work is a family strategy for economic survival and success. She writes, "Certainly, much of the self-pride that Italian women expressed in relation to their labours was linked to their commitment to their family and to their ability to contribute to the well-being of their husbands and children" ( p. 95). However, she argues that women were changed by their workplace experiences over time because of the low wages, long hours and poor working conditions of the jobs available to them. Motivated by a commitment to family, women linked their self-identification as women and mothers to the paid and unpaid labours they performed for the benefit of parents, husbands, and children. In the process they developed a sense of feminine pride… They saw themselves as indispensable to their families (p. 102).
The interview data I will now present confirms the findings of the literature that Italian women's self-identity is centred on their role in the family. It shows how, paradoxically, women create a self-identity by de-centring themselves. I will make this argument with three points: first, by showing that women have a collectivist attitude towards family; second, by pointing out how women's self-identity emerges in relation to domestic work; and third, by revealing women's independent influence on the family, in spite of their collectivist, familialist identity.
First, women see the family as a collective entity and often devote a tremendous amount of time, thought and energy to ensure its unity. The importance of family unity was strongly expressed by the women in interviews:
I: What are Italian's attitudes towards the family? Laura: Family is the most important thing to Italians. To have a united family is the most beautiful thing you can find. (Ital 6) I: In your opinion what is the most important thing to the Italian family? Antonella: Unity. Having a united family is the most important thing…The unity of a family is a beautiful thing. (Ital 2) I: What is the most important thing to the Italian family? Vincenza: Unity. To be united. In our hearts we have to stay united. (Ital 8)
The following dialogue between the interviewer and both members of a couple, gives a glimpse of the different values the husband and wife place on family, which are reflective of their roles:
I: What do you feel is the most important thing to the Italian family? Flora: (jumps in with a quick answer, no hesitation) To stay united. Angelo: Yes, to stay united. To have a good family, with good health. If you have your health then you could go to work. For those who like to go to work. There are those who do not like to work. Flora: You need "L'accordo." [Meaning: You need to get along well with one another.] Angelo: Having a lot of money without having "l'accordo" means nothing. An old Italian man said, "You can buy everything but you can't buy good health." (Ital 7)
In this dialogue Flora quickly asserts the priority of family unity and harmony for her. Her husband, Angelo, agrees but emphasizes the values of having good health in order to work. He states that "l'accordo" is more important than money, but comes back to the primary importance of health. Next I will show how women's work is oriented to maintaining the health of the family breadwinner.
My second point is that Italian women work to achieve their ideal of family unity through domestic labour and service to their husband. In Laura's case, for example, her familial work includes a daily routine of cooking and coordination.
Laura: Everyday of my life, I woke up at six a.m. I went to church, then come home and wash and get the kids ready for school. My husband used to get up at 9 a.m. I would bring him coffee in bed, and then he would get up. I made my husband's lunch in the morning. He did not want me to make his lunch at night and leave it in the fridge. I made his lunch and his morning coffee. He would come downstairs, grabbed his "suitcase" and leave for work in his car (Italian 6).
An essential part of women's familial work is to recognize and accommodate husbands' individual needs and preferences. Thus, for Laura, the work entails more than just making coffee and lunch for her husband. It is to "bring him coffee in bed" and make his lunch in the morning because "he didn't want me to make his lunch at night and leave it in the fridge."
Such deliberate care and effort goes a long way when it comes to mediating domestic tension and averting quarrels: achieving "l'accordo." Rosa's comment on how to "keep peace in the home" is revealing:
Rosa:…Everything we accomplished we did it together, like I'm sure happened with your parents, and basically all immigrants. Italian men are tough. The women are more passive, so that we can keep peace in the home. Even when something is wrong, you have to say yes. Italians are like that. A lot of times they share an opinion but other times one sees things one way and the other sees things differently. But they are not serious problems. Sometimes even if you are sure that they are wrong, they still insist that they are right. I just say, "okay, okay." What am I to do, start a war? As long as they are not serious things, we can get through it (she laughed) (Italian 9).
Although Rosa categorizes Italian men as "tough" and women as "more passive," because "even when something is wrong, you [women] have to say yes," we need to be cautious about taking such a stereotypical dichotomy at face value. To a large extent, the Italian women in Rosa's narratives are not passive. In fact, they are the figures who "keep peace in the home," by maintaining a sense of right and wrong, by assessing whether or not the issue at hand deserves a real fight, and by purposely suppressing their own judgements whenever they deem the matter as non-serious.
This brings me to my final argument. Rosa's acute awareness of what it takes to "get through it" calls for a closer examination of how women see themselves vis-à-vis their husbands as well as their overall objectives as married woman. Laura's story of buying cemetery plots is informative in this regard:
Interviewer: What are Italians' attitudes towards the family? Laura: Family is the most important thing to Italians. To have a united family is the most beautiful thing you can find. &hellip My grandfather interjects: Tell her about the cemetery plots. (She laughed, almost embarrassed, and then told the story.) Laura: When my husband died, actually before he died...You see, sometimes the woman is sneakier than the man. She thinks ahead, while the man does not...My husband used to say, "I'm going to die and I don't know where you are going to throw my body." We went to an office at Mount Hope Cemetery. We bought plots for our kids and ourselves. There are eight places in the ground for us. I made up this thing, which was like a will. I told my kids, whoever wants to come, come. Once you're dead, you're dead. I bought for everyone. I thought to myself that if my children die with nothing (poor) they would have a nice place to rest. I could not just buy one for myself. (Italian 6)
In conclusion, Laura's story of buying eight cemetery plots for herself, husband and children, and Rosa's willingness to say, "okay, okay," suggest that, in the family context, married women engage in a paradoxical dance that requires them to be simultaneously self-possessed and selfless.
Aliaga, David E. (1994). "Italian immigrants in Calgary: dimensions of cultural identity." Canadian Ethnic Studies XXVI (2): 141-148.
Cameron, James E. and Richard N. Lalonde (1994). "Self, ethnicity, and social group memberships in two generations of Italian Canadians." Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 20 (5): 514-520.
Eyles, John and Eugenio Perri (1993). "Life history as method: an Italian-Canadian family in an industrial city." The Canadian Geographer 37 (2): 104-19.
Haddad, Tony and Lawrence Lam (1994). "The impact of migration on the sexual division of family work: a case study of Italian immigrant couples." Journal of Comparative Family Studies XXV (2): 167-182.
Iacovetta, Franca (1993). Such Hardworking People: Italian Immigrants in Postwar Toronto . Montreal; Kingston, McGill-Queen's University Press.
Sturino, Franc (1980). Family and kin cohesion among Southern Italian immigrants in Toronto. Canadian Families: Ethnic Variations . Edited by K. Ishwaran. Toronto, McGraw-Hill Ryerson Limited: 84-104.
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How to Write a Research Paper | A Beginner's Guide
A research paper is a piece of academic writing that provides analysis, interpretation, and argument based on in-depth independent research.
Research papers are similar to academic essays , but they are usually longer and more detailed assignments, designed to assess not only your writing skills but also your skills in scholarly research. Writing a research paper requires you to demonstrate a strong knowledge of your topic, engage with a variety of sources, and make an original contribution to the debate.
This step-by-step guide takes you through the entire writing process, from understanding your assignment to proofreading your final draft.
Table of contents
Understand the assignment, choose a research paper topic, conduct preliminary research, develop a thesis statement, create a research paper outline, write a first draft of the research paper, write the introduction, write a compelling body of text, write the conclusion, the second draft, the revision process, research paper checklist, free lecture slides.
Completing a research paper successfully means accomplishing the specific tasks set out for you. Before you start, make sure you thoroughly understanding the assignment task sheet:
- Read it carefully, looking for anything confusing you might need to clarify with your professor.
- Identify the assignment goal, deadline, length specifications, formatting, and submission method.
- Make a bulleted list of the key points, then go back and cross completed items off as you’re writing.
Carefully consider your timeframe and word limit: be realistic, and plan enough time to research, write, and edit.
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There are many ways to generate an idea for a research paper, from brainstorming with pen and paper to talking it through with a fellow student or professor.
You can try free writing, which involves taking a broad topic and writing continuously for two or three minutes to identify absolutely anything relevant that could be interesting.
You can also gain inspiration from other research. The discussion or recommendations sections of research papers often include ideas for other specific topics that require further examination.
Once you have a broad subject area, narrow it down to choose a topic that interests you, m eets the criteria of your assignment, and i s possible to research. Aim for ideas that are both original and specific:
- A paper following the chronology of World War II would not be original or specific enough.
- A paper on the experience of Danish citizens living close to the German border during World War II would be specific and could be original enough.
Note any discussions that seem important to the topic, and try to find an issue that you can focus your paper around. Use a variety of sources , including journals, books, and reliable websites, to ensure you do not miss anything glaring.
Do not only verify the ideas you have in mind, but look for sources that contradict your point of view.
- Is there anything people seem to overlook in the sources you research?
- Are there any heated debates you can address?
- Do you have a unique take on your topic?
- Have there been some recent developments that build on the extant research?
In this stage, you might find it helpful to formulate some research questions to help guide you. To write research questions, try to finish the following sentence: “I want to know how/what/why…”
A thesis statement is a statement of your central argument — it establishes the purpose and position of your paper. If you started with a research question, the thesis statement should answer it. It should also show what evidence and reasoning you’ll use to support that answer.
The thesis statement should be concise, contentious, and coherent. That means it should briefly summarize your argument in a sentence or two, make a claim that requires further evidence or analysis, and make a coherent point that relates to every part of the paper.
You will probably revise and refine the thesis statement as you do more research, but it can serve as a guide throughout the writing process. Every paragraph should aim to support and develop this central claim.
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A research paper outline is essentially a list of the key topics, arguments, and evidence you want to include, divided into sections with headings so that you know roughly what the paper will look like before you start writing.
A structure outline can help make the writing process much more efficient, so it’s worth dedicating some time to create one.
Your first draft won’t be perfect — you can polish later on. Your priorities at this stage are as follows:
- Maintaining forward momentum — write now, perfect later.
- Paying attention to clear organization and logical ordering of paragraphs and sentences, which will help when you come to the second draft.
- Expressing your ideas as clearly as possible, so you know what you were trying to say when you come back to the text.
You do not need to start by writing the introduction. Begin where it feels most natural for you — some prefer to finish the most difficult sections first, while others choose to start with the easiest part. If you created an outline, use it as a map while you work.
Do not delete large sections of text. If you begin to dislike something you have written or find it doesn’t quite fit, move it to a different document, but don’t lose it completely — you never know if it might come in useful later.
Paragraphs are the basic building blocks of research papers. Each one should focus on a single claim or idea that helps to establish the overall argument or purpose of the paper.
George Orwell’s 1946 essay “Politics and the English Language” has had an enduring impact on thought about the relationship between politics and language. This impact is particularly obvious in light of the various critical review articles that have recently referenced the essay. For example, consider Mark Falcoff’s 2009 article in The National Review Online, “The Perversion of Language; or, Orwell Revisited,” in which he analyzes several common words (“activist,” “civil-rights leader,” “diversity,” and more). Falcoff’s close analysis of the ambiguity built into political language intentionally mirrors Orwell’s own point-by-point analysis of the political language of his day. Even 63 years after its publication, Orwell’s essay is emulated by contemporary thinkers.
It’s also important to keep track of citations at this stage to avoid accidental plagiarism . Each time you use a source, make sure to take note of where the information came from.
You can use our free citation generators to automatically create citations and save your reference list as you go.
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The research paper introduction should address three questions: What, why, and how? After finishing the introduction, the reader should know what the paper is about, why it is worth reading, and how you’ll build your arguments.
What? Be specific about the topic of the paper, introduce the background, and define key terms or concepts.
Why? This is the most important, but also the most difficult, part of the introduction. Try to provide brief answers to the following questions: What new material or insight are you offering? What important issues does your essay help define or answer?
How? To let the reader know what to expect from the rest of the paper, the introduction should include a “map” of what will be discussed, briefly presenting the key elements of the paper in chronological order.
The major struggle faced by most writers is how to organize the information presented in the paper, which is one reason an outline is so useful. However, remember that the outline is only a guide and, when writing, you can be flexible with the order in which the information and arguments are presented.
One way to stay on track is to use your thesis statement and topic sentences . Check:
- topic sentences against the thesis statement;
- topic sentences against each other, for similarities and logical ordering;
- and each sentence against the topic sentence of that paragraph.
Be aware of paragraphs that seem to cover the same things. If two paragraphs discuss something similar, they must approach that topic in different ways. Aim to create smooth transitions between sentences, paragraphs, and sections.
The research paper conclusion is designed to help your reader out of the paper’s argument, giving them a sense of finality.
Trace the course of the paper, emphasizing how it all comes together to prove your thesis statement. Give the paper a sense of finality by making sure the reader understands how you’ve settled the issues raised in the introduction.
You might also discuss the more general consequences of the argument, outline what the paper offers to future students of the topic, and suggest any questions the paper’s argument raises but cannot or does not try to answer.
You should not :
- Offer new arguments or essential information
- Take up any more space than necessary
- Begin with stock phrases that signal you are ending the paper (e.g. “In conclusion”)
There are four main considerations when it comes to the second draft.
- Check how your vision of the paper lines up with the first draft and, more importantly, that your paper still answers the assignment.
- Identify any assumptions that might require (more substantial) justification, keeping your reader’s perspective foremost in mind. Remove these points if you cannot substantiate them further.
- Be open to rearranging your ideas. Check whether any sections feel out of place and whether your ideas could be better organized.
- If you find that old ideas do not fit as well as you anticipated, you should cut them out or condense them. You might also find that new and well-suited ideas occurred to you during the writing of the first draft — now is the time to make them part of the paper.
The goal during the revision and proofreading process is to ensure you have completed all the necessary tasks and that the paper is as well-articulated as possible.
- Confirm that your paper completes every task specified in your assignment sheet.
- Check for logical organization and flow of paragraphs.
- Check paragraphs against the introduction and thesis statement.
Check the content of each paragraph, making sure that:
- each sentence helps support the topic sentence.
- no unnecessary or irrelevant information is present.
- all technical terms your audience might not know are identified.
Next, think about sentence structure , grammatical errors, and formatting . Check that you have correctly used transition words and phrases to show the connections between your ideas. Look for typos, cut unnecessary words, and check for consistency in aspects such as heading formatting and spellings .
Finally, you need to make sure your paper is correctly formatted according to the rules of the citation style you are using. For example, you might need to include an MLA heading or create an APA title page .
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Checklist: Research paper
I have followed all instructions in the assignment sheet.
My introduction presents my topic in an engaging way and provides necessary background information.
My introduction presents a clear, focused research problem and/or thesis statement .
My paper is logically organized using paragraphs and (if relevant) section headings .
Each paragraph is clearly focused on one central idea, expressed in a clear topic sentence .
Each paragraph is relevant to my research problem or thesis statement.
I have used appropriate transitions to clarify the connections between sections, paragraphs, and sentences.
My conclusion provides a concise answer to the research question or emphasizes how the thesis has been supported.
My conclusion shows how my research has contributed to knowledge or understanding of my topic.
My conclusion does not present any new points or information essential to my argument.
I have provided an in-text citation every time I refer to ideas or information from a source.
I have included a reference list at the end of my paper, consistently formatted according to a specific citation style .
I have thoroughly revised my paper and addressed any feedback from my professor or supervisor.
I have followed all formatting guidelines (page numbers, headers, spacing, etc.).
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- Revise your paper to improve organization and cohesion.
- Determine an appropriate style and tone for your paper.
- Revise to ensure that your tone is consistent.
- Revise to ensure that language, citations, and formatting are correct.
Given all the time and effort you have put into your research project, you will want to make sure that your final draft represents your best work. This requires taking the time to revise and edit your paper carefully.
You may feel like you need a break from your paper before you revise and edit it. That is understandable—but leave yourself with enough time to complete this important stage of the writing process. In this section, you will learn the following specific strategies that are useful for revising and editing a research paper:
- How to evaluate and improve the overall organization and cohesion
- How to maintain an appropriate style and tone
- How to use checklists to identify and correct any errors in language, citations, and formatting
Revising Your Paper: Organization and Cohesion
When writing a research paper, it is easy to become overly focused on editorial details, such as the proper format for bibliographical entries. These details do matter. However, before you begin to address them, it is important to spend time reviewing and revising the content of the paper.
A good research paper is both organized and cohesive. Organization means that your argument flows logically from one point to the next. Cohesion means that the elements of your paper work together smoothly and naturally. In a cohesive research paper, information from research is seamlessly integrated with the writer’s ideas.
Revise to Improve Organization
When you revise to improve organization, you look at the flow of ideas throughout the essay as a whole and within individual paragraphs. You check to see that your essay moves logically from the introduction to the body paragraphs to the conclusion, and that each section reinforces your thesis. Use Checklist 12.1 to help you.
At the essay level
- Does my introduction proceed clearly from the opening to the thesis?
- Does each body paragraph have a clear main idea that relates to the thesis?
- Do the main ideas in the body paragraphs flow in a logical order? Is each paragraph connected to the one before it?
- Do I need to add or revise topic sentences or transitions to make the overall flow of ideas clearer?
- Does my conclusion summarize my main ideas and revisit my thesis?
At the paragraph level
- Does the topic sentence clearly state the main idea?
- Do the details in the paragraph relate to the main idea?
- Do I need to recast any sentences or add transitions to improve the flow of sentences?
Jorge reread his draft paragraph by paragraph. As he read, he highlighted the main idea of each paragraph so he could see whether his ideas proceeded in a logical order. For the most part, the flow of ideas was clear. However, he did notice that one paragraph did not have a clear main idea. It interrupted the flow of the writing. During revision, Jorge added a topic sentence that clearly connected the paragraph to the one that had preceded it. He also added transitions to improve the flow of ideas from sentence to sentence.
Read the following paragraphs twice, the first time without Jorge’s changes, and the second time with them.
Follow these steps to begin revising your paper’s overall organization.
- Print out a hard copy of your paper.
- Read your paper paragraph by paragraph. Highlight your thesis and the topic sentence of each paragraph.
- Using the thesis and topic sentences as starting points, outline the ideas you presented—just as you would do if you were outlining a chapter in a textbook. Do not look at the outline you created during prewriting. You may write in the margins of your draft or create a formal outline on a separate sheet of paper.
- Next, reread your paper more slowly, looking for how ideas flow from sentence to sentence. Identify places where adding a transition or recasting a sentence would make the ideas flow more logically.
- Review the topics on your outline. Is there a logical flow of ideas? Identify any places where you may need to reorganize ideas.
- Begin to revise your paper to improve organization. Start with any major issues, such as needing to move an entire paragraph. Then proceed to minor revisions, such as adding a transitional phrase or tweaking a topic sentence so it connects ideas more clearly.
Please share your paper with a classmate. Repeat the six steps and take notes on a separate piece of paper. Share and compare notes.
Writers choose transitions carefully to show the relationships between ideas—for instance, to make a comparison or elaborate on a point with examples. Make sure your transitions suit your purpose and avoid overusing the same ones. For an extensive list of transitions, see Chapter 8 “The Writing Process: How Do I Begin?”, Section 8.4 “Revising and Editing”.
Revise to Improve Cohesion
When you revise to improve cohesion, you analyze how the parts of your paper work together. You look for anything that seems awkward or out of place. Revision may involve deleting unnecessary material or rewriting parts of the paper so that the out-of-place material fits in smoothly.
In a research paper, problems with cohesion usually occur when a writer has trouble integrating source material. If facts or quotations have been awkwardly dropped into a paragraph, they distract or confuse the reader instead of working to support the writer’s point. Overusing paraphrased and quoted material has the same effect. Use Checklist 12.2 to review your essay for cohesion.
- Does the opening of the paper clearly connect to the broader topic and thesis? Make sure entertaining quotes or anecdotes serve a purpose.
- Have I included support from research for each main point in the body of my paper?
- Have I included introductory material before any quotations? Quotations should never stand alone in a paragraph.
- Does paraphrased and quoted material clearly serve to develop my own points?
- Do I need to add to or revise parts of the paper to help the reader understand how certain information from a source is relevant?
- Are there any places where I have overused material from sources?
- Does my conclusion make sense based on the rest of the paper? Make sure any new questions or suggestions in the conclusion are clearly linked to earlier material.
As Jorge reread his draft, he looked to see how the different pieces fit together to prove his thesis. He realized that some of his supporting information needed to be integrated more carefully and decided to omit some details entirely. Read the following paragraph, first without Jorge’s revisions and then with them.
Jorge decided that his comment about pizza and birthday cake came across as subjective and was not necessary to make his point, so he deleted it. He also realized that the quotation at the end of the paragraph was awkward and ineffective. How would his readers know who Kwon was or why her opinion should be taken seriously? Adding an introductory phrase helped Jorge integrate this quotation smoothly and establish the credibility of his source.
Follow these steps to begin revising your paper to improve cohesion.
- Print out a hard copy of your paper, or work with your printout from “Exercise 1”.
- Read the body paragraphs of your paper first. Each time you come to a place that cites information from sources, ask yourself what purpose this information serves. Check that it helps support a point and that it is clearly related to the other sentences in the paragraph.
- Identify unnecessary information from sources that you can delete.
- Identify places where you need to revise your writing so that readers understand the significance of the details cited from sources.
- Skim the body paragraphs once more, looking for any paragraphs that seem packed with citations. Review these paragraphs carefully for cohesion.
- Review your introduction and conclusion. Make sure the information presented works with ideas in the body of the paper.
- Revise the places you identified in your paper to improve cohesion.
Please exchange papers with a classmate. Complete step four. On a separate piece of paper, note any areas that would benefit from clarification. Return and compare notes.
Writing at Work
Understanding cohesion can also benefit you in the workplace, especially when you have to write and deliver a presentation. Speakers sometimes rely on cute graphics or funny quotations to hold their audience’s attention. If you choose to use these elements, make sure they work well with the substantive content of your presentation. For example, if you are asked to give a financial presentation, and the financial report shows that the company lost money, funny illustrations would not be relevant or appropriate for the presentation.
Using a Consistent Style and Tone
Once you are certain that the content of your paper fulfills your purpose, you can begin revising to improve style and tone . Together, your style and tone create the voice of your paper, or how you come across to readers. Style refers to the way you use language as a writer—the sentence structures you use and the word choices you make. Tone is the attitude toward your subject and audience that you convey through your word choice.
Determining an Appropriate Style and Tone
Although accepted writing styles will vary within different disciplines, the underlying goal is the same—to come across to your readers as a knowledgeable, authoritative guide. Writing about research is like being a tour guide who walks readers through a topic. A stuffy, overly formal tour guide can make readers feel put off or intimidated. Too much informality or humor can make readers wonder whether the tour guide really knows what he or she is talking about. Extreme or emotionally charged language comes across as unbalanced.
To help prevent being overly formal or informal, determine an appropriate style and tone at the beginning of the research process. Consider your topic and audience because these can help dictate style and tone. For example, a paper on new breakthroughs in cancer research should be more formal than a paper on ways to get a good night’s sleep.
A strong research paper comes across as straightforward, appropriately academic, and serious. It is generally best to avoid writing in the first person, as this can make your paper seem overly subjective and opinion based. Use Checklist 12.3 on style to review your paper for other issues that affect style and tone. You can check for consistency at the end of the writing process. Checking for consistency is discussed later in this section.
- My paper avoids excessive wordiness.
- My sentences are varied in length and structure.
- I have avoided using first-person pronouns such as I and we .
- I have used the active voice whenever possible.
- I have defined specialized terms that might be unfamiliar to readers.
- I have used clear, straightforward language whenever possible and avoided unnecessary jargon.
- My paper states my point of view using a balanced tone—neither too indecisive nor too forceful.
Note that word choice is an especially important aspect of style. In addition to checking the points noted on Checklist 12.3, review your paper to make sure your language is precise, conveys no unintended connotations, and is free of biases. Here are some of the points to check for:
- Vague or imprecise terms
- Repetition of the same phrases (“Smith states…, Jones states…”) to introduce quoted and paraphrased material (For a full list of strong verbs to use with in-text citations, see Chapter 13 “APA and MLA Documentation and Formatting”.)
- Exclusive use of masculine pronouns or awkward use of he or she
- Use of language with negative connotations, such as haughty or ridiculous
- Use of outdated or offensive terms to refer to specific ethnic, racial, or religious groups
Using plural nouns and pronouns or recasting a sentence can help you keep your language gender neutral while avoiding awkwardness. Consider the following examples.
- Gender-biased: When a writer cites a source in the body of his paper, he must list it on his references page.
- Awkward: When a writer cites a source in the body of his or her paper, he or she must list it on his or her references page.
- Improved: Writers must list any sources cited in the body of a paper on the references page.
Keeping Your Style Consistent
As you revise your paper, make sure your style is consistent throughout. Look for instances where a word, phrase, or sentence just does not seem to fit with the rest of the writing. It is best to reread for style after you have completed the other revisions so that you are not distracted by any larger content issues. Revising strategies you can use include the following:
- Read your paper aloud. Sometimes your ears catch inconsistencies that your eyes miss.
- Share your paper with another reader whom you trust to give you honest feedback. It is often difficult to evaluate one’s own style objectively—especially in the final phase of a challenging writing project. Another reader may be more likely to notice instances of wordiness, confusing language, or other issues that affect style and tone.
- Line-edit your paper slowly, sentence by sentence. You may even wish to use a sheet of paper to cover everything on the page except the paragraph you are editing—that forces you to read slowly and carefully. Mark any areas where you notice problems in style or tone, and then take time to rework those sections.
On reviewing his paper, Jorge found that he had generally used an appropriately academic style and tone. However, he noticed one glaring exception—his first paragraph. He realized there were places where his overly informal writing could come across as unserious or, worse, disparaging. Revising his word choice and omitting a humorous aside helped Jorge maintain a consistent tone. Read his revisions.
Using Checklist 12.3, line-edit your paper. You may use either of these techniques:
- Print out a hard copy of your paper, or work with your printout from “Exercise 1”. Read it line by line. Check for the issues noted on Checklist 12.3, as well as any other aspects of your writing style you have previously identified as areas for improvement. Mark any areas where you notice problems in style or tone, and then take time to rework those sections.
- If you prefer to work with an electronic document, use the menu options in your word-processing program to enlarge the text to 150 or 200 percent of the original size. Make sure the type is large enough that you can focus on only one paragraph at a time. Read the paper line by line as described in step 1. Highlight any areas where you notice problems in style or tone, and then take time to rework those sections.
Please exchange papers with a classmate. On a separate piece of paper, note places where the essay does not seem to flow or you have questions about what was written. Return the essay and compare notes.
Editing Your Paper
After revising your paper to address problems in content or style, you will complete one final editorial review. Perhaps you already have caught and corrected minor mistakes during previous revisions. Nevertheless, give your draft a final edit to make sure it is error-free. Your final edit should focus on two broad areas:
- Errors in grammar, mechanics, usage, and spelling
- Errors in citing and formatting sources
For in-depth information on these two topics, see Chapter 2 “Writing Basics: What Makes a Good Sentence?” and Chapter 13 “APA and MLA Documentation and Formatting”.
Given how much work you have put into your research paper, you will want to check for any errors that could distract or confuse your readers. Using the spell-checking feature in your word-processing program can be helpful—but this should not replace a full, careful review of your document. Be sure to check for any errors that may have come up frequently for you in the past. Use Checklist 12.4 to help you as you edit:
Grammar, Mechanics, Punctuation, Usage, and Spelling
- My paper is free of grammatical errors, such as errors in subject-verb agreement and sentence fragments. (For additional guidance on grammar, see Chapter 2 “Writing Basics: What Makes a Good Sentence?”.)
- My paper is free of errors in punctuation and mechanics, such as misplaced commas or incorrectly formatted source titles. (For additional guidance on punctuation and mechanics, see Chapter 3 “Punctuation”.)
- My paper is free of common usage errors, such as alot and alright . (For additional guidance on correct usage, see Chapter 4 “Working with Words: Which Word Is Right?”.)
- My paper is free of spelling errors. I have proofread my paper for spelling in addition to using the spell-checking feature in my word-processing program.
- I have checked my paper for any editing errors that I know I tend to make frequently.
Checking Citations and Formatting
When editing a research paper, it is also important to check that you have cited sources properly and formatted your document according to the specified guidelines. There are two reasons for this. First and foremost, citing sources correctly ensures that you have given proper credit to other people for ideas and information that helped you in your work. Second, using correct formatting establishes your paper as one student’s contribution to the work developed by and for a larger academic community. Increasingly, American Psychological Association (APA) style guidelines are the standard for many academic fields. Modern Language Association (MLA) is also a standard style in many fields. Use Checklist 12.5 to help you check citations and formatting.
Citations and Formatting
- Within the body of my paper, each fact or idea taken from a source is credited to the correct source.
- Each in-text citation includes the source author’s name (or, where applicable, the organization name or source title) and year of publication. I have used the correct format of in-text and parenthetical citations.
- Each source cited in the body of my paper has a corresponding entry in the references section of my paper.
- My references section includes a heading and double-spaced, alphabetized entries.
- Each entry in my references section is indented on the second line and all subsequent lines.
- Each entry in my references section includes all the necessary information for that source type, in the correct sequence and format.
- My paper includes a title page.
- My paper includes a running head.
- The margins of my paper are set at one inch. Text is double spaced and set in a standard 12-point font.
For detailed guidelines on APA and MLA citation and formatting, see Chapter 13 “APA and MLA Documentation and Formatting”.
Following APA or MLA citation and formatting guidelines may require time and effort. However, it is good practice for learning how to follow accepted conventions in any professional field. Many large corporations create a style manual with guidelines for editing and formatting documents produced by that corporation. Employees follow the style manual when creating internal documents and documents for publication.
During the process of revising and editing, Jorge made changes in the content and style of his paper. He also gave the paper a final review to check for overall correctness and, particularly, correct APA or MLA citations and formatting. Read the final draft of his paper.
- Organization in a research paper means that the argument proceeds logically from the introduction to the body to the conclusion. It flows logically from one point to the next. When revising a research paper, evaluate the organization of the paper as a whole and the organization of individual paragraphs.
- In a cohesive research paper, the elements of the paper work together smoothly and naturally. When revising a research paper, evaluate its cohesion. In particular, check that information from research is smoothly integrated with your ideas.
- An effective research paper uses a style and tone that are appropriately academic and serious. When revising a research paper, check that the style and tone are consistent throughout.
- Editing a research paper involves checking for errors in grammar, mechanics, punctuation, usage, spelling, citations, and formatting.
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- Library Home
- Research Guides
Writing a Research Paper
- Draft Your Paper
Library Research Guide
- Choose Your Topic
- Evaluate Sources
- Organize Your Information
- Revise, Review, Refine
How Will This Help Me?
Drafting will help you:
- Get down all of your thoughts
- Determine the best organization for your paper
- Ensure all parts of your essay support your thesis
- See whether your main ideas have adequate support
Links for Writing Help
These resources can help you draft your paper.
- K-State Writing Center The Writing Center, located in ECS 122D, provides one-to-one consultations and can help students during any stage of the writing process. They also hold hours in The Resource Link in Hale Library every week.
- Using Outlines This page from Writing Tutorial Services at Indiana University explains a variety of types of outlines and their uses in the writing process.
- Working with Working Outlines This resource from the Writing Center at Eastern Illinois University describes the usefulness and benefits of working outlines.
- Considering Structure and Organization This link to a resource from the Writing and Research Center at the University of Washington provides a thorough examination of the structure of a written argument.
Create a Working Outline
Outlines may seem like extra work, but they can make paper writing easier and more efficient. The trick is determining when and how to use outlines so that they serve as a tool to help rather than hinder you. If you like outlines, you might create an outline before writing and then update it throughout the writing process.
Outlines can be used other ways. For example, you might use an outline to transition from research to writing to help you figure out where you're going. You could also use an outline after writing a draft to ensure that every aspect of your paper supports your thesis statement and that the paper's organization is coherent.
Incorporate Source Material Effectively
To incorporate source material effectively into your writing, you need to know how to use signal phrases (attributive tags), when to use quotation marks, and how to paraphrase correctly.
- Tell readers the name of the source that you're borrowing information from.
- Lend credibility to your paper by describing the source's expertise.
- Can be used with paraphrasing or direct quoting.
- Work with in-text citations. (Check your citation style--APA, MLA, etc.--to determine whether an in-text citation is still needed along with the attributive tag.)
Sample signal phrase: "Willie the Wildcat, mascot of Kansas State University, states that..."
- Use the language from the source verbatim.
- Tell the reader you're borrowing the wording.
- Work with attributive tags and in-text citations to give credit to the source for the borrowed ideas and language.
- Should not be used in a way the misrepresents the source.
Sample quotation (using APA): Part of the mission of K-State is to "develop a highly skilled and educated citizenry" (Kansas State University, 2013, Mission Statement section, para. 5).
- Present the source information completely in your own words.
- Work with signal phrases and in-text citations to credit the source and to tell readers you've borrowed these ideas.
- Do not merely change every few words to synonyms.
- Do not retain the author's original sentence structure.
Sample paraphrase (using APA): K-State seeks to create an environment that encourages intellectual growth, academic freedom, and individual empowerment and prepares students to contribute to society after they leave the university (Kansas State University, 2013).
Kansas State University. (2013). About the University. In Undergraduate Catalog 2013-2014. Retrieved from http://catalog.k-state.edu/content.php?catoid=13&navoid=1403
Cite Sources Correctly
Use these resources to help you cite your sources in your paper and on the references page.
- APA Formatting and Style Guide This guide from the OWL at Purdue can help you with formatting your paper, using in-text citations, creating the entries in your reference list, and using APA style in your writing.
- APA In-Text Citations: The Basics This page from the OWL at Purdue explains how to use the author-date system for in-text citations and how to format short and long quotations.
- MLA Formatting and Style Guide The OWL at Purdue's MLA style guide can help you with formatting your paper, using in-text citations, creating the entries in your bibliography, and using MLA style in your writing.
- MLA In-Text Citations: The Basics From the OWL at Purdue, this page explains how to use the author-page system for in-text citations and provides examples from a variety of source types.
- Chicago Manual of Style K-State Libraries has a subscription to the online version of the Chicago Manual of Style. Print copies are also available at the Library Help Desk.
- Chicago Manual of Style 17th Edition This guide from the OWL at Purdue can help you with formatting your paper, using author-date in-text citations or the Notes and Bibliography (NB) system, and creating the entries in your bibliography.
Write the Introduction and Conclusion
Sometimes, writing the introduction or the conclusion of your paper can be a challenge. The following tips may help you with the introduction:
- Include your thesis. Forecast the paper's organization with your main ideas.
- Offer a connection. Show readers how the topic relates to their lives.
- Provide context . Add background to bring your audience on board so they're ready for the rest of the paper.
- Write it later. Try writing the introduction after you've written the rest of the paper. The introduction may come first, but you don't have to write it first.
- Update it. Review the introduction after making changes to your paper. It may need changes too.
Here are some tips to help with the conclusion:
- Restate your thesis. Remind readers of the point of your paper.
- Summarize your main ideas. Restate these so readers remember.
- Give it an end. Connect back to an early point in the paper to bring it full circle or leave them with an idea that is vivid, humorous, or meaningful.
- Keep it relevant. Avoid introducing new topics not covered in your paper.
- Update it. Review the conclusion after making changes to your paper. It may need changes too.
Check for Overall Consistency
Sometimes, while writing a draft, you may decide to change the direction of your paper. This is OK, but it requires some follow up work. If your paper takes shape in an unexpected way, ask yourself these questions:
- Does my thesis statement still make sense?
- Do all of my main ideas still work together to support the thesis?
- Do I have enough high quality evidence to support the new direction?
- Does the introduction serve its purpose still?
- Does the conclusion function as it should?
If you answer no to any questions, be sure to adjust the problem areas as needed to keep everything on track.
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