Writing a Research Paper: Guide for Students

Writing a Research Paper: Guide for Students

For a student, the phrase “research paper” spoken by a teacher or professor can sound like a death knell — the end of weekend plans and the beginning of an onslaught of all-nighters. A looming deadline for a research paper can certainly take the joy out of being a student.

But students don’t need to dread writing a research paper. Just taking the time to understand the process of researching and writing can help students see the assignment as an opportunity to learn and make discoveries.

If you’re wondering how to write a research paper, this guide will help simplify the process and provide you with some research paper tips and tricks. We will cover how to create a research paper outline, how to start a research paper intro, how to research effectively, how to write a research paper conclusion and how to make a works cited page.

Ch. 1: Research Paper Outline and Examples

Ch. 2: How to Format a Research Paper

Ch. 3: Helpful Research Paper Tips and Tricks

Chapter 1: Research Paper Outline and Examples

A big project is completed one small step at a time. The bigger the project, the more steps you’ll have to take. But before you know it, the project won’t seem as big as when you started it.

With a research paper, the first step is creating the outline. The research paper outline is the key to staying focused and organized as you write. Think of your research paper as the human body. First, you create the skeleton, or the outline. The bones — or main points — of your paper should guide the muscles, ligaments and tendons — or the transitions, statistics and examples.

By keeping the bigger structure, or outline, in mind, you’ll be able to add on the smaller tidbits without getting lost.

Outline your research paper from beginning to end

Introduction: The first one or two paragraphs that state your thesis and provide some background information on the subject of the research paper. When writing this, ask yourself: What is the first thought that comes to mind when thinking about the subject of your research paper?

A few tips on how to start a research paper intro

  • What is a typical response or reaction to the subject? Can you illustrate the response with statistics or a story as an example?
  • Briefly describe how experts have previously referred to the subject.
  • Is the subject matter becoming more relevant today than yesterday or prior years? Why?

Thesis: The declaration, or argument — in one or two sentences — that will be discussed throughout the paper. When writing this, ask yourself: If your instructor/professor had time to read only the thesis, what would you want him or her to know?

A few tips for writing your thesis

  • Don’t write your thesis until you’ve spent some time researching the subject.
  • Give your own perspective in the thesis — don’t cite any other source for this declaration.
  • Focus on being precise, and avoid repeating what is already widely known or believed.

Main points: The points that will be illustrated by examples and support the thesis. When writing this, think about how you will defend and/or expand your thesis to help the audience understand the position of your research paper.

A few tips for writing your main points

  • Use visual aids or try mind mapping to help you zero in on the main points.
  • Look for repeated keywords and phrases while conducting your research.
  • Craft a point or two to address the opposing argument.

Conclusion: Your chance to restate your thesis and briefly summarize your main points. When writing this, consider referring back to the story or example described in the introduction.

A few tips on how to write a research paper conclusion

  • State the dangers of not embracing your paper’s position.
  • Point out areas that aren’t covered in your research paper that are opportunities for further investigation.
  • Highlight the positive outcome(s) of agreeing with your paper’s position.

Understand the difference between the two main types of research papers

The two main types of research papers are argumentative and analytical, with many variations in between.

Argumentative: As the name implies, this type of research paper takes a stance on a debatable topic and attempts to persuade the reader to embrace the writer’s thesis.

Analytical: This type of research paper is an exploration of a subject and educates the reader by answering a question posed in the introduction. It does not attempt to be persuasive, though the writer can state his or her conclusion at the end of the paper.

Take a look at research paper examples

For sample papers in MLA format, visit the MLA Style Center.

For sample papers in APA format, visit the APA FAQ section.

For argumentative essay templates and samples, visit Template.net.

For analytical essay templates and samples, visit Template.net.

Chapter 2: How to Format a Research Paper

Texting your friends hardly requires any formatting, but if you’re writing a research paper, then you’re trying to reach a wider audience that recognizes — and understands — a very specific writing format.

The two main formats used in research writing are MLA (Modern Language Association) and APA (American Psychological Association). To effectively communicate your thoughts and ideas — whether as a student or as a professional — you’ll need to understand how to correctly use the proper format throughout your research paper. In the following section, you will learn how to make a works cited page and will gain an understanding of the differences between APA- format and MLA-format references and in-text citations.

But why should you stick to a single writing style?

Authors can clearly and easily express quantitative results in a graphic form. Second, readers can focus on processing the information rather than getting distracted by incorrect punctuation or improper referencing. When writing, a single writing style can help authors refer to individuals with accuracy and respect. And finally, with an agreed-upon writing style publishers can easily identify inconsistencies in writing submissions.

Two main styles of formatting a research paper

The MLA style was founded in 1883 with the goal of promoting the study and teaching of languages and literature. To read more about how to apply MLA guidelines to your research paper, visit the association’s Style Center.

The APA style was founded in 1929 by a group of psychologists, anthropologists and business managers with the goal of establishing style rules that would help increase the ease of reading and understanding scientific writing. To read more about how to apply APA guidelines to your research papers, visit the association’s FAQ section or browse its learning resources.

How to format title pages

In MLA style: A title page typically isn’t required for an MLA-style research paper with one author, but if there are multiple authors, you should list all authors on a single title page instead of in the header on the first page of your essay.

In APA style: The title page of an APA-style research paper should have the title, running head, author’s name, author’s byline and author’s institutional affiliation, as well as an author’s note, which should include grant/funding information and the author’s contact information. The title page should be numbered page 1.

How to format references, bibliography, works cited and in-text citations

APA-style references are a list of sources that were cited within a paper is organized alphabetically by author’s last name. In contrast, a bibliography consists of both sources that were cited and sources that were consulted but not cited, with an annotated description of each. To learn more about referencing websites, e-books, interviews and social media, visit the APA’s Quick Answers References page.

MLA-style works cited page should have each citation on the works cited page list the author’s name, other contributors, title of the source, title of the container, version, number, publisher, and publication date and location. To learn more about how to make a works cited page, visit the MLA Style Center FAQ section.

MLA in-text citations, also known as parenthetical citations, include source information and corresponds to a source listed on the works cited page.The format of the parenthetical citations will vary based on the source format. To learn more about how to make in-text citations, visit the MLA Style Center FAQ section.

APA in-text citations include the last name(s) of the author(s) and the year of publication. To learn more about how to make in-text citations, visit the APA style Quick Answers References page.

Chapter 3: Helpful Research Paper Tips and Tricks

Do you know how to determine a source’s credibility? Do you know which online databases can help refine your searches, or is Google your main source of information? Before getting started on writing your research paper, arm yourself with research paper tips on how to research effectively, how to identify credible sources online and where to get additional help.

Preparation is half the battle, and the more you know about what to expect, the easier the research and writing process will be. As a student, you have access to many free online tools that could prove very useful in writing your research paper. For one-on-one help, reach out to your school’s writing center and schedule an appointment with a tutor. If you put in the time beforehand, the results will repay you.

Tips on how to research effectively

  1. Keep your outline in front of you. It’s easy to get lost in the dizzying world of the internet. Sources can be tens and even hundreds of pages long. Distractions can easily make you forget what exactly you were looking for.
  2. Start by reading sources that provide general, or broad, information on your subject to get a bird’s-eye view.
  3. Keep track of how each source is relevant to your paper by creating a list that contains a short summary next to a link for each source you are considering.
  4. Insert a link to each source you are considering into the most relevant section of your outline, e.g., main point, statistic or case study. This will help you see what information you still need to find.

Evaluating the credibility of online resources requires a bit of sleuthing

Be sure to look at a website’s:

Domain extensions: Typically, websites ending in .edu, .gov or .org are more credible than those ending in .com or .net.

About Us page: Reading this page can be a good way to determine a website’s authority. Read through the authors’ bios if listed on the site. If not, try doing a search on Google or LinkedIn for more information.

Date of publication: Once a website is deemed credible, it’s important to note the date the source was published and if it has been recently updated.

If you’re looking for reliable online resources

CORE: Educational institutions around the world use this database of open access research papers.

ERIC: The Education Resources Information Center is maintained by the Institute of Education Sciences and offers the option to search for full-text articles or links to websites requiring purchase.

SSRN: The Social Science Research Network e-library contains research papers across 30 disciplines.

NCBI: The National Center for Biotechnology Information has open access to studies and research conducted on a wide range of topics pertaining to molecular biology.

ScienceOpen: Students can search over 39 million articles published by 29 million authors and 25,000 journals.

DOAJ: The Directory of Open Access Journals has over 2 million articles from peer-reviewed journals covering various subjects, such as the sciences, law and fine arts.

Trade associations: Many industry associations offer free resources and links to external information that can be very helpful in writing a research paper.

Additional educational resources and tools for writing

School writing center: Tutors can help you improve your writing skills and offer tips for writing a research paper, such as tips on how to research effectively and communicate your ideas in an organized and cohesive manner. Contact your school’s writing center to learn more about scheduling an appointment.

Writing skills test and improvement: Taking a writing skills test can help you identify areas that need improvement. By regularly working on sharpening your writing skills, you’ll be better prepared to write a research paper.

Apps: These options grown and change regularly, but a few apps have been around for a while.

  • Grammarly can check over 400 common grammar errors and detects plagiarism in research papers, social media posts and emails.
  • Coggle can help you make sense of complex information through mind mapping.
  • Mendeley can help organize, read and annotate documents.


Piedmont College Library

Modern Language Association of America

American Psychological Association

Purdue Online Writing Lab

Upstate Library

Scribendi Inc.


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