A photo of a student drafting a research paper for university.

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How to write a research paper.

A big paper can seem tough, but anyone can write one with these steps.

Research paper basics

  • Carry out research on a specific topic and interpret what that research means.
  • Divide your paper up into an introduction, literature review, methods, results, and a discussion or conclusion. 
  • List every source you use in your paper in a bibliography or throughout your writing using footnotes or parentheses.

What is a research paper?

A research paper is a piece of academic writing based on independent research that also provides analysis and interpretation of that research. Research papers are particularly important to graduate students, but students at all levels of education will have to write one at some point, whether it’s for high school, college, or even middle school.

 

Research can mean many different things. It can mean designing and carrying out an experiment, reviewing the literature of a given topic, or conducting interviews. It can also be a deep dive into a literary source or piece of art or a thorough examination of a historical time period or event. 

Make research papers sharable as PDFs.

Once you’ve completed your research paper, it’s time to share your knowledge with professors, colleagues, advisors, and the wider world. One great way to do that is by converting it to PDF.

 

PDFs are readable on just about any device and always look the same no matter what you open them on. That way, if your academic advisor is reading your findings on a phone or tablet, they’ll still see any important graphs, photos, graphics, or other elements that are essential to your paper. It’s also a great way for your academic advisors to leave comments and provide their thoughts on your work. 

Steps for writing a research paper.

Research papers are big undertakings, but like all large tasks they can be broken down into smaller, more manageable pieces.

Understand expectations.

There are many different kinds of research paper, and the first step to writing a good one is understanding the expectations of your academic discipline. Know what your teacher, instructor, or professor is looking for when you start. Familiarize yourself with the citation style your field uses (more on that below) as well as formatting process and how long your paper needs to be. Research papers can vary in length a great deal. They can be as short as 2,000 words, or as long as 10,000 words.

Choose a topic and thesis statement.

Your topic should be something that interests you. Research papers can be very labor-intensive, and your topic will live in your brain for a long time while you’re working on it. Choose something you’ll enjoy investigating.

 

Your research paper should have a clearly defined thesis statement. That is, a primary idea or claim that you’re trying to prove or disprove with your work. You should clearly state your thesis statement in the first part of your paper.

An Academic Research Submission page on a university's website.

Conduct original research.

Research papers can draw on three types of sources: primary, secondary, and tertiary. Primary and secondary sources are far more important than tertiary sources, so most of your work should focus on those.

1. Primary sources

Primary sources include original research (like interviews or experiments you conduct), research-based journal articles, or government reports. If you’re studying history, primary sources include documents like newspapers and personal journals from the time period you’re examining. If you’re studying art or literature, the works you’re examining are primary sources. Primary sources are good sources of facts and insight, and you should focus on them when writing your research paper.

2. Secondary sources

Secondary sources are works intended to distill or discuss research or academic works. Textbooks or research reviews, literary criticism or reviews of journal articles, or critiques of research or methods are all secondary sources. Secondary sources are a good place to see what the scholarly consensus is around a topic, and you should cite them as a way of demonstrating what other researchers have said about your topic.

3. Tertiary sources

Tertiary sources are, for the most part, intended for a wider audience. Encyclopedias, dictionaries, Wikipedia, and books written for a nonacademic audience are all tertiary sources. Generally, you shouldn’t cite tertiary sources in a research paper, unless you want to demonstrate what a nonacademic audience might think about a topic. No serious academic, though, is going to cite Wikipedia or Encyclopedia Britannica as a source of facts.

Write your paper.

Once you’ve completed your research, it’s time to actually write your paper. Research papers usually consist of the following, though structure can vary depending on your area of study.

1. Introduction

Your introduction should outline the what, why, and how of your research paper. This is where you posit a hypothesis or thesis statement, ask questions, and summarize how you plan to answer or solve that question. Set up how you’re going to explore the space around your research question, why it’s important, and give a brief introduction to how you’re going to answer it.

2. Literature review

A good research paper delves into the work other people have done to answer questions similar to yours. Include credible sources like journal articles and academic publications related to your field of study. All sources should be properly cited according to whatever citation style you’re using, whether you’re citing them directly or paraphrasing them.

3. Methods

This is where you talk about how you did your research and what exactly it entailed. If you did an experiment, talk about the equipment you used, how long it took, and the details of everything that went into it. Your teacher, instructor, or professor is going to review your work, and there should be enough information in your methods section for them to replicate your research.

4. Results

The results section is where you state the payoff of your academic research and show what you found using your research methods.

5. Discussion and conclusion

The last section of your research paper should distill your results into an answer. Or, if you had negative results, clearly state that you were not able to find an answer. Negative results are still results, after all. Whatever you found, zoom out and give a big picture view of your main points and takeaways. This is also the place for your own ideas or speculations about what your results could mean.

 

The discussion section is also where you provide recommendations about what to do next. Every answer raises more questions. Even negative results let you rule out a potential path of inquiry, which clarifies where to look next.

A photo of a student reading a book and researching topics for their school paper.
A photo of a person sitting at a table, looking at a laptop, and writing in a notebook.

Citations and style for research papers.

Research paper writing is all about documentation and adhering to a given style of academic writing. As you’re doing your research, keep track of every source that you pull information from. Organize it so you can easily cite it later. The writing process for a research paper can sometimes feel rote or routine, but it’s important for you to communicate where you’re getting your information and how you know what you know.

Cite every source you use.

Citing sources consists of listing the source of your information either within the text of your paper in footnotes or parentheses or in a bibliography at the end of your paper, depending on the style you’re following. It’s one of the most important parts of the writing process. If you don’t cite your sources in the right way, you might open yourself up to accusations of plagiarism.

Use the right style guide.

Your teachers, professors, or advisors will usually ask you to adhere to a specific kind of style for your research paper. These styles differ mostly in how they format citations, page numbers, headings, and other details.

  • Chicago style 
    The Chicago Manual of Style is the preferred format for much of the arts, history, and business.
  • Modern Library Association style (MLA)
    English majors, theater students, and other humanities majors usually write in MLA style.
  • American Psychology Association (APA)
    The APA stylebook is the guiding light for psychology, education, and sciences.

 

Research papers take a lot of effort. After weeks or months of rigorous study, it’s time to share your work with the world — and show off the knowledge you’ve uncovered in your academic pursuits.

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