book stacks

“Toronto: book stacks at Toronto Reference Library” by The City of Toronto is licensed under CC BY 2.0

A year ago, I wrote a blog post discussing the traps you should avoid when writing a college-level research paper. However, now that we’re in mid-April and I’m waist-deep in research papers, I thought it’d be a great time to broach the subject again. Most students – and I say this without judgment – have no idea how to write an effective research paper. High school English courses don’t offer much preparation, and most college writing courses aren’t much better. So, here are some of my best tips for research and writing success!

Start with a Research Question, not a Thesis

Most students struggle because they start out with a thesis – one that they are determined to prove, no matter what. Research is an act of discovery. If you start out with a firm conclusion, you aren’t giving yourself the opportunity to be surprised.  You aren’t giving yourself the opportunity to go where the research takes you. It could be that your original conclusion can’t be supported. So, start with a question, a question that can lead you in a number of different directions.

Spend Some Time Developing Keywords

Keywords are words or phrases that you use to locate relevant research materials. If you want to find the best sources, start with the best keywords. You can do this by creating a word map. Put your topic in the center of the map and then think of related phrases. Free associate until you have a dozen potential search terms.

Use Your School’s Online Library

Google is a wonderful thing. It can help you locate the closest and most affordable restaurants; it can help you stay on top of celebrity gossip; it can help you search for the latest beauty trends.  However, it’s not the best option for your research project. Most research assignments require you to use scholarly articles, articles found in peer-reviewed journals. You won’t find those puppies by doing a normal Google search. Use your school’s online library database. If you don’t know how to navigate your school’s library website, look for a tutorial or ask your instructor for one.

If you must google, use Google Scholar. You may have trouble finding full-text articles, but you can probably link Google Scholar to your school’s library.

Keep Track of All Source Material

Plagiarism is a big deal. If you’re caught, you can fail your paper, fail your course, or get expelled from your school. When you’re taking notes, make sure you keep track of all summaries, quotations, and paraphrases!

Keep Quoted Material to a Minimum

Don’t go quotation happy. Quotations should make up about 10% of your research paper. You only want to quote a passage if the language is compelling or overly technical. You want to avoid quoting material that you can easily summarize or paraphrase. When in doubt, try to put it in your own words. Remember, paraphrases and summaries need in-text citations, too!

Make Sure Your Paper Has a Discernible Pattern of Organization

Good research papers are well-organized. Make sure each paragraph has a clear focus. Use topic sentences to reveal each paragraph’s focus, and use paragraph-level transitions to show your readers how one paragraph relates to another.

The Bottom Line:
Give yourself plenty of time to prep, and use your research material wisely. If you do that, you will have a winning paper!