How to Efficiently Write a Great Research Paper

During my last two years in college, I wrote tons of research papers. While most of my classes only required one paper per semester, two of the classes that I took required three. As I read the syllabi for those classes, I realized that I needed to find a way to streamline my whole paper-writing process. This is what I came up with, and it worked really well for me.

Step 1: Choose a topic within 24 hours of learning that you have a paper to write.

Step 2: As soon as the topic is approved by your instructor, go to the library. Set aside two or three hours for taking notes (for a 1500 word paper – about 4 pages, double-spaced). I prefer to take hand-written notes – don’t ask me why. I always retype them anyway. Perhaps it’s because once I’ve written my notes once, and typed them once, I don’t have to reread them before I begin writing the paper.

Step 3: If you are researching something that is pretty obscure, try looking it up in the index of big books that cover a broad topic. Even if you can only find a paragraph or two covering your specific topic, you can still use that particular book as a source. (I had a teacher that required four different book sources and two online sources.) That way, even if you can’t find an entire book on your topic, you can still pull a different quote or fact from each book source. The rest you can find online.

Step 4: Write down bibliographical information immediately. You don’t have to format it yet – just make sure you have all the info.

Step 5: Take all of your notes verbatim, and make a note of which page you are taking the info from. If you begin a new page in the middle of your notes, make sure to note that as well. Instead of trying to italicize hand-written words, I use slashes to /set them apart/. If you have an idea of your own while copying notes, make sure you clearly mark it as yours.

My notes usually ended up looking something like this:

Book Title: Author’s full name: Publisher, City, Date

Page 17

Blah blah blah blah blah blah. Blah blah blah /blah blah/ blah. Blah blah blah blah blah blah. Blah blah blah blah blah blah. Blah blah blah blah blah blah. Blah blah blah blah blah blah. Blah blah blah blah blah blah.

(Amy’s idea: blah blah blah.)

Blah blah blah blah blah blah. Blah blah blah blah blah blah. Blah blah (18) blah blah blah blah.

Type all of your notes into a single file.

Step 6: Spend a half hour taking notes from each book source. After a half hour – stop. Don’t allow yourself to get too caught up taking notes from any one source. You will never get finished! If you are researching a person, use each book to research a different era of the person’s life. If you are researching a different kind of topic, use each book to research a different aspect of that topic. Even if all of the books contain basically the same information, this is a good way to efficiently use multiple sources.

Step 7: Find your online sources, making sure they are from trusted sites. If you can use the school’s databases, all the better. Copy and paste all pertinent info into a single file. Copy and paste all bibliographical web site information at the beginning of each section. Since websites are in a constant state of change, make sure you include the access date (the date you copied the information).

Step 8: Print off all of your information. If you have more than twenty pages for a relatively short paper, you may want to delete some of the redundant or irrelevant material before printing.

Step 9: Decide how you want your paper to flow. Basically this is an outline. Biographies are relatively easy, since you will follow a chronological timeline. At the end of the paper, you can sum up greatest accomplishments, lasting impact, etc. Other types of papers can be easy as well; just decide on an order that makes sense, and stick with it. For example, your outline may look like this: Early Life, Interesting Turn of Events, Move to Boarding School, Work in the Field, Awards, Impact on Society, 200 Years Later, etc.

Step 10: Take several different colored highlighters or pens and mark your notes, using a different color for each point on the outline. Alternatively, you could bracket off each topic category in your notes, and mark the category in the margin.

You can either assign each category a color or a code. Your resulting notes will either look like this:

Blah blah blah blah blah blah. Blah blah blah blah blah blah. Blah blah blah blah blah blah. Blah blah blah blah blah blah. Blah blah blah blah blah blah. Blah blah blah blah blah blah. Blah blah blah blah blah blah. Blah blah blah blah blah blah. Blah blah blah blah blah blah. Blah blah (18) blah blah blah blah. Blah blah blah blah blah blah. Blah blah blah blah blah blah. Blah blah blah blah blah blah. Blah blah blah blah blah blah. Blah blah blah blah blah blah. Blah blah blah blah blah blah. Blah blah blah blah blah blah. Blah blah blah blah blah blah. Blah blah blah blah blah blah. Blah blah blah blah blah blah. Blah blah blah blah blah blah. Blah blah blah blah blah blah. Blah blah blah blah blah blah. Blah blah blah blah blah blah. Blah blah blah blah blah blah. Blah blah blah blah blah blah. Blah blah blah blah blah blah. Blah blah blah blah blah blah. Blah blah blah blah blah blah. Blah blah blah blah blah blah. Blah blah blah blah blah blah. Blah blah blah blah blah blah. Blah blah blah blah blah blah. Blah blah blah blah blah blah. Blah blah blah blah blah blah. Blah blah blah blah blah blah. Blah blah blah blah blah blah. Blah blah blah blah blah blah. Blah blah blah blah blah blah. Blah blah blah blah blah blah.

Or like this, based on the outline given above:

EL (early life) Blah blah blah blah blah blah. Blah blah blah blah blah blah. Blah blah blah blah blah blah. Blah blah blah blah blah blah blah. Blah blah blah blah blah blah. Blah blah blah blah blah blah. Blah blah blah blah blah blah.

ITE Blah blah blah blah blah blah. Blah blah blah blah blah blah. Blah blah (18) blah blah blah blah. Blah blah blah blah blah blah. Blah blah blah blah blah blah. Blah blah blah blah blah blah. Blah blah blah blah blah blah. Blah blah blah blah blah blah. Blah blah blah blah blah blah. Blah blah blah blah blah blah.

IS Blah blah blah blah blah blah. Blah blah blah blah blah blah. Blah blah blah blah blah blah. Blah blah blah blah blah blah. Blah blah blah blah blah blah. Blah blah blah blah blah blah. Blah blah blah blah blah blah. Blah blah blah blah blah blah. Blah blah blah blah blah blah. Blah blah blah blah blah blah.

EL Blah blah blah blah blah blah. Blah blah blah blah blah blah. Blah blah blah blah blah blah. Blah blah blah blah blah blah. Blah blah blah blah blah blah. Blah blah blah blah blah blah. Blah blah blah blah blah blah. Blah blah blah blah blah blah. Blah blah blah blah blah blah. Blah blah blah blah blah blah.

MBS Blah blah blah blah blah blah. Blah blah blah blah blah blah. Blah blah blah blah blah blah.

Step 11: Read all of your notes two or three times. Now put your notes away and write your paper based on the knowledge in your own head. If you don’t know a fact such as a year, a number, or a name, write a question mark there to be filled in later. Writing it this way, without the use of your notes, keeps the whole paper from seeming like a paraphrased imitation of your research (which is how most research papers end up).

Step 12: If your paper is too long, cut out the unessential stuff, or tighten up your sentence structure. If it is too short, read your notes again and look for interesting tidbits. Top your paper off by using one or two exact quotes per typed page.

Step 13: Go back over your research paper, and compare it to your notes, which should be verbatim from the sources, and make sure you haven’t accidentally plagiarized. Make use of your highlighted sections to find your sources easily, based on which section of the paper you are currently working on.

Step 14: Time for adding footnotes or in-text citations. You can look up your references easily by using your highlighted notes.

Step 15: Format your bibliography, footnotes, margins, etc. Set aside at least an hour to do this, instead of waiting until 20 minutes before you have to leave for class on the day the paper is due.

Step 16: If you are truly interested in your topic, and you have finished your paper early, now is the time to satisfy your thirst for knowledge and dig a little deeper. If you run out of time, you can turn your paper in the way it is. But if time allows, you can tweak it to your heart’s content!

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2 responses to “How to Efficiently Write a Great Research Paper

  1. Just stumbled across someone else’s writing tips, and they suggested using notecards for taking notes. That way, you can just arrange the topics at the end of your research by shuffling the cards until they make sense! Much better than my method, which involves so much highlighting, and organizing in your head. The only downside is, notecards are more expensive, and you can only write a few closely connected sentences per card. I’m afraid this notetaking method would slow me down considerably up front, but it may redeem itself when it comes to organizing your outline.

  2. Pingback: Free ways to teach writing and spelling | Full Circle Homeschooling

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