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Like all of your schoolwork, writing a research paper will require time and effort, but it will help you build valuable skills! Knowing how to research a topic, evaluate ideas and communicate your perspective will be useful in any career you pursue. Below, we break down how to write a research paper in six steps, from researching a topic to crafting your conclusion and everything in between.

1. Confirm your requirements.

The first step in successfully completing any assignment is to understand the scope of the assignment and the requirements you’ll need to meet. To avoid losing points on simple things like page numbers or word count, read your assignment and grading rubric carefully. Know whether to use APA or MLA format and citations, and always make sure you understand the goal of your paper.

2. Select a paper topic.

If your topic isn’t assigned, begin by brainstorming possible topics. Choose something that interests you and that is specific enough that the research process won’t be overwhelming. If you plan ahead, you may have time to review your ideas with your instructor. The sooner you choose your topic, the more time you’ll have for the rest of the process, including things like getting clarification on the research paper requirements, seeking out feedback from a colleague or tutor, and revising your first draft.

3. Conduct your research.

Begin your research by reading high-level information to get familiar with your topic and then start digging deeper. As you research, be selective with your sources. Utilize the school library to look for peer-reviewed books or articles referenced by others in the field. Websites with .edu, .org and .gov are usually reliable, and you can always ask your librarian for help if you need it.

Save the location of any sources that seem useful, taking notes and highlighting key points. Keep your notes in one location, clearly marking information and opinions from your sources versus your own thoughts and commentary. Once you decide which sources to use, you can start adding them to your MLA or APA citation page following the format your instructor requested.

4. Organize your ideas into a thesis and outline.

Review and organize your research notes, looking for related ideas that you can tie together. Your goal is to narrow your focus until you can write one sentence that explains the main point or argument you want to convey. This is your thesis statement, and it should be a statement that someone could reasonably disagree with. Your thesis may not be perfect on the first go-round, but write something down and edit it until it feels right. Next up will be building your outline, which will list and order the points that reinforce your thesis. Under each main point, list sub-points or supporting information found in your research. Once you’ve created an outline, writing your research paper will be easier because you’ll already know what you want to say and what order to say it in.

5. Write your paper.

Review your instructions and formatting requirements one more time before you start. Then, format your paper as you write and use your outline as a guide, knowing things may change as you go. Generally, your introduction should include your thesis, preview supporting points and offer background information on your topic. In the body of the paper, each paragraph should support your thesis with statistics and information from your sources. Rather than filling your paper with long quotes, summarize and analyze what you read, making relevant connections and adding your own commentary where possible. In your conclusion, drive your argument home by summarizing how your individual points add up to point toward your thesis. The conclusion paragraph may also demonstrate the importance of your ideas, tie your argument into a broader context or propose an action that readers should take in response to your paper.

6. Revise your work.

Once your first draft is complete, let it sit for a day or two. Then, revisit your draft with fresh eyes. Check your paragraphs for

  • complete and coherent arguments
  • concrete details and examples
  • logical structure and sequencing
  • relevant sources and supporting data.

Read your paper out loud and edit any strange-sounding sentences, transitions or word choices. Cut or expand ideas as needed. When you’re satisfied, ensure that in-text citations are done correctly and all sources are on the citation page. Look for typos, grammatical errors and anything that doesn’t follow the required research paper format. Do a final re-read before submitting your paper and celebrating your hard work!

Using Academic Support Resources at South University

South University is here to help our students throughout the writing, editing and research process. If you need assistance at any stage, you always have somewhere to turn, including:

  • Your school library
  • Tutoring center staff
  • Your academic advisor
  • Your instructors

Some instructors even design assignments with check-ins along the way to review your thesis statement, outline and first draft before you submit your final paper.

To learn more about the courses students take at South University – and how our programs can help you build to your skills, request information online today.