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How to Write a Research Paper

by South University
January 15, 2019 Working on a research paper for the first time in forever? Get going with this step-by-step guide to researching, organizing, and writing your paper.
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If this is your first time writing a research paper, it’s nothing to be scared of. Like all of your schoolwork, this will require time and effort, but you can do it! Learning how to do research, analyze and evaluate ideas, and communicate your perspective will be valuable in whatever career or area of study you’re pursuing.

Below, we break down how to write a research paper in six steps, covering everything from how to write a thesis and research paper outline to how to write a conclusion. Follow these steps for your writing process and you’ll be well on your way to crafting a strong research paper.

Confirm Your Requirements

“The most important part of successfully completing any assignment is to understand the scope of the assignment,” says Rachel Mitchell, MLIS, Director of Online Library Services at South University. “Don’t lose points on simple things like page numbers, word count, or citation style and formatting.”

To avoid mistakes, 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.

Start Early

Set yourself up for success by starting as soon as possible. If your topic isn’t assigned, begin by brainstorming research paper topics. Choose something that interests you and is specific enough that the research process won’t be overwhelming. Because you’re starting early, you may have time to review potential research paper topics with your instructor.

The earlier you pick a topic, the more margin you have for the entire process. “Margin allows you to get clarification on the research paper format and requirements and to leave enough time to revise your first draft and get feedback from a colleague or tutor,” advises Mitchell. “Start early, plan your paper, and you should be done on time.”


Begin the research process for a new topic by reading high-level information. From there, you’ll need to dig deeper and be selective about sources. Look for peer-reviewed books or articles referenced by others in the field. Websites with .edu, .org, and .gov are usually reliable.

As you research, save any source that might be useful, highlighting and annotating key points. Keep your notes in one location, clearly noting information and opinions from your sources versus your own thoughts and commentary. For help finding sources, ask your school librarian and utilize the online library.

Next, Mitchell recommends starting your MLA or APA citation page. “Once you know which sources you want to use for your paper, go ahead and format that reference page,” she says. “Start with citation generators, and double check with help from your librarians and library citation resources. Then, once you finish writing your paper, you are done!”

Organize and Outline

When your research is complete, group or color code your notes based on topic, looking for related ideas to write about. After reviewing your notes, write a thesis statement that explains the main concept or argument you want to convey in your paper. A thesis should be specific enough that someone could reasonably disagree with it. Remember, your thesis won’t be perfect on the first go-round. Write something down and edit it until it feels right.

Now it’s time to build out your research paper outline by listing and ordering the points that support your thesis. Under each main point, list sub-points or supporting information found during the research process. Creating this research paper outline can make writing a research paper much easier because you already know what you want to say and what order to say it in.

Begin Writing

Before starting, review your assignment instructions and research paper format requirements one more time. “Format as you go,” advises Mitchell. “Microsoft Word and the online library provide paper templates that allow you to plug-and-play as you complete portions of your paper.”

Use your outline as a guide, knowing things may change as you’re writing. In your introduction:

  • include your thesis
  • preview supporting points
  • offer background about your topic and its importance.

As you write, support your statements with statistics and information from your sources but don’t fill your paper with overly long quotes. Instead summarize and analyze what you read, making relevant connections and adding your own commentary where possible.

Finally, drive your argument home in your conclusion paragraph by summarizing how your individual points add up to support your thesis. The conclusion paragraph may also demonstrate the importance of your ideas, tie your argument into a broader context, or propose an action readers should take in response to your paper.

Revise Your Work

Once your first draft is complete, let it sit for a day or two. Then, approach your research paper with fresh eyes. Check your paragraph writing for:

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

Read your paper aloud and edit any odd-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 not following the required research paper format. Do a final re-read before submitting your research paper and celebrating your hard work!

South University Academic Support Resources

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:

  • The campus & online library
  • Tutoring center staff
  • Your academic advisor
  • Your instructors

Some instructors even design assignments with check-ins along the way, so that you meet with them to review your thesis statement, research paper outline, and even a first draft before submitting your final research paper.

If you’re interested in starting or continuing your education at South University, contact us at 1.888.444.3404 or request information online.

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