A research paper gives you the opportunity to learn more about a new topic, and can also help you improve your writing skills. A well-written research paper can pack in a lot of information while explaining controversies in a particular field, pointing to future research or analyzing the most effective research strategies. Particularly if you're required to simply research the topic rather than offer an opinion, it's important to offer a balanced view of what you've found.
Before you begin researching your paper, ensure you understand the assignment. Your instructor might want you to focus on a specific issue within a larger research topic, present several perspectives on an issue or offer a synthesis of recent research. Your assignment should guide your research. While it's tempting to just search online for a topic, scholarly journals, academic textbooks, scholarly books and academic websites are generally the best sources. If, however, you're required to collect popular opinions on a topic, social networking and blogs can be a helpful resource.
Outline and Notes
After you've gathered your research, begin putting it into an outline. This helps you clearly organize your thoughts, and lets you know if there's any missing information. Your outline should flow clearly. For example, if a reader has to master a simple topic to understand a more complex one, the simple topic should go first. Your outline can also help you eliminate redundant sources and pick the most interesting or scientifically valid information and research to include.
Your introduction needs to draw your reader in, perhaps by sharing an interesting anecdote or surprising statistic. Steer clear of cliches and broad generalizations such as "Most people believe..." Instead, your introduction should build to your thesis, which is the central argument or point of your paper. For example, if you're doing a paper on the debate over intelligent design, your thesis might be, "Although a few scientists and religious leaders have questioned the theory of evolution, the theory is widely accepted within the scientific community." Your thesis sets the tone for your paper and helps to guide its direction and keep you focused on a narrow topic. With this thesis, for example, it wouldn't make sense to veer into debates about global warming.
The body of your paper is where you outline your research and make your arguments. Each paragraph needs to have a clear topic, and if you need to break a topic into several paragraphs, ensure that each paragraph addresses a different angle on the idea. Outline your research, and if there is any conflicting research, explain it. You'll also need to explain any new words or concepts introduced in the paper, since a primary goal of a research paper is to demonstrate your understanding of the topic.
The conclusion wraps up your paper by summarizing the most important points and emphasizing any unresolved issues. For example, you might state that scientists aren't yet sure of how some genes get changed through the process of evolution. Your conclusion should also make it clear how your paper clearly addresses your thesis by, for example, "Although this scientist has raised issues with evolution, it's clear that his issues are partially based in religion."
Van Thompson is an attorney and writer. A former martial arts instructor, he holds bachelor's degrees in music and computer science from Westchester University, and a juris doctor from Georgia State University. He is the recipient of numerous writing awards, including a 2009 CALI Legal Writing Award.