Step Three: Let the Writing Begin

by Shannon Crose

For me the best part of a research paper was doing the actual writing. Then again, I've always been weird like that. Regardless of whether you enjoy the writing process or not, there are a few things to keep in mind when writing your paper.

First and foremost, the sources you worked so hard to compile will play a big role in your paper, but they shouldn't play the starring role. The whole point of a research paper is to learn to think critically on a subject. This activity forces you to draw your own conclusions after finding enough sources to either support or disprove your theory. That means it is essential to learn how to use and cite your sources effectively.

It's difficult to know what should and should not be cited. You do not have to cite your own observations, thoughts, or generally known facts (like the dates of historical events). If it's common knowledge or your own opinion, don't cite it.

On the other hand, things like, other people's independent material, quotes, statistics, must be cited. You must acknowledge someone else's material no matter how much of it you use, how you use it, or how often you use it. If you don't, this it is considered plagiarism.

Now, this is usually the spot where I would lecture you on the evils of plagiarism. Let's be honest though, if you don't know that plagiarism is wrong, and that you won't learn anything from this paper by plagiarizing someone else, then there's no point in me telling you this now. There is also, thanks to the internet, now a chance to buy papers written by other people and you can just put your name on them and hand them in. For some crazy reason, people seem to think that if they pay for a paper, it becomes theirs. Those people are wrong. Paying for someone to write your paper for you is still plagiarism and you will get caught. You should be responsible, and mature enough to know better, and if you don't care, then there's not a lot of hope for you anyway. Just don't do it.

There are rare occasions when plagiarism can occur by accident, especially if the author of a paper is using unreliable sources from the internet. Those unreliable sources can knowingly steal work from other people, and using those sources would make you a plagiarizer as well. This is another reason to be very careful about the kind of information you take from the web. When writing down the information, especially any direct quotes you plan to use, make sure you pay special attention to how you write it down. When using a direct quote, make sure to spell and punctuate in the exact same way as the quote, and be sure to put quotation marks around it. When you plan on paraphrasing a quote, make sure you do, in fact, use your own words.

Besides making sure you cite a source correctly, there are other concerns when writing a research paper. You want to keep your sentences and word choice simple and to the point. Don't use a lot of filler words just to get your necessary word-count in. That will affect the way your paper reads and may, in fact, get you a lower grade.

Of course, there is the dreaded grammar issue. All those boring lectures on dangling participles and comma usage were, believe it or not, delivered to you for a good reason. When writing a research paper, your grammar and punctuation are almost as important as the words you use. I recommend reading, and re-reading to check for mistakes. Reading a paper out loud, and being sure to pause where the punctuation tells you to, will help you locate misplaced commas or find places where a compound sentence could be used to better effect.

You also want to make sure your paper reaches its goal: that it imparts information, answers the question posed in your thesis, and the thesis is supported by the sources you've cited. You also want to make sure your paper is organized in a logical and easy to understand way. This is where an outline would come in handy before the actual writing begins.

Constructing Your Introduction, Body and Conclusion:

All essays, research papers, and other technical papers have three major parts: The introduction, which includes the thesis statement plus a healthy preview of things to come, a body, in which examples, ideas and topics are delved into thoroughly, and the conclusion, which wraps it all up in a nice neat package. Let me break down these steps for you in more detail.

The introduction, or first paragraph, includes the thesis (topic sentence) plus a few tidbits of information that you plan to address in your research paper. It is best to use a "number phrase" in your introduction, such as "There are many ways in which our system of government could improve" or "There are three major characteristics that set cats apart from the rest of the animal kingdom" or "Irish music is best known for five major components." These "listing" kinds of sentences help to set up your paper so that you can address the items one by one. They help keep you organized and on the right track. But you can also ask a question in your thesis that you intend to answer throughout your paper, such as: "Is nuclear power a viable alternative to fossil fuels?" or " Are gender differences primarily caused by nature or nurture?"

You should follow the thesis statement/question with a few previews some of the sub- topics your paper will be covering. These sentences should give your readers valuable clues as to where you're headed with this paper. Here is an example:

Thesis: Is nuclear energy a viable alternative to fossil fuels? Energy is a dangerous business, no matter which kind is used. We all know the dangers of fossil fuels, such as air pollution and work environment hazards at power plants. In addition, now that several "third world" countries have become industrialized and want their fair share of the world's oil supply, we'll be running out of fossil fuels in the near future. Many people say we should turn to the natural sources of energy, such as solar, wind, or hydro power, but these methods can be inconsistent, expensive, and pose their own dangers in the form of toxic batteries. Nuclear energy, of course, has its own set of problems, but it could well be the best alternative available to us.

Now, given this introduction, you can tell that my paper will be answering the question posed in the thesis. You can tell that I'm in favor of nuclear energy and that I'll be trying to convince you to see it the way I do. You also get a sneak peek of the sub-topics that will be in my paper. I will be discussing in further detail the positives and negatives of fossil fuels, natural energy sources, and nuclear energy. In addition, I will be covering the energy crisis and what's happening in these "third world" countries that is affecting the rest of the world's oil supplies. The introduction is like a preview to a movie. It shows just enough to pique your interest so you'll tune in and watch the rest.

The body of your research paper is where you go on to explain, in detail, all of the hints you brought up in your introduction. This should be done in the same order in which you first mentioned the sub-topics. I'm not going to include a whole research paper in here just so you can see the body of one. Just make sure you cover the topics in order, that you use lots of nice "transition words" that move it smoothly from sub-topic to sub-topic, such as: however, in addition, therefore, on the contrary, contrary to popular belief, all in all, undeniably, although, due to, etc... Be sure to cite your sources and put direct quotes that are longer than a couple of sentences into more narrow margins so they're set apart from the rest of the text.

If you're running short on words and you need to stretch it out to meet your length requirement, using direct quotes from experts is hands-down the best way to get some length in there. Or you could just interview people who have a vested interest in your topic and fill up space that way. I've done this in the past and it has always scored me high grades.

Finally, the conclusion needs to wrap up the entire paper. It answers the questions you posed in your introduction. It takes all the evidence and examples in your paper and summarizes it in a nice, coherent way. Lastly, it's where you get to state your own opinion about the topic, with maybe a glimpse at the future thrown in there for good measure. Here's an example:

While it is clear that nuclear power isn't perfect, it certainly is abundant, efficient when handled correctly, and it's cost effective. It may well be the best energy alternative we have available to us today. However, this is not to say that we shouldn't continue to strive toward discovering safer methods of energy production. Recent advances in technology, such as fuel cells, look promising. With any luck, nuclear energy will soon be surpassed by far more efficient and safe ways to serve the world's ever growing demand for energy.

The Final Steps:

When editing your paper be sure to look for the following:

  • Is your thesis (topic sentence) is clearly stated?
  • Do the sources support and illuminate your paper without loading it down? In other words, do your own words and ideas shine through, or are you mostly using someone else's words?
  • Where might the evidence seem weak or unimportant to readers? It's a good idea to let someone impartial read your paper to catch mistakes like this.
  • How reasonable will readers find your thesis?
  • Do your sentences flow smoothly, one into the other? Are there places where simple sentences should be combined or more complex sentences broken down?
  • Have you double, and triple, checked for typos and punctuation problems?

Research Paper Formats

Now we move to the final, and for some, the hardest part of writing a research paper. The proper format for documenting sources and formatting the actual paper. The bibliography was always what gave me stress headaches, mainly because meticulous attention has to be paid to the way a bibliography is typed up, and the way a source is cited in a paper. However, with practice and a little bit of patience, it doesn't have to be that hard. Your instructor should tell you what style he or she wants you to use. If not, then use the style that most closely matches the discipline you are writing in.

MLA Style

MLA is the most commonly used style of formatting for most research papers. It is the guide for the subjects of English, foreign languages, and most of the humanities.

To cite a source in MLA style, it must be acknowledged twice; once in the text, a brief parenthetical citation next to the borrowed material and in a works cited page, also known as a bibliography, which comes at the end of your paper.

To properly cite a source in text you must include just enough information so that the reader can find the appropriate source in your works cited list, and include enough information for the reader to find the place in the source that material was borrowed from.

These are the basics for writing a solid research paper. Be sure to watch for more specific articles about technical writing coming soon to this website!

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