8 Steps In Writing A Term Paper

Co-authored by Renae Hintze


It’s a beautiful sunny day, you had a big delicious breakfast, and you show up bright-eyed and bushy-tailed for your first class of the day. Just as you’re getting comfortable in your chair, your teacher hits you with it:

A 5-page, size 12 font research paper… due in 2 weeks. 

The sky goes black, your breakfast turns to a brick in your stomach. A research paper? FIVE pages long? Why???

Maybe I’m being a little over-dramatic here. But not all of us are born gifted writers. In fact, I think it’s safe to say that most of us struggle a little or a lot with writing a research paper.

But fear not!! I can help you through it. If you follow these 11 steps I promise you will write a better essay, faster.

1. Start early

We all do it. We wait until the LAST day to start an assignment, and then something goes wrong at the LAST minute, and Woops! We get a bad grade. 

ALWAYS start your essays early. This is what I recommend. Especially since writing a research paper requires more effort than a regular paper might.

I have a 3-week timeline you can follow when writing a research paper. YES, 3 weeks!! It may sound like waaay too early to start, but it gives you enough time to:

  1. Outline and write your paper
  2. Check for errors
  3. Get pointers from your teacher on what to improve 

All of this = a better grade on your assignment. You’re already going through all the effort — why not be positive that you’ll get the best results??

2. Read the Guidelines

Ever taken a shirt out of the dryer to find it has shrunk 10 sizes too small? 

It’s because the shirt probably wasn’t meant to go in the dryer, and if you had read the tag, you’d have saved yourself one whole article of clothing!

Before you even START on writing a research paper, READ THE GUIDELINES.

  • What is your teacher looking for in your essay? 
  • Are there any specific things you need to include? 

This way, you don’t have to finish your essay only to find that it needs to be re-done!

3. Brainstorm research paper topics

Sometimes we’re assigned essays where we know exactly what we want to write about before we start.

Write an essay on my favorite place to travel?? I know where I’M going to choose!

But there are probably more times where we DON’T know exactly what we want to write about, and we may even experience writer’s block.

To overcome that writer’s block, or simply avoid it happening in the first place, we can use a skill called mind-mapping (or brainstorming) to come up with a topic that is relevant and that we’re interested in writing about!

Here’s an example of a mind-map I just did for Influential People!

By writing whatever came to my mind and connecting those thoughts, I was able to come up with quite a few influential people to write about — I could come up with EVEN MORE if I kept writing!!

See here I can choose to write about Hillary Clinton and how she may have an influence on women and women’s rights in society.

Following this method, you can determine your own research paper topics to write about in a way that’s quick and painless.

4. Write out your questions

To get the BEST research, you have to ask questions. Questions on questions on questions. The idea is that you get to the root of whatever you are talking about so you can write a quality essay on it.

Let’s say you have the question: “How do I write a research paper?” 

Can you answer this without more information?

Not so easy, right? That’s because when you “write a research paper”, you do a lot of smaller things that ADD UP to “writing a research paper”.

Break your questions down. Ask until you can’t ask anymore, or until it’s no longer relevant to your topic. This is how you can achieve quality research.

5. Do the research

It IS a research paper, after all. But you don’t want to just type all your questions into Google and pick the first source you see. Not every piece of information on the internet is true, or accurate. 

Here’s a way you can easily check your sources for credibility: Look for the who, what, and when.

WHO

  • Who is the author of the source? 
  • What are they known for? 
  • Do they have a background in the subject they wrote about? 
  • Does the author reference other sources?
  • Are those sources credible too?

WHAT

  • What does the “Main” or “Home” page of a website look like?
  • Is it professional looking? 
  • Is there an organization sponsoring the information, and do they seem legitimate
  • Do they specialize in the subject? 

WHEN

  • When was the source generated — today, last week, a month, a year ago?
  • Has there been new or additional information provided since this information was published?

Double-check all your sources this way. Because this is a research paper, your writing is meaningless without other sources to back it up.

Keep track of your credible sources!

When you find useful information from a credible source, DON’T LET IT GO. You need to save the original place you found that information from so that you can cite it in your essay, and later on in the bibliography.

You don’t want to have to go back later and dig up the information a second time just to list the source you got it from!

To help with this, you may be familiar with the option to “Bookmark” your pages online — do this for online sources.

There IS another tool you can use to keep track of your sources. It’s called Diigo, and it’s what we use at Student-Tutor to build an online database of valuable educational resources!

You can create a Diigo account and one free group for your links. Check out this video on how to use Diigo to save all your sources in one convenient location.

Now, of course there are other ways besides the Internet to get information, and there’s nothing wrong with cracking open a well-written book to enrich your essay’s content!

Ways to get information when writing a research paper

  • The Internet
  • Books
  • Newspapers
  • Magazines
  • Journals
  • Interviews

6. Create a Thesis Statement

How to write a thesis statement is something that a lot of people overlook. That’s a mistake.

The thesis statement is part of your research paper outline but deserves its own step. That’s because the thesis statement is SUPER important! It is what sets the stage for the entire essay. 

How do you write a thesis statement? 

Here’s a color-coded example: 

7. Create an outline

Once you have constructed your thesis, the rest of the outline is pretty simple. It should mimic the structure of your thesis!

Here’s a color-coded research paper outline you can follow:

8. Write your research paper

Here it is — the dreaded writing. But see how far we’ve already come? 

We already know what we’re going to write about, and where we’re going to write it. That’s a lot easier than taking a pen straight to your paper and hoping for some magical, monk-like inspiration to come, am I right?

As you write, be sure to pin-point the places where you are inserting sources. I’ll talk about in-text citations in just a moment!

Here are some basic tips for writing your essay from International Student:

  • Generally, don’t use “I/My” unless it’s a personal narrative
  • Use specific examples to support your statements
  • Vary your language — don’t use the same adjective 5 times in a row

9. Cite your sources

This goes along with the second step — make sure to check your essay guidelines and find out BEFOREHAND what kind of citation style your teacher wants you to use.

Like I promised earlier, Purdue University has a great article that provides instructions on and examples on how to cite different types of sources WITHIN your text. Reference this when you’re not sure what to do.

As a general rule of thumb, in-text citations usually go AFTER the sentence drawing from the source, but BEFORE the period of that sentence, in parentheses. If more than one sentence is referencing the same source, try to place it at the last of those sentences.

However, no matter what you cite INSIDE your writing, all the sources you use for the paper need to be included in your bibliography.

This goes on a separate page, after your main essay and may be titled “Works Cited” or “Bibliography”. (Make sure to check the guidelines, and ask your teacher!)

For this, I’m going to introduce you to an awesome, totally free citation tool called EasyBib.

Important Tip: Make sure that when you use EasyBib, you are filling in a template provided by EasyBib and NOT asking EasyBib to pull information directly from the source. EasyBib can’t always find information that is there, and your citation will be incomplete without it!

By selecting “Manual Cite”, EasyBib will provide you with a template for filling in the necessary information to create your citation.

You can then ask EasyBib to generate the source in the citation format you’ve selected. Copy and paste that source into your bibliography — easy!

10. Read your essay

Why do I need to read my essay if I wrote it? 

You’d be surprised what you’ll catch the second, third, and bazillionth time around reading your own writing! Not that you have to read THIS a bazillion times… just once or twice over will do.

I recommend that you read your essay once-through, and the second time read it aloud. Reading your essay aloud reinforces your words and makes it easier to recognize when something is phrased strangely, or if you are using a word too often.

11. Have someone else read your essay

Lastly it is always important that someone else besides you read your essay before you submit it.

Find a professional who can give you constructive feedback on how to improve your essay — this may be a tutor or a teacher. It can also be someone who specializes in the subject you are writing about.

The absolute BEST person to review your essay would be the teacher that assigned it to you.

And yes, many teachers WILL read the essay they assigned before it is due and give you pointers on how to make it better. They want you to succeed and they’re the ones grading it — I think it’s safe to say they know what they’re talking about!

Conclusion

For most of us, writing a research paper is no walk in the park. Unfortunately, it’s important that you know how to do it!

Let’s review the steps to make this process as PAINLESS as possible:

  1. Start early — 3 weeks in advance!
  2. Read the guidelines
  3. Mind map/Brainstorm research paper topics
  4. Write out your questions
  5. Do the research (Remember to keep track of your sources!)
  6. Create a Thesis Statement
  7. Create an outline
  8. Write your essay
  9. Cite your sources (In-text and in your bibliography)
  10. Read your essay (twice and once aloud!)
  11. Have someone ELSE read your essay — try your teacher first.

Do you have experience writing a research paper? What process did you use, and was it effective? Tell us about it in the comments below!

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Hello! My name is Todd. I help students eliminate academic stress, boost confidence, and reach their wildest dreams through college tips and digital age knowledge they are not teaching in school. I am a former tutor for seven years, $85,000 scholarship recipient, Huffington Post contributor, lead SAT & ACT course developer, and have worked with thousands of students and parents to ensure a brighter future for the next generation. Currently, I am traveling across America delivering presentations, rock climbing, adventuring, and helping inspire the leaders of tomorrow. Let's become friends! Follow my journey via my YouTube Vlog for inspirational value added tips!

Term paper season is nearly upon us. Particularly for students of the humanities, this dreaded foe blocks the path to Christmas break with a daunting demand of 30, 40, even 50 double-spaced pages the weary student must somehow produce.

If you find yourself staring down just such a gauntlet, perhaps I can offer some help in the form of my A+ paper-writing system, which I now present to you.

You see, I graduated from college in three years, summa cum laude. But I never did homework past midnight, and I amply indulged in binge watching television. Which is all to say that though I don't deny being a major dork, I wasn't just doing schoolwork all day every day.

One big reason I had time to watch pirated uploads of Scrubs so blurry they were basically radio (this was back when Netflix was a DVD mailer service) is the way I wrote my term papers. I perfected this system throughout my undergraduate years and into grad school, where it helped me submit my master's thesis six months before anyone else in my graduating class. I've been told by classmates who adopted it that this system is revolutionary.

Behold:

1. Pick your topic wisely

If this is an elective course, pick whatever you want. But if it's part of your major, try to select something inside your developing wheelhouse. For example, I was a political science major. When I took a class on Plato and Aristotle, I did my term paper on their views of justice. In later philosophy classes, I wrote about other thinkers' conceptions of justice. Then, in my last philosophy course, my paper compared justice in the works of four philosophers from Plato to present. I barely had to do new research at all. Most humanities and social sciences degrees require a final project to graduate, and that will be easier if you've spent four years honing your expertise in a few specific areas within your discipline instead of writing scattershot on whatever strikes your fancy.

2. Go to the library

Like, the actual, physical library. Professors like books, and you should like them too, because (as will soon be evident) they make your research process easier. At the library, don't spend much time determining whether each reference is perfectly targeted to your paper. Err on the side of checking out too much, not too little. (Pro tip: Bring a reusable grocery bag to carry your haul.)

3. Use Google

If you have primary sources old enough to be in the public domain, start googling. To be clear: You are not googling to find the sources, but to find the right content within them without having to read the whole thing. So, for example, one paper I wrote was about Justin Martyr, an early theologian, and inclusivism, a doctrine about who gets into heaven. I googled "Justin Martyr inclusivism" and was immediately presented with blog posts directing me to relevant portions of his work — even though he never used the word "inclusivism" — as well as online versions of his writings where I could copy and paste potentially useful text instead of having to transcribe it. This saves considerable time.

4. Fire up Amazon

Assuming you have secondary sources (basically any other book), search for them on Amazon. Many will let you "look inside." Use the search function to find mentions of terms key to your topic. Even if you cannot preview the results online, you will get the page number, which you can use to check that quote in your hard copy instead of scanning the whole book.

5. Use Google again

Use Google to do the same thing with any books or articles not available to "look inside" on Amazon. Google Books can be a good resource here. If that fails, try adding "PDF" to your search of the work's title.

6. Check the index

For any books or articles with no good results in any online search, use the index. Again, the central goal here is to avoid wasting time reading irrelevant stuff.

7. Create a sources document

Whenever you find a relevant passage in a book, mark it in your physical copy with a Post-it note. Read the surrounding paragraphs to see if they have other valuable information. When you find all the useful parts of a book, type (or copy from online) each relevant fact or excerpt in a single Word document. Put in your footnotes as you go and sort your quotes into topical categories. When you've done this for all your sources, you will have a file with every quote and fact you need to reference in your paper. Your citations will be already done, and you will have familiarized yourself with your topic in the process. Research is complete.

8. Make an outline

Take the assignment you were given and the knowledge you've picked up during your research and create a comprehensive outline of your paper. Be detailed. Your outline should be at least a page long for every eight double-spaced pages you plan to write. If you can make it longer, do it.

9. Sort your sources

Your research document has all your footnoted quotes and facts sorted by topic. Now, take those items and drop them into the relevant portions of your outline. (I like to make the outline text bold so it clearly stands out from the sources.) If your outline is thorough and your research adequate, the result should be similar in length to — if not longer than — your final product.

10. Now, write your paper

You've already done all the research and planning. You know the topic backwards and forwards. The outline evolves into your sections headings. Every time you need a quote or reference, it will already be at hand with a pre-made citation. In short, the actual writing will be super quick. For total time, from research to final edits, anticipate about one hour (two on the far outside) per double-spaced page for A-level work.

11. Exhale and enjoy

You're done! Binge TV awaits.

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