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How to Write a Research Paper

Research papers are a requirement for most college courses, so knowing how to write a research paper is important. These in-depth pieces of academic writing can seem pretty daunting, but there’s no need to panic. When broken down into its key components, writing your paper should be a manageable and, dare we say it, enjoyable task.

We’re going to look at the required elements of a paper in detail, and you might also find this webpage to be a  useful reference .

Guide Overview

What is a Research Paper?

A research paper is more than just an extra long essay or encyclopedic regurgitation of facts and figures. The aim of this task is to combine in-depth study of a particular topic with critical thinking and evaluation by the student—that’s you!

There are two main types of research paper: argumentative and analytical.

Argumentative  — takes a stance on a particular topic right from the start, with the aim of persuading the reader of the validity of the argument. These are best suited to topics that are debatable or controversial.

Analytical  — takes no firm stance on a topic initially. Instead it asks a question and should come to an answer through the evaluation of source material. As its name suggests, the aim is to analyze the source material and offer a fresh perspective on the results.

If you wish to further your understanding, you can  learn more here .

A required word count (think thousands!) can make writing that paper seem like an insurmountable task. Don’t worry! Our step-by-step guide will help you write that killer paper with confidence.

How to Start a Research Paper

Don’t rush ahead. Taking care during the planning and preparation stage will save time and hassle later.

Get Clear Instructions

Your lecturer or professor is your biggest ally—after all, they want you to do well. Make sure you get clear guidance from them on both the required format and preferred topics. In some cases, your tutor will assign a topic, or give you a set list to choose from. Often, however, you’ll be expected to select a suitable topic for yourself.

Having a research paper example to look at can also be useful for first-timers, so ask your tutor to supply you with one.

Brainstorm Ideas

Brainstorming research paper ideas is the first step to selecting a topic—and there are various methods you can use to brainstorm, including clustering (also known as mind mapping). Think about the research paper topics that interest you, and identify topics you have a strong opinion on.

Choose a Topic

Once you have a list of potential research paper topics, narrow them down by considering your academic strengths and ‘gaps in the market,’ e.g., don’t choose a common topic that’s been written about many times before. While you want your topic to be fresh and interesting, you also need to ensure there’s enough material available for you to work with. Similarly, while you shouldn’t go for easy research paper topics just for the sake of giving yourself less work, you do need to choose a topic that you feel confident you can do justice to.

Outline Your Outline

It might not be possible to form a full research paper outline until you’ve done some information gathering, but you can think about your overall aim; basically what you want to show and how you’re going to show it. Now’s also a good time to consider your thesis statement, although this might change as you delve into your source material deeper.

Researching the Research

Now it’s time to knuckle down and dig out all the information that’s relevant to your topic. Here are some tips.

Make Friends With Your Librarian

While lots of information gathering can be carried out online from anywhere, there’s still a place for old-fashioned study sessions in the library. A good librarian can help you to locate sources quickly and easily, and might even make suggestions that you hadn’t thought of. They’re great at helping you study and research, but probably can’t save you the best desk by the window.

Find Quality Sources

Not all sources are created equal, so make sure that you’re referring to reputable, reliable information. Examples of sources could include books, magazine articles, scholarly articles, reputable websites, databases and journals. Keywords relating to your topic can help you in your search.

As you search, you should begin to compile a list of references. This will make it much easier later when you are ready to build your paper’s bibliography. Keeping clear notes detailing any sources that you use will help you to avoid accidentally plagiarizing someone else’s work or ideas.

Understand Your Topic

Simply regurgitating facts and figures won’t make for an interesting paper. It’s essential that you fully understand your topic so you can come across as an authority on the subject and present your own ideas on it. You should read around your topic as widely as you can, before narrowing your area of interest for your paper, and critically analyzing your findings.

A Detailed Outline

Once you’ve got a firm grip on your subject and the source material available to you, formulate a detailed outline, including your thesis statement and how you are going to support it. The structure of your paper will depend on the subject type—ask a tutor for a research paper outline example if you’re unsure.

Get Writing!

If you’ve fully understood your topic and gathered quality source materials, bringing it all together should actually be the easy part!

Keep it Factual

There’s no place for sloppy writing in this kind of academic task, so keep your language simple and clear, and your points critical and succinct. The creative part is finding innovative angles and new insights on the topic to make your paper interesting.

Don’t forget about our  verb ,  preposition , and  adverb  pages. You may find useful information to help with your writing!

Finalize Your Thesis Statement

You should now be in a position to finalize your thesis statement, showing clearly what your paper will show, answer or prove. This should usually be a one or two sentence statement; however, it’s the core idea of your paper, and every insight that you include should be relevant to it. Remember, a thesis statement is not merely a summary of your findings. It should present an argument or perspective that the rest of your paper aims to support.

Think About Format

The required style of your research paper format will usually depend on your subject area. For example,  APA format  is normally used for social science subjects, while MLA style is most commonly used for liberal arts and humanities. Still, there are thousands of  more styles . Your tutor should be able to give you clear guidance on how to format your paper, how to structure it, and what elements it should include. Make sure that you follow their instruction. If possible, ask to see a sample research paper in the required format.

Cite, Cite and Cite

As all research paper topics invariably involve referring to other people’s work, it’s vital that you know how to properly cite your sources to avoid unintentional plagiarism. Whether you’re paraphrasing (putting someone else’s ideas into your own words) or directly quoting, the original source needs to be referenced. What style of citation formatting you use will depend on the requirements of your instructor, with common styles including APA and  MLA format , which consist of in-text citations (short citations within the text, enclosed with parentheses) and a reference/works cited list.

The Editing Process

It’s likely that your paper will go through several drafts before you arrive at the very best version. The editing process is your chance to fix any weak points in your paper before submission. You might find that it needs a better balance of both primary and secondary sources (click through to find  more info  on the difference), that an  adjective  could use tweaking, or that you’ve included sources that aren’t relevant or credible. You might even feel that you need to be clearer in your argument, more thorough in your critical analysis, or more balanced in your evaluation.

From a stylistic point of view, you want to ensure that your writing is clear, simple and concise, with no long, rambling sentences or paragraphs. Keeping within the required word count parameters is also important, and another thing to keep in mind is the inclusion of gender-neutral language, to avoid the reinforcement of tired stereotypes.

Don’t forget about our other pages! If you are looking for help with other grammar-related topics, check out our  noun ,  pronoun , and  conjunction  pages.

Final Checks

Once you’re happy with the depth and balance of the arguments and points presented, you can turn your attention to the finer details, such as formatting, spelling, punctuation, grammar and ensuring that your citations are all present and correct. The EasyBib Plus  plagiarism checker  is a handy tool for making sure that your sources are all cited. An EasyBib Plus subscription also comes with access to citation tools that can help you create citations in your choice of format.

Also, double-check your deadline date and the submissions guidelines to avoid any last-minute issues. Take a peek at our other grammar pages while you’re at it. We’ve included numerous links on this page, but we also have an  interjection  page and  determiner  page.

So you’ve done your final checks and handed in your paper according to the submissions guidelines and preferably before deadline day. Congratulations! If your schedule permits, now would be a great time to take a break from your studies. Maybe plan a fun activity with friends or just take the opportunity to rest and relax. A well-earned break from the books will ensure that you return to class refreshed and ready for your next stage of learning—and the next  research paper  requirement your tutor sets!

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Writing a Thesis Statement

Whether you write it first or last, a strong thesis statement is a crucial piece of a top-quality paper. It clarifies exactly what you’re writing about and lays the foundation for your argument. Here’s how to improve your thesis statement in three steps.

When you’re done with your paper, take a moment to run it through an online  paper checker like the one right here on Citation Machine.

Step 1: Identify Your Purpose

There are three main paper types: argumentative, expository, and analytical. There are also paper subtypes, such as the persuasive essay (which is a type of argumentative writing) or the reflective essay (which is an analytical paper). However, every essay can be sorted into one of these three categories.

The type of paper you’re writing will determine how you write your thesis statement. In an argumentative paper, the thesis statement is also called the claim, because it states a point that you’re trying to make. An analytical paper’s thesis statement is typically called just that: it’s an idea that you’re suggesting based on existing materials. Finally, an expository paper contains a topic sentence. This is because you are writing about a specific area or object, and not just an idea.

Thesis Statement:

Topic Sentence

These three types of thesis statement and their varying names lead you to your next step: learning.

Step 2: Research

It can be tempting to latch onto an intriguing thesis statement and run with it, looking for evidence that supports your claim or topic sentence. However, it’s better to do some thorough research before hanging your hat on a thesis statement. Why?

Once you have a general idea of what you’re going to write about, and what type of paper you’re writing, do your research. This may be based on a professor’s assignment (What social, political, or technological development most contributed to the rise of the European feudal system?), or it may be based on your own areas of interest (Choose an aspect of modern public policy to explain). Get as much information as you can, and start loosely organizing it by comparing and contrasting facts. This will also help you when it’s time to create your works cited page or annotated bibliography .

Once you have a strong body of information, see if your initial idea for a thesis statement still works.

Step 3: Be Specific

The golden rule of a thesis statement is be concise . The thesis statement is not the place to add evidence, reasoning, or specifics. It’s the simplest possible phrase you can think of to present your idea. The hook (beginning introduction) of your paper can be wild, but the thesis statement should be short and sharp. Leave no room for confusion.

Illegality is a tangent. It shouldn’t be part of the thesis statement because it blurs the focus of the paper.

Mentioning other poets and lengthening the thesis statement makes it unclear which poet is the focus of the paper, and why.

The second sentence here makes it unclear whether the focus is on how different animals hibernate, or on hibernation itself.

Check Yourself

If you’ve done it right, your thesis statement will “pop” when you’re done with your paper. It will be short and sweet, clearly stating your main focus. Each paragraph of your paper will relate back to it clearly. And if a reader were asked what the paper was about, he or she should answer in a way that clearly reflects the thesis statement.

If you can check these off, you’re ready to sharpen your MLA works cited page and make sure your evidence fulfills your awesome thesis statement!

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Good thesis: Makes a strong argument

The point of a thesis, ultimately, is to posit an argument that you will then support through the rest of the paper. So a good thesis will put forth a strong statement that 1) needs proving and 2) can be proven with the information in the rest of the essay.

Ultimately, an environment of rampant piracy helps no one and hurts all artists trying to make a living from creative work.

A paper arguing about media piracy might use this sentence as a thesis statement. It’s an opinion or a theory, not a given fact, and could be argued against. It’s the kind of statement that takes a definitive stance and clearly leads into supporting arguments to follow. That’s where your research will come in – and make sure to cite everything properly, whether the guidelines call for an annotated bibliography , Chicago in-text citation , or something else entirely!

Bad thesis: Does not make an argument or states a simple fact

When it comes to the actual argument of a thesis, there are two major pitfalls that writers may fall into. The first: writing a thesis that doesn’t actually make an argument that lends itself to evidence. The second: stating a simple fact that doesn’t need proving because it’s already assumed to be true, even by someone with no knowledge of the field.

Let’s try turning the above example into a sentence like this.

According to these studies, there is an environment of rampant piracy in this country.

There is no real argument here, especially given the clause “according to these studies,” which means that evidence has already been referenced. This is not a thesis, but a conclusion.

Good thesis: A complex sentence

An okay thesis might be a straightforward sentence, but a truly excellent one is likely to be a longer sentence with multiple clauses. Why? Because the best theses make an argument that also includes context, reasons, or acknowledgement of opposing views.

While some readings may suggest that Romeo and Juliet is about the foolishness of impetuous young love between naïve, hyper-emotional partners, the play is more overtly a critique of feud culture and its effects on future generations.

Here, the author would acknowledge the validity of another viewpoint, but argue that theirs is, ultimately, the best or most accurate one – and then the paper would proceed to present evidence. Having this complex sentence for a thesis statement opens up avenues for a thoughtful paper that ultimately makes a stronger argument because it doesn’t pretend alternatives don’t exist, but answers the “why?” question of why its argument should win.

Bad thesis: A simple statement

When you’re first learning how to write essays, simple statements are the norm, but as you advance in your writing, theses should become more advanced as well. A short sentence is not likely to contain the kind of in-depth or multifaceted argument that you’ll need in order to support a thoughtful paper.

The play Romeo and Juliet is about the dangers of feud culture .

Not incorrect, but not great either. A simple statement like this isn’t a good thesis because it barely scratches the surface; a great thesis will dig deeper.

Good thesis: Stays on topic

When writing a thesis statement, it’s important to stay close to the prompt. A thesis statement is designed to provide a road map for what’s to come, and if it’s not clear, then the rest of the paper is likely to be unclear or disorganized, too. This is especially true for compare and contrast style prompts, where the writer is asked not to make a new argument of their own, but to find meaning in the relationship between existing arguments. Let’s try one:

While Brecht’s analysis focuses on the political aspects and how the play’s adaptation fit into the development of his own theatrical paradigm, Nussbaum analyzes from a more theoretical, literary approach, discussing language and moral ambiguities in the context of Hegelian dialectic and revealing the manipulation of paradigm within the universe of the play itself.

The author here sticks to a clear topic: the relationship between two theorists’ takes on a single play. By finding a common theme that is addressed differently – “paradigms” – the writer makes an “argument” as to what that relationship is. Staying on topic is no different than sticking to MLA format : it’s about checking your work to follow directions.

Bad thesis: Has no specific topic

If you create a thesis statement and it doesn’t narrow down a broad topic to something specific, you probably need to do some reworking. A weak version of the complex thesis above might look something like this:

Brecht and Nussbaum both analyze the play, but differently .

Although this is, technically, an opinion statement (one could theoretically argue that two analyses are similar rather than different), it’s a weak one that provides no guidance for the rest of the essay. We need specifics to tie it together and form a strong road map for the paper.

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Argumentative Thesis

birds arguing

As explained in Research , not all essays will require an explicitly stated thesis, but most argumentative essays will. Instead of implying your thesis or main idea, in an argumentative essay, you’ll most likely be required to write out your thesis statement for your audience. A thesis statement is a one- to two-sentence statement that presents the main idea and makes an assertion about your issue. You may have a longer thesis for much longer essays, but one to two sentences is a good general guideline. And, remember, in an argumentative essay, the assertion you present in your thesis is going to be particularly important.

When you make your assertion in your thesis, it should be clear and direct. You want your audience to have no doubt about your point. Of course, how assertive you are in your thesis and the content you choose to include depends upon the type of argumentative essay you are writing. For example, in a Classical or Aristotelian argument (explained in pages that follow), your thesis statement should clearly present your side of the issue. In a Rogerian argument (explained in pages that follow), your thesis should bring both sides of the issue together.

Still, there are some basic guidelines to keep in mind when it comes to an argumentative thesis statement.

In this paper, I will persuade you to vote for candidates who support education reform.

Instead you might write:

Because our education system is in need of reform, we should vote for candidates who are willing to make the necessary changes.

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How to write a thesis statement, what is a thesis statement.

Almost all of us—even if we don’t do it consciously—look early in an essay for a one- or two-sentence condensation of the argument or analysis that is to follow. We refer to that condensation as a thesis statement.

Why Should Your Essay Contain a Thesis Statement?

In general, your thesis statement will accomplish these goals if you think of the thesis as the answer to the question your paper explores.

How Can You Write a Good Thesis Statement?

Here are some helpful hints to get you started. You can either scroll down or select a link to a specific topic.

How to Generate a Thesis Statement if the Topic is Assigned How to Generate a Thesis Statement if the Topic is not Assigned How to Tell a Strong Thesis Statement from a Weak One

How to Generate a Thesis Statement if the Topic is Assigned

Almost all assignments, no matter how complicated, can be reduced to a single question. Your first step, then, is to distill the assignment into a specific question. For example, if your assignment is, “Write a report to the local school board explaining the potential benefits of using computers in a fourth-grade class,” turn the request into a question like, “What are the potential benefits of using computers in a fourth-grade class?” After you’ve chosen the question your essay will answer, compose one or two complete sentences answering that question.

Q: “What are the potential benefits of using computers in a fourth-grade class?” A: “The potential benefits of using computers in a fourth-grade class are . . .”
A: “Using computers in a fourth-grade class promises to improve . . .”

The answer to the question is the thesis statement for the essay.

[ Back to top ]

How to Generate a Thesis Statement if the Topic is not Assigned

Even if your assignment doesn’t ask a specific question, your thesis statement still needs to answer a question about the issue you’d like to explore. In this situation, your job is to figure out what question you’d like to write about.

A good thesis statement will usually include the following four attributes:

Let’s see how to generate a thesis statement for a social policy paper.

Brainstorm the topic . Let’s say that your class focuses upon the problems posed by changes in the dietary habits of Americans. You find that you are interested in the amount of sugar Americans consume.

You start out with a thesis statement like this:

Sugar consumption.

This fragment isn’t a thesis statement. Instead, it simply indicates a general subject. Furthermore, your reader doesn’t know what you want to say about sugar consumption.

Narrow the topic . Your readings about the topic, however, have led you to the conclusion that elementary school children are consuming far more sugar than is healthy.

You change your thesis to look like this:

Reducing sugar consumption by elementary school children.

This fragment not only announces your subject, but it focuses on one segment of the population: elementary school children. Furthermore, it raises a subject upon which reasonable people could disagree, because while most people might agree that children consume more sugar than they used to, not everyone would agree on what should be done or who should do it. You should note that this fragment is not a thesis statement because your reader doesn’t know your conclusions on the topic.

Take a position on the topic. After reflecting on the topic a little while longer, you decide that what you really want to say about this topic is that something should be done to reduce the amount of sugar these children consume.

You revise your thesis statement to look like this:

More attention should be paid to the food and beverage choices available to elementary school children.

This statement asserts your position, but the terms more attention and food and beverage choices are vague.

Use specific language . You decide to explain what you mean about food and beverage choices , so you write:

Experts estimate that half of elementary school children consume nine times the recommended daily allowance of sugar.

This statement is specific, but it isn’t a thesis. It merely reports a statistic instead of making an assertion.

Make an assertion based on clearly stated support. You finally revise your thesis statement one more time to look like this:

Because half of all American elementary school children consume nine times the recommended daily allowance of sugar, schools should be required to replace the beverages in soda machines with healthy alternatives.

Notice how the thesis answers the question, “What should be done to reduce sugar consumption by children, and who should do it?” When you started thinking about the paper, you may not have had a specific question in mind, but as you became more involved in the topic, your ideas became more specific. Your thesis changed to reflect your new insights.

How to Tell a Strong Thesis Statement from a Weak One

1. a strong thesis statement takes some sort of stand..

Remember that your thesis needs to show your conclusions about a subject. For example, if you are writing a paper for a class on fitness, you might be asked to choose a popular weight-loss product to evaluate. Here are two thesis statements:

There are some negative and positive aspects to the Banana Herb Tea Supplement.

This is a weak thesis statement. First, it fails to take a stand. Second, the phrase negative and positive aspects is vague.

Because Banana Herb Tea Supplement promotes rapid weight loss that results in the loss of muscle and lean body mass, it poses a potential danger to customers.

This is a strong thesis because it takes a stand, and because it's specific.

2. A strong thesis statement justifies discussion.

Your thesis should indicate the point of the discussion. If your assignment is to write a paper on kinship systems, using your own family as an example, you might come up with either of these two thesis statements:

My family is an extended family.

This is a weak thesis because it merely states an observation. Your reader won’t be able to tell the point of the statement, and will probably stop reading.

While most American families would view consanguineal marriage as a threat to the nuclear family structure, many Iranian families, like my own, believe that these marriages help reinforce kinship ties in an extended family.

This is a strong thesis because it shows how your experience contradicts a widely-accepted view. A good strategy for creating a strong thesis is to show that the topic is controversial. Readers will be interested in reading the rest of the essay to see how you support your point.

3. A strong thesis statement expresses one main idea.

Readers need to be able to see that your paper has one main point. If your thesis statement expresses more than one idea, then you might confuse your readers about the subject of your paper. For example:

Companies need to exploit the marketing potential of the Internet, and Web pages can provide both advertising and customer support.

This is a weak thesis statement because the reader can’t decide whether the paper is about marketing on the Internet or Web pages. To revise the thesis, the relationship between the two ideas needs to become more clear. One way to revise the thesis would be to write:

Because the Internet is filled with tremendous marketing potential, companies should exploit this potential by using Web pages that offer both advertising and customer support.

This is a strong thesis because it shows that the two ideas are related. Hint: a great many clear and engaging thesis statements contain words like because , since , so , although , unless , and however .

4. A strong thesis statement is specific.

A thesis statement should show exactly what your paper will be about, and will help you keep your paper to a manageable topic. For example, if you're writing a seven-to-ten page paper on hunger, you might say:

World hunger has many causes and effects.

This is a weak thesis statement for two major reasons. First, world hunger can’t be discussed thoroughly in seven to ten pages. Second, many causes and effects is vague. You should be able to identify specific causes and effects. A revised thesis might look like this:

Hunger persists in Glandelinia because jobs are scarce and farming in the infertile soil is rarely profitable.

This is a strong thesis statement because it narrows the subject to a more specific and manageable topic, and it also identifies the specific causes for the existence of hunger.

Produced by Writing Tutorial Services, Indiana University, Bloomington, IN


ENG3221: Grammars of English: Thesis Statements

Thesis Statement

A thesis statement is your main claim that you are trying to prove .

Qualities of a Good Thesis Statement:

Further Tips:

Choosing a Topic

Tips on Choosing a Topic:

Example Thesis Statements for Essay 2

Thesis Statements from Past Classes:

1.   The assertive language of the Black Lives Matter movement confronts police brutality.

2.   Derogatory language in 2 Live Crew’s music demeans women.

3.  The aggressive language in N.W.A’s “Straight Outta Compton” promotes violent gang behavior.

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