Most students’ careers will be required to write a research paper at some point in their academic career. Intensive research and writing often creates a lot of stress for a student and that can result in procrastination and feelings of inadequacy. Students experience stress because many students are unfamiliar and unprepared for this genre of writing. The good news is that you can change that just by practicing! Writing a research paper is an integral part of academic study and it should not be avoided because of fear. The process of writing a research paper can be a rewarding and satisfying experience. The fact is many students will continue to do research throughout their careers.

To become an experienced researcher and writer in a specific field or discipline takes study and practice. Writing does not come naturally to most students. Even the most seasoned academicians have had to learn how to write a research paper at some point in their career. With a little patience, commitment, organization, practice, an open mind, and a willingness to make and learn from your mistakes, you can also learn to write great research papers.

This handout will include information about the following issues you will need to address when writing a research paper:

  • Genre – This section provides background information to understand the differences between an analytical and argumentative research paper.
  • Choosing a Topic – This section helps students understand he process of choosing topics. It addresses both assigned and free choice topics.
  • Identifying an Audience – This section helps the student understand who their target audience is and the information that audience will expect to find in the paper.
  • Where Do I Begin – This section gives an overview of the final stages of writing a research paper.

The Value of Research Papers

A research paper is a living document. The student will research, gather and evaluate source material, organize the material in a logical flow and compose the paper content. It changes as the student researches, explores, interprets, and evaluates different sources. The research paper is designed to increase the student’s knowledge and the body of knowledge in a specific field.

What Research Is Not

  • A research paper is not a topic summary of primary and secondary sources
  • It is not a book report, an opinion piece or an expository essay
  • It does not consist solely of one’s interpretation of a text, nor is it an overview of a particular topic.

What A Research Paper Is

  • A research paper is a genre of writing that requires the writer to spend time investigating and evaluating multiple sources to offer interpretations of the texts. The goal of a research paper is not to simply regurgitate source information for the reader but to thoughtfully examine and draw on what others have to say about a topic and incorporate those sources into your own thinking to offer a unique perspective on the topic you are writing about.

This can be done through two major types of research papers.

The Two Major Types of Research Papers

Argumentative Research Paper

The argumentative research paper consists of several elements. The first is an introduction in which the writer sets out the topic and tells his audience exactly which position he intends to take. This position is more commonly referred to as the thesis statement. An argumentative research paper has persuasion as its goal. This means the topic you choose should be debatable or controversial.

For example, it would be difficult for a student to successfully argue in favor of the following thesis:
Cigarette smoking poses medical dangers and may lead to cancer for both the smoker and those who experience secondhand smoke.

25 years ago this topic would have been more debatable but today it is assumed and proven that smoking cigarettes is harmful to one’s health. Here is a better thesis on the same topic.

Although it has been proven that cigarette smoking may lead to sundry health problems in the smoker, the social acceptance of smoking in public places demonstrates that many still do not consider secondhand smoke as dangerous to one’s health as firsthand smoke.

In this sentence, the writer does not challenge the current accepted position that both firsthand and secondhand cigarette smoke is dangerous. Instead, the writer is hypothesizing that the social acceptance of the latter over the former indicates a cultural double-standard of sorts. The student would support this thesis throughout the paper by using both primary and secondary sources, with the intent to persuade the reading audience that her particular interpretation of the situation is viable.

Analytical Research Paper

The analytical research paper usually begins with the student posing a research question without having decided a position. This type of paper is an exercise in exploring and evaluating different source materials.
For example, a student is interested in the Old English poem Beowulf. He has read the poem with the intent and desire to offer a fresh reading of the poem to the academic community. He might phrase his question like this:
How should one interpret the poem Beowulf? His research may lead him to the following conclusion:
Beowulf is a poem whose purpose it was to serve as an exemplum of heterodoxy for tenth- and eleventh-century monastic communities.

Although this topic may be debatable and controversial, the student’s intent is not to persuade the audience that his ideas are right and the ideas of others are wrong. The student’s goal is to offer a critical interpretation of primary and secondary sources throughout the paper that give credibility and weight to his particular analysis of the topic. Here is an example of what his thesis statement might look like after he completed his research.
Though Beowulf is often read as a poem that recounts the heroism and supernatural exploits of the protagonist Beowulf, it may also be read as a poem that served as an exemplum of heterodoxy for tenth- and eleventh-century monastic communities found in the Danelaw.

This statement does not disagree with the traditional readings of Beowulf. instead, the student offers a fresh and specific interpretation of the poem that will be supported by the student’s research.
In an analytical research paper a student normally begins the writing process before his thesis statement begins to take a solid form. The thesis statement in an analytical paper generally comes together more easily than the thesis in an argumentative paper. That is one of the benefits of approaching a topic without any preconceived ideas or a set position.

Choosing A Topic

It is important for the student to understand the research paper assignment. If this is no clear understanding of the assignment the student will often go down many dead-end roads and waste a great deal of time. Students should always ask for clarification if they have any doubts about what they are required to do. Ask the instructor questions to clarify any confusing information. A clear understanding of the assignment allows you to focus on other aspects of the process like choosing a topic and identifying your audience.


Choosing topics for a research paper depends on the requirements of the professor or teacher. Sometimes the instructor provides a list of approved topics for students to make their selections. The student should feel confident choosing a topic from an approved list because it eliminates the stress of having to choose a topic on his or her own.
Some students may find the approved topics list to be too limiting. it is common for some students to have a topic in mind that does not fit with any of the topics on the list. If this happens to you it is always best to share your idea with the instructor. Always show respect, and ask the instructor if the topic you have in mind would be a possible research option for the assignment. If you are a first-time researcher, your knowledge of the process will be limited while the instructor has a lot of experience. The instructor may have very specific reasons for choosing the topics he offered to the class. You should trust that the instructor has the best interests of the class in mind. If he likes your topic, then you are set. If the instructor has concerns or does not like your topic idea do not take it personally and move on. Choose a topic from the list that is the most interesting to you.

Sometimes an instructor hands out an assignment sheet that provides information about the logistics of the research paper, but leaves the choice of topic up to the student. When students are given the opportunity to choose the topic there is often a requirement that the topic be relevant to some aspect of the course. If you know your class will require a research paper this is important information to keep in mind as you begin the course. As the course progresses you can stay alert for topics that may be of interest to you. If you are having difficulty choosing a topic on your own you may want to set up a time to speak with your instructor to discuss ideas.

Methods for Choosing A Topic

If the student begins thinking about possible topics when the course begins or when the assignment is given, he has already begun the tough but satisfying task of planning and organizing the research paper. Once the assignment becomes a priority, he may start brainstorming ideas. Brainstorming is an easy way for students to get ideas written down. When you see your ideas written out it often helps to jumpstart the writing process. Brainstorming can be a great help for the student who is unable to narrow down ideas into a topic. Here is how the brainstorming process works to identify a topic.

  • Establish a time limited writing session
  • Write down in a list any ideas that come to mind
  • At the end of the timed period, look over the list for consistent patterns or themes that reoccur
  • If one theme or idea occurs over and over on the list it is a topic possibility because it is most prominent in your mind

It is important to remember that the first topic you come up with may not be the exact topic you end up writing about. Research topics are fluid and subject to change. The topic usually changes somewhat as you refine your ongoing research.

Identifying an Audience

Is the student’s audience the instructor only, or should the paper attempt to reach a larger academic crowd? These two “audiences” demonstrate the two extremes on the audience pendulum. The first represents an audience that is too narrow, while the second is way too large. This is the reason it is important for the student to identify an audience that falls somewhere in the middle.

It can be helpful to approach the question of audience for a research paper in the same way you would when preparing an oral presentation. When one makes an oral presentation it is common for the presenter to change her style, tone, or diction from group to group. It is pretty much the same when writing a research paper. Research papers often end up as oral presentations at conferences

When identifying your audience you should think of the instructor as one member of the paper’s audience. The instructor is part of the academic audience that wants students to investigate, research, and evaluate a topic. Try to think who would be interested in and benefit from your research.

Here is an example:

If a student is writing a twelve page research paper about ethanol and its importance as an energy source of the future, would he write it with an audience of elementary students in mind? This would be highly unlikely. Instead, he would tailor the writing to an audience of fellow engineers and perhaps to the scientific community in general. The student would assume the audience has a certain educational level. This is important because working under these assumptions he would not spend time in such a short research paper to define terms and concepts the audience is already familiar with because of their education and field of study. The flip side is that he should avoid the type of esoteric discussion that would feel condescending to his audience. This is why a student must be able to articulate a middle-ground audience with clarity and detail.

Here are some questions that may help the student further clarify and identify the audience for his or her research paper.

Who is the general audience I want to reach?
What characteristics does my general audience have?
Who is most likely to be interested in the research I am doing?
What is it about my topic that would interest the general audience I have identified?
If the audience I am writing for is not especially interested in my topic, what can I do to get them interested?
Will each member of the audience I identified agree with what I have to say?

If my audience will not agree with my position what counter-arguments should I be prepared to answer in order to persuade them to agree with my position.

One of the primary purposes of a research paper is to bring something new to the academic community. It is important for first-time researchers to understand their roles as initiates into a particular community of scholars. As the student becomes more involved in the field, his or her understanding of the target audience will grow as well.

Where do I begin?

There is no template or shortcut for writing a research paper. The process is one of practice, experience, and organization. It all begins with the student properly understanding the requirements of the given research paper assignment.
It is common for many college students to have to compose several different research papers for different courses all at the same time in a single semester. Each paper may have varying page lengths, guidelines, and expectations.
In order for a student to become an experienced researcher and writer, the student must pay particular attention to the genre, topic, and audience, and become skilled in researching, outlining, drafting, and revising.


For a discussion of where to beginwith research please refer to our guide on doing Research. If you need any help with research or writing a research paper please visit Research Paper Writing Section at


Outlining is an integral part of the process of writing. For details about the outlning process please refer to Developing an Outline.


Drafting is one of the last stages in writing a research paper. You should not begin drafting until you have a research question or thesis statement formulated. To begin writing without a thesis means the student will be writing without a purpose or direction. You can think of the research question or thesis statement as a compass. All of the research the student has completed represents a vast sea of information that the student must navigate. The compass helps to steer the direction and focus the efforts of the student so that the student will not be tossed around aimlessly by the waves of sources.

Revising, Editing, Proofreading

The revising process consist of:

  • Large scale changes to the various drafts of a project
  • Evaluation of word choices throughout the project
  • The removal of paragraphs and sometimes complete pages of text
  • Rethinking and reworking of the whole project as needed
  • Editing is a process that addresses the general appearance of a text, and includes the following steps:
  • Analysis for consistency of tone and voice throughout the project
  • Correction of minor errors in grammar, mechanics and typography
  • Evaluation of the logical flow of thoughts between paragraphs and major ideas

This process should be completed toward the final stages of the project once the revisions are completed and the paper content is settled.

Proofreading is the final stage in the writing process. This is the process of checking the paper at a detailed level in order to find any mistakes that may have been overlooked in previous revisions and editing sessions.

Online vs. Print Publications

We live in the age of information. We have enormous sources of information available to us and that can make it daunting to know where to start looking for information and how to sort through it all. In this section we will examine the following research related questions: Where do I begin? Where should I look for information? What types of sources are available?

When doing research you need to make an important distinction between traditional publications and Internet resources. The Internet is usually the easiest place to begin your research, but it is not always the best.

What Are Internet Sources?

Internet sources include anything that is published exclusively online. Sources can be in a variety of digital formats such as web pages, PDF documents, ebooks, and multimedia presentations.

What Are Traditional Publications? 

Traditional publications include anything that has been published in print form. Traditional sources are widely available at libraries and bookstores. Material includes books, textbooks, newspapers, popular and scholarly journals, and magazines.

New technologies have changed the way we access and exchange information. Today, many traditional resources are now available online such as newspaper articles, magazines, book chapters, and journal articles. When doing your research it is crucial you pay careful attention to whether the source you have found is an online-only source or if it has a print component as well.

Types of Sources

Traditional Print Sources

Books and Textbooks: Books are written on every conceivable topic. Books take time to publish and books normally contain more dated information than you find in journals and newspapers. However, with the advent of online publishing the rate of publishing online books is significantly faster now. Always check the publication date of your sources to ensure they are not outdated.

Newspapers: Newspapers are excellent as a source for information about the most current events and trends. Newspapers contain up-to-date information. and report information that is factual in nature and well as sharing opinions through editorials. Generally, newspapers do not provide a “big picture” approach or contain information about larger, over-arching trends.

Academic and Trade Journals: Academic and trade journals are excellent places to find the most up-to-date information and research in industry, business, and academia. Journal articles take several different forms including literature reviews that provide an overview current and past research, articles on theories and history, and articles on specific processes or research.

Government Reports and Legal Documents: The government routinely releases information for its own use and for public use. These types of documents can be an excellent source of information. They provide important statistical information. An example of a government report is the U.S. Census data. You can access most government reports and legal documents online.

Press Releases and Advertising: Companies and special interest groups produce texts to help persuade readers to act in some way or inform the public about some new development. The caution here is that with online marketing there is a vast increase in the number of online press releases and many of these press releases are more marketing based than factual.

Flyers, Pamphlets, Leaflets:  Some flyers or pamphlets are created by reputable sources, but because they are easy to create, many less-than-reputable sources also produce these. They can be useful for quick reference or very general information.

Multimedia: Do no forget to research other types of sources such as radio and television broadcasts, interactive talks, and public meetings. These sources can be an excellent tool for identifying trends, and gathering evidence on popular opinions.

Internet-only sources

Web sites: Most of the information on the Internet is found on Web sites. Web sites vary greatly in quality of information and validity of sources. So use information from websites with caution and always identify the original source of the information.

Weblogs / Blogs:  Weblogs or blogs are a type of interactive journal where writers post and readers respond. Again, the quality of information and validity of sources varies greatly. For example, many prestigious journalists and public figures may have blogs, which may be more credible than most of the blogs you find online.

Message boards, Discussion lists, and Chat rooms: Discussion lists, chat rooms, and message boards exist for all kinds of disciplines both in and outside of the university. However, plenty of boards exist that are not helpful for research or are poorly researched and unreliable to use as a research paper source.

Multimedia: The Internet has a multitude of multimedia resources including online broadcasts and news, images, audio files, and interactive Web sites. Many podcasts and live-streaming news broadcasts or power point presentations can be good, reliable sources of information while others may b=not be as trustworthy. Always verify your sources.

Primary Research

Research is not always limited to published material that can be found on the Internet or at the library. Many topics you choose to write on may not have many available sources and may require a different kind of approach to conducting research called primary research. Primary research is an approach that involves collecting information directly from the world around you. It includes interviews, observations, and surveys.
If you are writing about a local problem in your school or community, it may require primary research. You can begin by searching after secondary sources found at the library or online on the more general aspects of the topic you are pursuing, but may not find specific information on your school or town. To supplement your sources you can collect data on your own.

For example, Seth wants to research a proposed smoking ban in public establishments in Springfield, Ohio. He starts his research at the library and also searches online. He locates information sources related to smoking bans in other cities around the United States, but only a few limited articles from the local newspaper on the ban proposed in Springfield. To supplement these sources, he decides to survey 50 local residents to learn their views on the proposed smoking ban. He also decides to interview 10 local business owners to learn how they think the ban will affect their businesses. Finally, he attends and observes a town hall meeting where they are discussing the potential ban.

There are several different types of primary research. Some of the most common ones used for writing classes include:

  • Interviews: An interview is a conversation between two or more people. One person (the interviewer) asks a series of questions to another person or persons who are the interviewees.
  • Surveys and questionnaires: There are several different types of surveys but in general a survey is a process for gathering specific information from people in a systematic way. Surveys use a set series of questions. Most survey questions have pre-specified or short responses the respondents can choose from.
  • Observations: Observation is a social research technique. It involves the direct viewing and documentation of phenomena in their natural setting within the world.

Where Do I begin My Research?

What Kind of Information Are You Looking For?

The first step is to determine what kind of information you need. Do you need factual information, news reports, editorial opinions, research studies, statistical information, analyses, Personal reflections, or historical information or data?

Where would be a likely place to look?

Once you have identified the types of research you need the next step is to identify which type of sources will be most useful. Write out a list of possible places to find the information you need based on the sources you identified.

Here is a starter list of places to look for information:

  1. Libraries
  2. The Internet
  3. Academic periodicals
  4. Newspapers
  5. Government records
  6. Interviews’
  7. Informational radio shows and podcasts
  8. Local records
  9. Surveys
  10. Local Meetings about your topic

If you are searching for information on some current event, you can look for a reliable newspaper like the New York Times as a source. If you searching for US immigration statistics, then you might want to start with government documents. If you need some scholarly interpretations about literature, academic periodicals and books are an excellent place to begin your research. If you want to know about a commercial product you may want to explore the internet for industry information or specific company information. Company websites and professional industrial organizational websites can be good places to start. If you are searching for local history a county library, government office, or local newspaper archive is a logical staring point for your research.

How much information do you need?

Decide how many sources of information you need. Think about whether or not you need to provide information on both sides of the issue you are researching. Make certain you have sufficient resources that address both sides of the issue.

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