The genre of writing a research paper has its own unwritten rules and unique quirks, and those who partake in this type of writing should be aware of what some of these are. In this post I offer a few ideas on how to successfully complete a research paper, whether in an academic, business, or organizational setting.
I have worked for a number of years as a writing tutor and a freelance editor, and have observed firsthand some of the typical problems writers of research papers encounter. Below are some suggestions to help you along with the process; be sure to pass them along if you found them useful (links are always appreciated).
1. Before writing, read, read, and read. As the writer of a research paper, you are exected to be an expert, and the only way to become an expert is by becoming thoroughly familiar with the literature related to your topic. Unfortunately, there are few shortcuts to this step, so if you landed on this page looking for advice on a paper due tomorrow, I suggest that you ask for an extension.
2. Argue something. Yes, the paper is supposed to express your research, but a well-written research paper has an identifiable thesis and includes arguments that support that thesis. If you cannot think of a position to argue, you either need to read more, to develop a spine, or pick a topic that better interests you.
3. Develop an outline and stick to it. Few writers are able to juggle dozens of references and thousands of words of text in their heads, and those who claim to be able to do so are either geniuses or liars. Outlines help you stay organized, and also keep you from drifting into writing that is irrelevant to your topic.
4. Work in an environment conducive to writing. While you do not necessarily need to invest in expensive maxim lighting, your workspace should be free from distractions, have comfortable seating, and should be equipped with everything you need to be successful.
5. Break up your paper into smaller chunks. The idea of a 10-page or 20-page paper sends some writers into panic mode, so try to conceive of a longer paper as a series of short essays that are interrelated. If you are writing a 15-page paper on, for example, the causes of the First World War, you might think of 3-page essays on the topics of militarism, imperialism, nationalism, alliances, and crazed Serbian assassins. As you complete each smaller section, remember to tie the sections together with subheadings or transitional text.
6. Work on your paper every day until it is completed. The term "work" is, of course, used in a relative sense. Reading literature on your topic is work, and so is typing your bibliography or title pages. Writers get into trouble when they try to cram everything into one night, and I look skeptically at writers who claim that "I do my best work when I am under a deadline." W-R-O-N-G. You do your best writing when you know your topic, when you are comfortable and relaxed, and when you have confidence in your abilities - none of these applies to the pressure cooker that is the looming deadline.