How to Write a Research Paper that Looks like you Started it in September

12:16 a.m. on the Sunday night of finals week. Everything is due this Friday, or next Tuesday if you look pathetic when you cry. You look at your syllabus. In what appears to be point 4 font on the last part of the “grades” section is a seven to ten page research paper requiring three to five scholarly articles and a thesis. “This is it,” you say to yourself as you search for circuses hiring in your area. “I’m not going to make it.”

Here’s the thing; a research paper is like a lab or a science experiment. No matter your topic or materials, there’s a method. Get the form right and the result will look good and read well. Like any process, it’s as frustrating as it is informative. Yet, everyone can agree that there is a sweet satisfaction in seeing that finished product and promptly burning it in a backyard fire pit the second the semester ends.

So, here’s a quick, dirty, and honest outline for your one-week research paper.

Pick Something You Actually Like

Sometimes, you take classes that don’t appeal to your true calling. You might be a math major taking a guided writing and research class for your core curriculum. Maybe the course catalog lied to you and “Space Travel and Laser Guns 101” is just about how they made “Star Trek” props out of bubble gum. I’ll caution you not to get bogged down by a boring research topic. The less you like the subject matter of your paper, the more you will procrastinate. The best way to get into a paper is to put some of yourself into it.

If you’re in a class that’s not your usual subject, incorporate your major into the paper. Not only does it peak your interest, but you end up bringing something to the table that your professor hasn’t seen before. If you can find physics in “Jane Eyre” or psychology in “Origin of the Species,” you’re on your way to a phenomenal paper.

Pick Your Sources (And Be Picky)

Now the “research” part of the paper begins. It’s easily the most daunting task in this endeavor; the academic jargon makes interesting articles incomprehensible and boring articles unreadable. Some documents are over 40 pages and require a lot of sifting to get what you need. So, get your thesaurus ready and pull some keywords for your search bars.

If you look at JSTOR and Academic Search Complete, they have four or more little sub drop down boxes. Use them! You have an idea of what you want to write and collecting a whole host of general information sources won’t get you further in answering your question. Narrow your search to words that fit your question. Find one author that keeps popping up? Search their name; they more than likely study in a specific field and can lead you to more papers in that field.

Now you have your sources, with a few extra on the side. Then, the fun part; reading. This time, it won’t take three straight days and cause you deep, painful eye strain.

1,2, Skip a Few: Introduction and Results

I understand that, upon seeing that 50 page study on the social effects of Twitter on the Amish, you would not be super jazzed to get to reading (I would, but as you can see I am a massive nerd). There’s no actual need to thumb delicately through every page. Instead, you only need two major ingredients of the paper; the introduction and results.

The introduction will not only tell you where to look in the study for information, but define anything you were unsure of before. It’s often more advantages for a researcher to assign shorthand names and acronyms to subjects and values, so writing those down as a translation page for the rest of the paper will make your day so much easier.

And of course, the results. The actual answers to the question. Having read the introduction, you now know the language of the results section. You’re not fluent, but you could certainly find the bathroom or the bar if you were lost. Read the results. Read them again. Don’t look at the numbers so much as the simple explanation of what the results mean. Write them down and make sure you understand them. Then, write them again in your own words to see if you can get the message out even simpler in your paper.

Word Vomit (Tastefully)

Let’s face it, trying to write a paper from first sentence to last usually ends up like that Spongebob episode where all you have is a very fanciful “the” headlining the page. So if you struggle to write that tantalizing introduction first, start somewhere else.

In reality, you don’t have to do the paper front-to-back like in an exam. You have weird pockets of time, selective energy, and the ability to copy-paste. Write from the point at which it feels most natural to write. Maybe you tackle translating and wording the results from your research first. Maybe you nail down your thesis first. Maybe you summarize everything you found for the conclusion before you figure it out for the intro. Whatever, man! Rules of academic practice are fake anyway, so write the way that makes you comfortable and make it pretty with transition sentences later. It doesn’t matter as long as you get it done.

Aim for Finished, Not Perfect

The root of most procrastination is having the feeling that you will not perform the task as well as you want to. Either the timing wasn’t right or you weren’t in a good mood or there was other work, and so on. We’ve been through this tango a couple of times. Lucky for you, the pressure is not on; you will be fine if you write an just an okay paper.

Have you ever heard a professor say “don’t try to reinvent the wheel?” They happen to be right; writing a research paper is an exercise in finding information that is already available for analysis. There isn’t really a need to stun audiences with your prose or try and find the answer to world hunger. You are asking a personal question and seeing if you can answer it through your own hard work and material you’ve learned over half a year. You’re not applying for a Nobel Peace Prize, so put the thesaurus back on the shelf and just try to explain yourself as best you can.

There may be hiccups in the process. The page requirement is testing you, you’re transition sentences sound a little hokey, and it’s possible that you don’t know if your professor hates Oxford commas or not. It’s easy to start to panic and knit-pick your close-to-finished paper to bits. After a while, just put it down. It’s okay for a paper to be slightly over or under page count just as long as it contains all the information you need to fulfill the requirements. Grammar can loose small points, but you should be okay just as long as the professor can understanding your meaning. Review the format, clean it up after it’s written, and aim for finished, not perfect.


Great stuff! You learned how to write a research paper. Now get off the Internet and write it, you funky little collegiate.