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This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at MSU chapter.

This semester, I received the most intimidating assignment I’d ever encountered: writing a 15-page research paper. Now that it’s nearing its completion, going through the motions has become less daunting than I thought. Here is a collection of tips and lessons I learned while tackling a paper like this for the first time. 


In my class, we had complete creative liberty to write on any aspect of the historical period we studied. I appreciated that I wasn’t constrained to focus on certain topics, but it created a web of endless, overwhelming possibilities when trying to find a focus. 

So, here is my main tip for investigating a topic: skip the Google search for general information and instead search for research papers that explore something you’re interested in. A database I recommend for this is JSTOR. This method is far more efficient to gauge if a potential topic is worth it for two reasons. One, You can discover experts on the topic. Someone who has investigated this topic extensively will be very helpful for your research because you will learn about different aspects or niches. Finding these will help you narrow down your research to something more specific. And two, You will learn different perspectives. Examining multiple papers will help you understand different arguments. What do people generally agree on? Where is there a division? Knowing what people disagree on, and why, will be crucial in deciding how you view a topic and what your argument will be. Additionally, the amount of information and arguments you find will help you determine if you can find something new to say. 

Overall, reading papers on a topic you’re interested in is a great way to start brainstorming and researching. 


Finding primary sources is far more difficult than looking for secondary sources. However, secondary sources like essays, articles, and books are a priceless resource for finding primary ones: in the notes. If you’re reading a paper or article, they will be direct footnotes. In books, they will be at the end, before the index. These notes may point to another secondary source, but tracing it back will often lead you to a primary source that will aid your argument. Looking through source notes is a useful skill to not only find primary sources but to help you branch out your sources in general. 


Having over 30 tabs open isn’t good for your computer, but you can run into a dilemma when all the information is relevant to your project. I suggest keeping a master document of all possible sources as you encounter them. I used spreadsheets and divided them into different categories depending on if they were primary or secondary sources, then the medium. Spreadsheets also serve as a chart to track information related to the source like author, page numbers, and publication dates. Noting this information will make citations easier and faster to write. 


Aside from books and writing spaces, the library has other excellent yet overlooked resources. The staff can help you discover different databases or archives for your research. Sometimes, the library’s archives will have material you can see in person rather than online. 


It’s easy to get wrapped up in your head and everything can become overwhelming. Receiving outside opinions are always helpful when tackling such a hefty project. Take advantage of your professor’s office hours for guidance on where your paper should be heading. Visit your school’s writing center to have your draft critiqued. These may seem intimidating methods, but both of them exist to help you. 

Consultancy isn’t always formal, either. When I get too caught up in my writing, I tend to overcomplicate things. Talking to my friends about my research was useful for simplifying my argument. They were amazing sources of reassurance when I was working through outlining my argument. Presenting your research to people who know less about the subject is also an opportunity to reaffirm your knowledge. 


Creating a map of your thoughts before writing will make organizing your paper much easier. It may seem like an annoying step, but it provides solid directions, especially when you get stuck. Outlines are also an excellent place to plan where you will insert your evidence in a paper. 

If you find outlining before writing halts your natural train of thought, try a reverse outline. Write a draft first, then pick pieces apart to assess your argument. This method is also useful for revising because you will find parts that could be rearranged for clarity or cut entirely to keep your argument concise. Either way, outlining your paper serves as an excellent tool for organization. 

Writing papers like these can be stressful, but it’s still possible! I hope that these tips make that journey a little smoother. Best of luck!

Saumya Johri is an undergrad studying Social Relations and Policy at Michigan State University. Along with her passion for writing, she also loves reading, art, music, and thai tea boba.