A Five-Component Plan for Writing a Research Paper
Suggestions for how to break down a research paper assignment into five components, giving five different deadlines, and not waiting to last minute to finish the paper.
by Katharine Hansen, Ph.D.
Let's say your instructor has assigned you to write a research paper and specified that the paper must be a rhetorical argument that supports a thesis you've developed. You are not merely summarizing information but taking a position and defending it with the best evidence you can find in the literature. You will need to analyze and synthesize. Your teacher may assign the paper over a long period, such as the full semester, with milestone assignments along the way.
But even if these milestones are not assigned, consider reaching the milestones anyway. You will find that you will stay on track with the assignment, thus avoiding panic the week -- or day -- before the paper's due. You can also expect your paper to be much more organized and coherent using this component plan than if you didn't use it.
This article details the five components.
By Week 5: Topics and Abstract
By Week 7: Paper Outline
By Week 11: Preliminary Bibliography
By Week 14: First Draft
By Week 15: Final Paper
Let's say semesters at your school are 16 weeks. Consider following this plan for your paper, and if your semesters are longer or shorter, adapt the plan accordingly.
1. Topic and abstract: Assuming your topic isn't assigned, plan to develop your topic for your research paper by the fifth week of class and then write an abstract. In part, this exercise is to help you get an early start on your paper. Your abstract should capture the essence of the question, problem, or rhetorical argument you wish to pursue in your paper. The abstract can range anywhere from a long paragraph to a page, double-spaced. A length of 200 words is a good goal to shoot for. Check abstracts in the library for a general feel for the style of an abstract. See our article, How to Write an Abstract, for guidelines and samples. Do not use first person for your abstract. A key phrase should be: "This paper will . . ." (instead of "I will. . ."). Writing an abstract will help crystallize your topic for you and keep you on track in developing the question, problem, or rhetorical argument you plan to pursue in your paper
2. Outline: Writing an outline that is comprehensive enough to give a good sense of how your paper will be organized and what it will say will be an enormous boost for to the logical flow and organization of your paper. Poorly organized papers are the No. 1 student writing peeve among professors, but outlining can help you produce an easy-to-follow paper. See our article, The Power of Outlining When Writing College Papers. Complete your outline by the seventh week of class.
3. Preliminary Bibliography: Preparing a preliminary bibliography ensures that you have gathered your research in a timely manner, and it also will give you a huge head start toward your final paper -- because bibliographies are extremely time-consuming to compile and format. Quantity of sources is not as important as quality and variety. Your bibliography should ideally include more than just books. Consider also consulting academic journals, mass-market and specialty periodicals, and the Internet. Consider also doing original research, such as interviewing individuals or conducting a survey. Try to use the most current sources. A good rule of thumb is to stick to sources that are not more than 10 years old. Of course, many exceptions can be made to this rule, especially if the most important works in a field are more than 10 years old. But do try for current works wherever possible. Don't fall into the trap that a former student did. Writing about "the technology office," he chose sources (all books) that were at least 10 years old, yet he kept talking about "the office of tomorrow." The office of tomorrow from a 1998 source is probably not even the office of today, but the office of yesterday. Be sure you know what citation and bibliographic style your instructor wants you to use. Plan to have your preliminary bibliography prepared by the 11th week of class.
More research guidelines:
- Insert quotations, cite authors that bolster your thesis, and develop a bibliography of healthy size and variety.
- Use the research you've uncovered in a way that logically supports your thesis.
- Check in with your instructor as you're researching and writing your paper if you have questions about whether the research seems adequate.
- Try this guideline: Every paragraph except the introduction and conclusion ought to have a reference to the primary or secondary source material used for your paper. Without a reference to a source in the paragraph, you may not have provided the necessary evidence to demonstrate your point.
Citing your sources within the text and avoiding plagiarism:
- If your assignment doesn't make it clear, ask your instructor which citation style you should use.
- Understand that when you use ideas, facts, and opinions that are not your own -- even when you don't use the author's exact words -- you must give appropriate credit to the author as you incorporate his or her ideas into your paper. If you don't do so, you're committing plagiarism, one of the most serious offenses in academe.
- It's better, when in doubt, to over-cite than under-cite. At least one citation per paragraph is not unreasonable.
Resist the temptation to lift any part of your paper wholesale from the web. One former student carefully cited and paraphrased everything, but I still gave him a low grade because he did almost no writing of his own and took his whole paper from one web source. His effort was just so much less than most of his classmates. When mediocre students turn in suspiciously impressive papers, I often suspect that they were purchased from term-paper mills, written by someone else, or lifted from the Internet. I usually find out. One former student credited some material to web sites, but lifted other material wholesale and word-for-word from a web site without crediting it. I gave him a zero for this 150-point paper. By university policy, I had the right to fail him for the class.
Consider the objectivity of your sources. Another former student wrote about communication at Anheuser-Busch, especially the company's mission statement. A lot of it sounded suspiciously like ad or PR copy, so I went to the Website, and sure enough, he had lifted chunks of it from there. He had credited it, but he had also bought into it, hook, line and sinker, as though Anheuser-Busch would be an objective resource on Anheuser-Busch. He also used no other sources that might have balanced the beer company's obviously biased view.
4. First Draft: Have a first draft ready by week 14 of the semester. (Imagine the luxury of having your paper virtually completed two full weeks before it's due and not having to scramble at the last minute.) The first draft of your paper should be fairly close to what you expect to turn in for your final paper and should include your bibliography. At the first-draft stage, you can begin a process of reading over the paper, editing it, and revising it. You could also ask others to read and critique it. Most importantly, you can ask your instructor to read it and provide feedback. Not all will agree to do so, but many will recognize that you are striving to produce the best possible paper and will be happily provide input. If you have a teaching assistant for your class, that person would also be a good audience for your draft. Based on reader feedback, you will know whether you need to do more research, major reorganization, and/or significant rewriting.
5. Final Paper: The final paper should incorporate revisions (especially based on instructor or teaching-assistant comments on draft). The final paper should be ready the last week of the semester. Again, adjust the dates in this article according to your own school's calendar and your assignment's due dates.
Final Thoughts On Using This Research Paper Plan
Is it crazy to essentially turn one assignment into five components? Not if you want to attain an excellent grade on your paper. Even if your instructor does not assign the interim steps described here, you will.
Questions about some of the terminology used in this article? Get more information (definitions and links) on key academic terms by going to our College Success Glossary.
Katharine Hansen, Ph.D., is an educator, author, and blogger who provides content for EmpoweringSites.com, including MyCollegeSuccessStory.com. Katharine, who earned her PhD in organizational behavior from Union Institute & University, Cincinnati, OH, is author of Dynamic Cover Letters for New Graduates and A Foot in the Door: Networking Your Way into the Hidden Job Market (both published by Ten Speed Press), as well as Top Notch Executive Resumes (Career Press); and with Randall S. Hansen, Ph.D., Dynamic Cover Letters, Write Your Way to a Higher GPA (Ten Speed), and The Complete Idiot's Guide to Study Skills (Alpha). She curates, crafts, and delivers compelling content online, in print, on stage, and in the classroom. Visit her personal Website KatharineHansenPhD.com or reach her by e-mail at kathy(at)astoriedcareer.com. Check out Dr. Hansen on GooglePlus.