Ten Ways to Write a Better Research Paper

Bland title, I know, but for the past few days my life has been research, writing and then everything else (while worrying about research and writing). I skipped going to the gym today, for the first time since Sunday (go me!) and did a crazy at-home Buzzfeed workout for 30 minutes, and a shower and protein drink later I’m still dizzy and sweating, so excuse me if something in this post is misspelled or doesn’t make sense.

I’m currently at the end of my eighth (!) year as a college student (with two degrees so far to show for it, thankyouverymuch), and though I’ve had my fair share of frantic moments, freak-outs, and failures, I’ve managed to get this far without any horribly bad research papers, and I don’t think I’ve had any late ones either, at least not that I’m aware of. I have also never pulled an all-nighter (yet), not even when I was writing my master’s thesis, although I did spend a solid 8 hours one Sunday in same spot, writing for the bulk of it. So I’d like to think I’m onto something here. Now, here’s my top 10 ways to write a better research paper.

1. Be realistic. Pick a topic that’s not too broad or too general, and don’t bite off more than you can chew. Be bold, but always come back to the facts as best you can. Also, be realistic about goals. Some people can write a 20 page paper in 5 hours, and while it’s possible, I am not one of those people. I’d need at least 8.

2. Set time limits. Write for an hour, solid, then break. If that seems too intimidating, set a timer for an hour and during that time, even if you’re just rereading the same sentence or staring at your computer screen or end up with seven words, if you’ve done it with no distractions or breaks, congrats.

3. And your point is? Not you, necessarily, but your sources. Make sure you know what they are saying, that you’re not saying the exact same thing (or if you are, add something new to it), if you agree or disagree, and if it’s relevant to your overall point. Abstracts are very helpful when looking at articles, as are tables of contents and chapter numbers in books. Use them. If a source is not making sense anymore or is repeating themselves or is quoting other sources you’ve already used, just stop right there and move on to the net one.

4. Notes, notes, notes. Post-it notes are my best friends, especially color-coated ones; I put them on the first line of every paragraph in every book I want to quote. For my Indian theatre paper, I used yellow post-its, and for my Brecht paper, I used pink ones. Also, it’s so, so satisfying when you go back to those notes, say “I am done with you!” then take out the flag and throw it away, or keep it in the reuse pile if it’s still sticky enough.

5. Notes, notes, notes, part II. Here’s one way to take notes: Open a blank document and put the full bibliographic information at the top. Then write the current page number on the next line, then on the line underneath, write all the notes you found on that page. If there’s a thought that overlaps two pages, put it beneath the ones from the previous page, then continue with the next page’s notes. As far as copying the info itself, I’d suggest either a) paraphrasing everything, so that when you go back to write it, you’ll probably paraphrase that, making it doubly separated from the material, or b) quote everything, so you can return the books to the library knowing that you’ll have to change your notes because they are directly from the source. I have been known to mix these techniques, especially when there’s a block quote I want to use. I usually indicate that by rewriting the author’s name and page number, or simply putting it in block quote format so I can just copy and paste it.

A made-up example:

Featherstone, Darcy M. “Postmodern implications of the munglewung: a study.” The British Journal of Obscurities 24.1 (Fall 2011): 13-36. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. Web. 14 May 2015.


the munglewung in prewar Europe had little effect on the proletariat

it gained in relevance after the first World War


World War II caused the munglewung to fade into obscurity


“If the Church of England would have had its way, the munglewung would not have metastasized to the level it did in 1950s Europe. It was commonly seen in Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg, but the French wanted no part in it. As history relates, the British got their way, although at a price: the barriers created by this discrepancy would prove difficult to overcome, especially in light of the rapid mobilization of the Russians” (Featherstone 18)

6. Biblio as you go. Citations are a good way to fill some time when you’re trying to think of the right words, and it will save you time at the end to already have your Works Cited ready to go, so you can spend that extra time making up an introduction.

7. Subheadings are your friends. First, they add a line to your page count, so there’s that. Second, they help you organize your thoughts and contribute to easier transitions between distant ideas. Third, no one will mark you down for attempting to organize your thoughts better or make your reader’s life easier.

8. When you get overwhelmed? Don’t jump ship. Separate things out, declare some parts finished, and make sure all the parts are decently fleshed out. Then, if you see a discrepancy, fix it. Sometimes you just need to end it, somewhere, before you drown in a sea of hyperbole. I’ve done that enough times to know that.

9. Don’t compare your progress to others’ progress. You are beautiful and wonderful, and if you’re behind someone else, you’re no less of a person. If you’re ahead of them, don’t gloat too much or rest on your laurels.

10. Have fun. If you’re not excited about it, why should your reader be?

But most of all, just go for it. Once you turn it in, you’ll forget about it in about 60 seconds and return to your regularly scheduled worrying.


12 thoughts on “Ten Ways to Write a Better Research Paper

  1. I LOVE research papers. Like I get overly excited about them. I agree about putting citations with your notes as you go along, although I use Evernote (one note per source).

      • I get so excited about the papers that I don’t procrastinate, so the deadlines aren’t often a problem. You should try Evernote–worst case scenario, you don’t like it and you uninstall.

    • I absolutely, unequivocally hate writing centers. Great if you’re an undergrad, but as Ph.D. student, it’s a waste, especially if they have no clue what you’re writing about. Last semester I was required to submit a first draft to an undergrad writing fellow, who said that my paper was “too long and confusing, needs to be trimmed” and a few other things that showed that she had no clue what I was writing about, including not knowing who Peggy Phelan and Walter Benjamin were, when I mentioned them (both are pretty common buzz-names in academia). The only substantial information I got from her was “a forgotten Oxford comma,” which is kinda like, screw you. But yes, turning them in makes you feel so free 🙂

  2. I love your tips! I have three months before my final year officially starts and I’m here freaking out during my last 2 weeks in Bogota because I have no idea what I’m going to do my thesis on. I feel like I’m over-reacting but I’m going to keep these in mind once I get back home and get down to business!

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