Co-authored by Renae Hintze
It’s a beautiful sunny day, you had a big delicious breakfast, and you show up bright-eyed and bushy-tailed for your first class of the day. Just as you’re getting comfortable in your chair, your teacher hits you with it:
A 5-page, size 12 font research paper… due in 2 weeks.
The sky goes black, your breakfast turns to a brick in your stomach. A research paper? FIVE pages long? Why???
Maybe I’m being a little over-dramatic here. But not all of us are born gifted writers. In fact, I think it’s safe to say that most of us struggle a little or a lot with writing a research paper.
But fear not!! I can help you through it. If you follow these 11 steps I promise you will write a better essay, faster.
1. Start early
We all do it. We wait until the LAST day to start an assignment, and then something goes wrong at the LAST minute, and Woops! We get a bad grade.
ALWAYS start your essays early. This is what I recommend. Especially since writing a research paper requires more effort than a regular paper might.
I have a 3-week timeline you can follow when writing a research paper. YES, 3 weeks!! It may sound like waaay too early to start, but it gives you enough time to:
- Outline and write your paper
- Check for errors
- Get pointers from your teacher on what to improve
All of this = a better grade on your assignment. You’re already going through all the effort — why not be positive that you’ll get the best results??
2. Read the Guidelines
Ever taken a shirt out of the dryer to find it has shrunk 10 sizes too small?
It’s because the shirt probably wasn’t meant to go in the dryer, and if you had read the tag, you’d have saved yourself one whole article of clothing!
Before you even START on writing a research paper, READ THE GUIDELINES.
- What is your teacher looking for in your essay?
- Are there any specific things you need to include?
This way, you don’t have to finish your essay only to find that it needs to be re-done!
3. Brainstorm research paper topics
Sometimes we’re assigned essays where we know exactly what we want to write about before we start.
Write an essay on my favorite place to travel?? I know where I’M going to choose!
But there are probably more times where we DON’T know exactly what we want to write about, and we may even experience writer’s block.
To overcome that writer’s block, or simply avoid it happening in the first place, we can use a skill called mind-mapping (or brainstorming) to come up with a topic that is relevant and that we’re interested in writing about!
Here’s an example of a mind-map I just did for Influential People!
By writing whatever came to my mind and connecting those thoughts, I was able to come up with quite a few influential people to write about — I could come up with EVEN MORE if I kept writing!!
See here I can choose to write about Hillary Clinton and how she may have an influence on women and women’s rights in society.
Following this method, you can determine your own research paper topics to write about in a way that’s quick and painless.
4. Write out your questions
To get the BEST research, you have to ask questions. Questions on questions on questions. The idea is that you get to the root of whatever you are talking about so you can write a quality essay on it.
Let’s say you have the question: “How do I write a research paper?”
Can you answer this without more information?
Not so easy, right? That’s because when you “write a research paper”, you do a lot of smaller things that ADD UP to “writing a research paper”.
Break your questions down. Ask until you can’t ask anymore, or until it’s no longer relevant to your topic. This is how you can achieve quality research.
5. Do the research
It IS a research paper, after all. But you don’t want to just type all your questions into Google and pick the first source you see. Not every piece of information on the internet is true, or accurate.
Here’s a way you can easily check your sources for credibility: Look for the who, what, and when.
- Who is the author of the source?
- What are they known for?
- Do they have a background in the subject they wrote about?
- Does the author reference other sources?
- Are those sources credible too?
- What does the “Main” or “Home” page of a website look like?
- Is it professional looking?
- Is there an organization sponsoring the information, and do they seem legitimate
- Do they specialize in the subject?
- When was the source generated — today, last week, a month, a year ago?
- Has there been new or additional information provided since this information was published?
Double-check all your sources this way. Because this is a research paper, your writing is meaningless without other sources to back it up.
Keep track of your credible sources!
When you find useful information from a credible source, DON’T LET IT GO. You need to save the original place you found that information from so that you can cite it in your essay, and later on in the bibliography.
You don’t want to have to go back later and dig up the information a second time just to list the source you got it from!
To help with this, you may be familiar with the option to “Bookmark” your pages online — do this for online sources.
There IS another tool you can use to keep track of your sources. It’s called Diigo, and it’s what we use at Student-Tutor to build an online database of valuable educational resources!
You can create a Diigo account and one free group for your links. Check out this video on how to use Diigo to save all your sources in one convenient location.
Now, of course there are other ways besides the Internet to get information, and there’s nothing wrong with cracking open a well-written book to enrich your essay’s content!
Ways to get information when writing a research paper
- The Internet
6. Create a Thesis Statement
How to write a thesis statement is something that a lot of people overlook. That’s a mistake.
The thesis statement is part of your research paper outline but deserves its own step. That’s because the thesis statement is SUPER important! It is what sets the stage for the entire essay.
How do you write a thesis statement?
Here’s a color-coded example:
7. Create an outline
Once you have constructed your thesis, the rest of the outline is pretty simple. It should mimic the structure of your thesis!
Here’s a color-coded research paper outline you can follow:
8. Write your research paper
Here it is — the dreaded writing. But see how far we’ve already come?
We already know what we’re going to write about, and where we’re going to write it. That’s a lot easier than taking a pen straight to your paper and hoping for some magical, monk-like inspiration to come, am I right?
As you write, be sure to pin-point the places where you are inserting sources. I’ll talk about in-text citations in just a moment!
Here are some basic tips for writing your essay from International Student:
- Generally, don’t use “I/My” unless it’s a personal narrative
- Use specific examples to support your statements
- Vary your language — don’t use the same adjective 5 times in a row
9. Cite your sources
This goes along with the second step — make sure to check your essay guidelines and find out BEFOREHAND what kind of citation style your teacher wants you to use.
Like I promised earlier, Purdue University has a great article that provides instructions on and examples on how to cite different types of sources WITHIN your text. Reference this when you’re not sure what to do.
As a general rule of thumb, in-text citations usually go AFTER the sentence drawing from the source, but BEFORE the period of that sentence, in parentheses. If more than one sentence is referencing the same source, try to place it at the last of those sentences.
However, no matter what you cite INSIDE your writing, all the sources you use for the paper need to be included in your bibliography.
This goes on a separate page, after your main essay and may be titled “Works Cited” or “Bibliography”. (Make sure to check the guidelines, and ask your teacher!)
For this, I’m going to introduce you to an awesome, totally free citation tool called EasyBib.
Important Tip: Make sure that when you use EasyBib, you are filling in a template provided by EasyBib and NOT asking EasyBib to pull information directly from the source. EasyBib can’t always find information that is there, and your citation will be incomplete without it!
By selecting “Manual Cite”, EasyBib will provide you with a template for filling in the necessary information to create your citation.
You can then ask EasyBib to generate the source in the citation format you’ve selected. Copy and paste that source into your bibliography — easy!
10. Read your essay
Why do I need to read my essay if I wrote it?
You’d be surprised what you’ll catch the second, third, and bazillionth time around reading your own writing! Not that you have to read THIS a bazillion times… just once or twice over will do.
I recommend that you read your essay once-through, and the second time read it aloud. Reading your essay aloud reinforces your words and makes it easier to recognize when something is phrased strangely, or if you are using a word too often.
11. Have someone else read your essay
Lastly it is always important that someone else besides you read your essay before you submit it.
Find a professional who can give you constructive feedback on how to improve your essay — this may be a tutor or a teacher. It can also be someone who specializes in the subject you are writing about.
The absolute BEST person to review your essay would be the teacher that assigned it to you.
And yes, many teachers WILL read the essay they assigned before it is due and give you pointers on how to make it better. They want you to succeed and they’re the ones grading it — I think it’s safe to say they know what they’re talking about!
For most of us, writing a research paper is no walk in the park. Unfortunately, it’s important that you know how to do it!
Let’s review the steps to make this process as PAINLESS as possible:
- Start early — 3 weeks in advance!
- Read the guidelines
- Mind map/Brainstorm research paper topics
- Write out your questions
- Do the research (Remember to keep track of your sources!)
- Create a Thesis Statement
- Create an outline
- Write your essay
- Cite your sources (In-text and in your bibliography)
- Read your essay (twice and once aloud!)
- Have someone ELSE read your essay — try your teacher first.
Do you have experience writing a research paper? What process did you use, and was it effective? Tell us about it in the comments below!
Hello! My name is Todd. I help students eliminate academic stress, boost confidence, and reach their wildest dreams through college tips and digital age knowledge they are not teaching in school. I am a former tutor for seven years, $85,000 scholarship recipient, Huffington Post contributor, lead SAT & ACT course developer, and have worked with thousands of students and parents to ensure a brighter future for the next generation. Currently, I am traveling across America delivering presentations, rock climbing, adventuring, and helping inspire the leaders of tomorrow. Let's become friends! Follow my journey via my YouTube Vlog for inspirational value added tips!
In this article we’ll show you how to use mind maps for essay writing. Mind maps can not only make this often dreadful task a whole lot easier, but also save you a huge amount of time. If you want to learn how this simple yet effective technique works, just follow the steps as outlined below.
What Is a Mind Map?
A mind map is a diagram that displays information visually. You can create mind maps using pen and paper, or you can use an online mind mapping tool such as MindMeister. Whatever you use, the rules for creating a mind map are simple:
1) Write the subject in the center of your paper / canvas.
2) Draw branches that point away from the center. Each branch symbolizes one thought or idea related to the subject. Use meaningful keywords to write these ideas onto the branches.
3) From each branch more ideas can branch off.
4) Use colors, icons and images whenever possible. These function as mental triggers and can help spark new ideas in you, which is important during brainstorming sessions.
Now that you know how to create a basic mind map, let’s go over how you can use mind maps for essay writing.
Step 1: Using a Mind Map to Find a Good Topic for Your Essay
If you have the opportunity to choose the topic for your paper yourself, try to find one that’s been covered by other researchers before, but still gives you a chance to come up with new findings and conclusions. If you choose a topic that has already been explored in depth by a gazillion other researchers, you might be hard pressed to develop a unique perspective.
Ideally, the topic should be something you are also personally interested in, or at least something you can relate to in some way. This will make the whole task of writing your essay a little less dreadful. The best way to find such a topic is a brainstorming session.
How to brainstorm topic ideas in a mind map
Create a new mind map and simply write “My Essay” or “My Paper” in the center of the map. Now, start adding ideas around the center. These can be things your professor suggested, related subjects you discussed in class, or anything else relevant to get you started.
Next, note down your own areas of interest and see where they intersect with the former. Once you have a few good ideas for the subject of your paper, you can start weighing them against each other, noting down pros and cons. Eliminate topics until you’re left with only one. This will be the topic of your paper.
In the example below, the only requirement that had been given was to write a paper about literature from the English Renaissance. You’ll see various famous writers of this time mentioned in the map, as well as various aspects of their work that could be examined in a paper, such as the symbolism, dramatic conflicts or themes.
Step 2: Start the Research Process
While working through both primary and secondary sources, it’s quite easy to get confused about the numerous arguments and counterarguments. Many students get frustrated and waste a lot of time just trying to figure out how to make all the different pieces of information fit together into a coherent text.
What you need, therefore, is a system to collect and structure all this information in one central place, so you can easily review the materials while you write.
How to collect research in a mind map
Create a new mind map for each source (book, article, essay) you read and take notes in this mind map while you work through the text. Alternatively, you can use one single map where you list all your sources and create child topics for every page/paragraph/quote you want to use in your paper.
In the map below, you’ll see that – based on our initial brainstorming session – we chose ‘Love in Romeo and Juliet’ as the topic of our paper. For our research map, we wrote this topic in the center and created individual branches for each source we read. Next to the book title, we noted down the topics covered in the source, its central question as well as important passages that we thought we might want to quote in our essay.
Here are some practical tips to set you up for success:
- Use colors, arrows and icons to indicate connections between the arguments and quotes.
- Be sure to add the page numbers to the topics in your map so you can quickly go back to do some more fact checking if necessary. If you’re working with online sources you can also attach their links directly to the topics in your map.
- As you go along, you can restructure the sources according to topics, which usually provides a better overview of the material you have available for each section of your paper.
Here’s another example of a research map. This is the map we used to take notes while reading Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, the subject of our paper. As you can see, we created branches for each of the text passages we wanted to analyze in the essay.
Step 3: Outline Your Paper in a Mind Map
Before you start with the actual writing, it’s very important that you first create an outline of your paper. This will help you create a coherent structure of your arguments, counterarguments, examples, quotes, and the sources you want to reference in each argument.
You can quickly review this outline whenever you get sidetracked in your writing process, or when you’re unsure about how to continue. A mind map is a great format for such an outline because it provides you with a visual overview of your thesis statement and the entire text structure.
If you’re using mind mapping software such as MindMeister, you can also…
- Link the individual topics in your map with the respective research maps you’ve created.
- Add notes and deadlines to each step to make sure your writing stays on schedule.
- Export your finished outline as a Word document and use it as the basis for your paper.
Using mind maps to plan and outline your essay will not only make the writing process a lot easier, it will also enable you to work through sources more efficiently and help you find information more quickly. Of course, you can use mind mapping for all types of writing assignments – from essays to short stories and from book reports to blog posts. Try it out!
See also: The Student’s Guide to Mind Mapping