The Research Paper: 10 Steps to Writing One

Putting together a research paper is the culmination of a student’s previous experience: skills, interests, and writing background. Writing a research paper can appear daunting, but it doesn’t have to be. Just tackle it one step at a time. Here is how to guide your older student through writing a research paper.

What is a Research Paper?

Before beginning, it is important to understand what a research paper really is and what it is not. Frequently, research papers end up being a regurgitation of the opinions of others, or a compilation of resources.

Instead, a good research paper reflects the opinion and analytical perspective of the author — backed up by qualified resources. It shows a level of critical thinking; first by analyzing the topic, then evaluating the topic, before finally creating the research paper.

10-Step Guide to Writing a Research Paper

1. Select a Topic

First, the writer needs to pick a topic. If you have already been encouraged to focus on your interests, this should be a piece of cake. If not, the process may require a bit of thought.

While it is possible to write a research paper on a topic of interest that is new to you, it is not the easiest path. It is typically better to encourage research paper writers to tackle something they already know something about. Why? We have to have an input before we can have an output. Hopefully, something has already been percolating in the brain just waiting for a spark to ignite.

For that reason, think back to previous areas of study. Is there anything in a unit, a scientific experiment, a previous writing assignment that was interesting enough to pursue as a research topic?

How about books that have recently been read. History? Biographies? Any trains of thought to follow up on?

Is there an interest in art or music? How about geography or traveling?

Since you will spend a considerable amount of time delving into the topic, you are going to want to choose something you will enjoy.

2. Gather Information

Once the topic has been selected it is time to begin gathering more information. Encyclopedias or other general resources can sometimes provide enough information at first to steer you in the right direction.

There is a back-and-forth process that is going to begin at this point. You have not yet narrowed the topic, nor decided on a thesis. For that reason, expect to go from gathering information, to narrowing the topic, back to gathering information, and so forth until you have settled on a topic narrow enough to develop into a thesis.

For this reason, it is important to realize that you will likely be revisiting this information as you narrow the topic and begin the process of developing and supporting your thesis. This first blush through is to enlarge your understanding, learn what information already exists on the topic, find out what views others have already expressed on the topic, and get a general sense of direction.

Be sure to note any references you would like to either pursue further or that you think may come in handy later.

Great places for pursuing more information include online research avenues and the library.

3. Narrow the Topic

Once the general topic has been selected, it is time to narrow the topic down to something specific enough to pull out details and construct an argument or point of view. This is the evaluating stage of critical thinking, the point at which the author will:

  • Defend.
  • Choose.
  • Justify.
  • Support.
  • Select.
  • Revise.
  • Decide.
  • Recommend.

What is the topic? Why is it significant? Is there an issue to defend? Is there a position that can be recommended to others?

4. Choose Sources of Information

With the topic narrowed, it is now time to find quality sources of information to support your view. This view hasn’t been stated yet, but you likely have a preliminary idea of what your thesis will be.

While online research is easy and very appropriate for unearthing general information, not all online resources will be suitable as sources to cite in support your position.

Believe it or not the library is probably still one of the best resources for finding quality information. Besides the obvious magazines, newspapers, and books, the library will have scholarly online research databases that can be accessed.

In each case, checking out the bibliography of the sources will provide more qualified leads to more qualified information.

5. Take Notes

Make a note of each source, the pages used, and a brief summary of the content or point of interest contained in the source.

Naturally, you are going to want to record full bibliographic content to correctly cite the source later.

Our favorite tools for this are EndNote (very pricey, but very much worth the cost if you will be using it frequently) or the free Zotero.

Since we have covered note-taking in another installment we’ll send you over there for more information on how to correctly take notes.

6. Develop Your Thesis Statement

With all of this information, you will undoubtedly have considered a statement that fits your purpose. Now is the time to write it down.

Be careful to provide a thesis statement rather than a summary statement. A thesis statement can be disputed; whereas, a summary statement is considered self-evident.

A thesis statement is a concise statement of purpose that reflects the point of the research paper. If you had one chance to state your point, the thesis statement would contain enough information presented in a logical and concise way that no further information would be necessary to understand the point.

A research paper reflects the writer’s view. As such, the thesis statement typically pulls no punches. You are not soft-pedaling an opinion here, but rather stating one straight out, and then offering arguments in support of your opinion.

Therefore, the thesis statement should be very direct.

7. Write an Outline

At this point, the outline typically flows from the thesis statement and the prior research you have conducted. A simple outline is fine for a research paper and usually the most appropriate.

For example, if your thesis is:

People who read physical books learn more, comprehend more, and remember more, than people who read primarily digital sources.

then the obvious points to follow will include an introduction fleshing out the thesis, and the research that supports the claim, followed by a conclusion.

We have covered how to create a good outline in another installment, so head over there for more information.

8. Write the Summary

The introduction or summary will be the first paragraph of your research paper. It summarizes the entire paper and fleshes out the thesis.

The summary includes the following information:

  • The context or problem.
  • The importance of your conclusion(s).
  • The structure your arguments will take.

9. Flesh Out the Outline

Here is where the real writing happens. Integrate your sources into the document in the appropriate places to support your points.

Also be sure to include footnotes. This task is made much easier when using EndNote or Zotero, as mentioned previously.

10. Write the Conclusion

The conclusion is really foregone. After all, the point was made clear in the thesis. So now is the time to restate the thesis pulling on the supporting evidence as laid out in the body of your paper.

If there is a role for the reader to play or an action that you would like the reader to take, you can state that in your conclusion.

The Research Paper Style

There are two styles of formatting a research paper: APA and MLA. Typically, the person assigning the paper determines which style to use. We have included guides to both below.

Additional Resources

Writing a Research Paper
Simple plan and outline from the University of Wisconsin.

Finding Sources
Comprehensive list and suggestions from SUNY Empire State College.

Sample Research Paper
Annotated example from TheWriteSource for reference.

Formatting a Research Paper
The MLA style.

The APA Sample Paper
The APA style.

Enjoy the complete series:
14 Forms of Writing for the Older Student: Complete Series
14 Forms of Writing for the Older Student

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