How to write a research paper in 10 easy steps

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Here are some suggestions on how to write a research paper in 10 steps:

MANY students and researchers ask this question how to write a research paper. So, here we include some steps to help you in your writing. These steps are listed as follows:

1. Choose a topic

2. Choose a research question

3. Create a thesis statement

4. Research your topic

5. Evaluate your sources

6. Take notes on sources

7. Create an outline

8. Write a draft

9. Edit the draft

10. Finalize your paper

Before we get started with the detailed explanations of these steps about how to write a research paper, let’s give you the links of two must attend courses to improve your scientific writing 1) Effective Writing course ( 2) Scientific Writing course (


The first thing you need to do regarding how to write a research paper is to choose a paper topic. Maybe you have been assigned a certain topic already–then you can skip this section. But if you need to come up with your own topic, then choose something that interests you. It’s a lot easier to write a research paper on something that is interesting–otherwise it will be boring and you won’t have a lot of motivation to write a good paper.

If you need help choosing a topic, then try these ideas:

  • Go to a university library and visit the section where the books in your subject are located. For example, if you are in an Anthropology class, go to the section of the library where the Anthropology-related books are. (If you need help finding the right section, just ask the librarian.) Browse the books for a couple of hours, and see if you find anything interesting.
  • Browse through an introductory textbook on your subject. Typically, each chapter in an introductory textbook is about a different topic—for example, in an Anthropology textbook, there’ll probably be a chapter on economics, a chapter on gender, a chapter on families and kinship, and so on. See if a certain topic interests you.
  • At your university library, browse through a specialized encyclopedia about your subject. For example, if you are in an Anthropology class, then browse through an Anthropology-related encyclopedia. (Ask your librarian where to find a specialized encyclopedia on your subject.) See if any of the topics in the encyclopedia are interesting.
  • Browse the Oxford Bibliographies website for ideas (you can browse by subject). Go to this website: Oxford Bibliographies – Your Best Research Starts Here – obo


Now that you have determined a topic to write about, you need to figure out what aspect of the topic you want to focus on. For example, say you want to research influenza. Are you interested in influenza in a certain country? A certain city? Are you considering all ages or just children? Or maybe the elderly? And what specifically about influenza are you interested in— how people decide to go to the doctor for treatment, or how people avoid the flu, if people get their flu shot, or what? There are so many things that fall under the topic of influenza. You need to narrow the topic down even further.

One way to narrow down a topic is to consider it from different angles. For example, you can narrow a topic chronologically (by time) or geographically (by place). Using our influenza example, you could narrow it to a certain time frame, like the last flu season. Or you could narrow the topic by place, and only look at influenza in a certain city or country. Try to narrow down your topic into a more specific one.

Once you have narrowed your topic down, write what you want to find out about your topic in the form of a question. This is your research question.

You need to make sure that your research question is not too big or too narrow. An example of a research question that is too big is: “What can we do to decrease the number of influenza infections around the world?” There is way too much involved in this question for a small research paper.

An example of a research question that is too small is: “How many people were infected with influenza in Seattle, Washington (USA) during the last flu season?” This question is easily answered by a simple number, so you can’t write a whole paper about it.

Here are some examples of common types of research questions (taken directly from Developing Strong Research Questions | Criteria and Examples):

  • What are the characteristics of X?
  • What are the similarities between X and Y?
  • What is the relationship between X and Y?
  • What are the main factors in X?
  • What is the role of Y in Z?
  • Does X have an effect on Y?
  • What is the impact of Y on Z?
  • What are the causes of X?
  • What are the advantages and disadvantages of X?
  • How well does Y work?
  • How effective is Z?
  • How can X be achieved?
  • What are the most effective strategies to improve Y?


In college, you shouldn’t just be summarizing what you read for a research paper (unless that’s the instructions that your professor gave you). You need to make some kind of point, backed up by your research. The main point of your research paper is called the thesis statement. It is the answer to your research question. A thesis statement should be one or two sentences long.

For more information on writing thesis statements, check out the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s website: Writers Workshop: Writer Resources and Indiana University at Bloomington’s website: How to Write a Thesis Statement.

Also, try Ashford University’s Thesis Generator at this website: Thesis Generator


Now that you know what your paper is going to be about, you can start researching your topic.

The first thing to do is to make a list of keywords relating to your research topic. Think about everything that you know about your topic and come up with a list of keywords to use in researching. For example, say you are doing a project on influenza. You may want to search for the term “flu” along with the medical term “influenza.” For each word on your list of keywords, try to come up with another word that means the same thing (a synonym) and add that to your list of keywords. For example, if one of your keywords is “flu shot,” make sure you also add “influenza vaccine,” because these are different words that mean the same thing.

The next thing to do is take your list of keywords and start doing some library research. You need to be looking for journal articles that match your research topic. You’ll need access to a database of journal articles—ask your librarian if you don’t know how to find these kinds of databases in your library. Some examples of article databases are JSTOR and ProQuest, but there are many, many more! Then, start putting your keywords into the database’s search engine and see what you find.

But don’t stop there—for each journal article that you find, also check the list of references at the end. The reference list contains the titles of sources that the article’s author used in doing their own background research.

So, browse through the list and look for anything that might be related to your own research, and then look up those articles, too. And then check the list of references in THOSE articles for anything that is related to your own research as well. And look up those articles, and so on and so on.

Besides searching academic databases, you can also search the internet for information. For example, you can use your keywords to search in Google Scholar, which will bring up reputable sources of information. Just go to Another great place to find research articles is ERIC, which stands for Education Resources Information Center. Here is their website: Education Resources Information Center.

In addition, you will want to look for books about your topic. Books may be listed in the reference section of your journal articles. You can also find some by searching your university library’s catalog. You can search the internet, too. A great website to search for books is WorldCat: The World’s Largest Library Catalog

Also, check specialized encyclopedias for information. Many times, there is a list of references after each entry in the encyclopedia. These sources may be helpful for your paper. For example, you can visit the Oxford Bibliographies website I mentioned earlier, at this website: Oxford Bibliographies – Your Best Research Starts Here – obo

As you look at the articles and books you find, you will probably come up with more keywords to search for. Just add them to your list and keep researching!

You’re going to want to have a good system for keeping track of which keywords you have already searched for, and which databases you have already used, which articles and books you have already read, and which articles you have already checked the list of references.

It’s easy to start losing track of things, so I suggest using a notebook or Word document and making a sort of diary, just briefly listing things you did such as “I searched the ABC database using keyword #1,” “I searched the XYZ database for keyword #3,” etc. And make some sort of list of which articles and books are read, and which still need to be read, and a list of things to do, and so forth to stay organized.


Just because you found a source of information doesn’t mean that you should automatically include it in your paper. You need to evaluate each source. Here are a few things to look for:

First, check to see if the source is actually relevant for your research paper. You might have found a great source, but it may not really provide much information on your specific research topic.

If it is relevant, then check the author of the source to see if they are credible. For example, if the source is a peer-reviewed journal article written by someone with a Ph.D. in their field, then that is most likely a trustworthy source. A blog post written by a non-expert might not be a trustworthy source.

Check the publication date to make sure that it’s fairly recent. If you are not sure if a source is too old to use, just ask your professor for guidance.

Skim the article and determine if the information is fact or opinion. Consider if the information seems well-researched, or if there is simply information without evidence to support it.

For more things to look for, check out the University of Southern California’s website: Research Guides: Organizing Your Social Sciences Research Paper: Evaluating Sources

For some great checklists for evaluating sources, check out these websites:


Now that you have found a bunch of sources, you need to read each one and take notes. You’ll want to have a system of recording notes from each source of information. Sometimes these notes are called “source cards” because they used to be written on 3 by 5 index cards. You can use index cards, or a notebook, or a Word document, or a spreadsheet, or a database document—whatever works for you. If you want to use a database, check out Airtable, which is a free database that you can download onto your computer. (see Airtable’s website at: Airtable: Organize anything you can imagine)

Use one index card or one Word page or one database file for each source. List all the bibliographic information for each source on the card or file. For example, if it is a journal article, list the author, article title, journal name, journal issue & page numbers, publication date, URL (if it has one), the date you accessed the URL, and where you found the article (which library, database, etc.)

Here’s an example of what it would look like if you used an index card. You can see how all the bibliographic information is noted on the card.

how to write a research paper

Here’s an example of what the database could look like using Airtable.

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It’s a good idea to put a unique code number on each card or file, so you can refer to the article quickly and easily. I like to use a code number made out of the author’s last name, the date of the article, and the title. I use the first 3 letters of the last name, then the 4 digit date, and then the first 3 letters of the article title. So, in this example article below, the code is KOE2014INF. That way, I can group all the papers under the same author together if I need to. Some people like to just number the cards or files consecutively, and that’s fine, just find a system that works for you.

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Then, it’s time to start taking notes on each source. Use either a new index card or a new page of your notebook or new Word document and assign that card or file a topic. Then, take notes on your first source, using a new card or file for each different topic, and adding the code on the card or file so that you know which source the info came from. Here’s an example using our made-up influenza research project. You could have a notecard with the topic “history of influenza” on the top of it, and all the notes about the history of influenza on it from source #1: (Please note that this card contains made-up information as an example.)

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And then you could have a notecard with the topic “transmission of influenza” on it, and then all the notes about the transmission of influenza from source #1 on it. (Please note that this card contains made-up information as an example.)

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After you are finished taking notes on source #1, repeat the process with source #2. Make a series of notecards or files with different topics, each with notes from source #2. Then continue repeating the process for the rest of your sources.

Another way to take notes on each article is to summarize the article in your own words in a one-page grid. That way you have all the information about an article on just one page. I created a template that you can use for this purpose–an image is below, and you can download it for free from my website: Anthropology Digital Products ~ FREE Downloadables

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Now that you have read and taken notes on all of your sources of information, it is time to create an outline.

First, read through all of your notes, and create a list of all the ideas that you want to put in your paper. Then, put the ideas into categories. You can write the ideas down on notecards and physically group them in different categories. Or, you can open a new Word document file, create category headings, and cut and paste items from your list into the file. So, now you should have a bunch of categories with details (items from the list of ideas) under each.

You can also try organizing all your information into a concept map (also known as a mind map). Just google “free mind mapping software” if you don’t already have an app for that. Put main ideas in separate “bubbles” and connect them to “bubbles” containing each supporting point. Below is an example of a mind map, showing the 4 fields of Anthropology, and some of the subfields within each field.

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Using the groups of notecards, Word file with categories and details, and/or the mind map, create an outline. Your first section of the outline should be the introduction, and the last section should be the conclusion. In the middle is the body of the paper. This is where you will list your main points (the categories). Then, under each main point, list your supporting points (the ideas in each category).

Here’s an example of an outline based on the mind map above:

1. Introduction

1. Interesting opening

2. Thesis statement

2. Cultural Anthropology

1. Legal Anthropology

2. Business Anthropology

3. Environmental Anthropology

4. etc.

3. Physical Anthropology

1. Osteology

2. Paleopathology

3. Forensic Anthropology

4. etc.

4. Archaeology

1. Geoarchaeology

2. Underwater Archaeology

3. Experimental Archaeology

4. etc.

5. Linguistic Anthropology

1. Descriptive Linguistics

2. Ethnolinguistics

3. Sociolinguistics

4. etc.

6. Conclusion

1. Summary

2. Thesis Statement

For more information on creating an outline, check out this website: How to Create a Structured Research Paper Outline (with example)


Write a first draft, based on your outline. Don’t worry too much about making everything perfect–it’s just a rough draft.

As I mentioned previously, your paper should have an introduction, a body, and a conclusion.

In the introduction, you introduce the topic you are researching, in a paragraph or two. Try to get your reader’s attention in the introduction. Some ways to do this are by providing a quotation, anecdote, interesting fact, or surprising statistic. Also, explain any background information the reader needs to know. Then, introduce your main point–your thesis statement– which is usually placed at the end of the introductory paragraph.

In the body, you explain or prove your thesis statement. This part will be several paragraphs long. Each supporting point you make should have its own paragraph, where you expand on the point and give evidence or examples.

For each supporting point you make, you should have a few sources to back up what you are saying. Make sure that you are giving your sources credit for their ideas. You need to cite your sources in the text of the paper, not just in a bibliography page at the end. Use whatever citation style your professor or discipline requires. Check out the Purdue Online Writing Lab for information on different styles: Research and Citation Resources // Purdue Writing Lab

It’s also a good idea to put in a few direct quotes to help illustrate your points as well–just be sure to cite the sources correctly. Check out this website for more information on using quotes: Working with Quotations

Also, make sure to link one paragraph to the next with transition words, such as “also,” “in addition,” “however,” “as a result,” “finally,” etc.

In the conclusion, you summarize everything and restate your thesis statement, all in about one paragraph. You can also explain why your thesis statement matters, and/or what the bigger implications are.

On the final page(s) is the references (or bibliography). This is where you list all the sources that you used in the paper. Follow your instructor’s requirements for this section of the paper–they may want the references in APA style, MLA style, Chicago style, or something else.

When the first draft is finished, take a break and do something else for a while. This break can be a few hours or a day or two or longer–everyone does something different. Then, you can go back to your draft and look at it again through fresh eyes, and revise it.


Read through your paper and ask yourself if everything makes sense. Check to see if the flow of one paragraph to the next is logical. Consider if your main point is well supported by your supporting points. Try reading your paper out loud to see how it sounds.

Look carefully for errors in spelling or punctuation. It’s also a good idea to run your draft through a grammar check, too–try Grammarly’s free version: Write your best with Grammarly.

Double-check that all sources have been cited appropriately in the text (otherwise, you may be accused of plagiarism!). Also, double-check your list of references for errors as well.


After you have made all the edits to your paper, once again take a break. After your break, take yet another look at your paper. Read it over again, looking for any last-minute errors, writing that doesn’t make sense, etc. Read it out loud again as well, to make sure everything flows as you want it to. Make any last-minute edits. Then, your paper is finished!

Make sure to create a backup copy of your paper, and email a copy to yourself as well. That way, if anything happens to your original copy, you have a backup. Or, if you forget to take your printed-out paper to class, you can print another copy at the last minute on campus with the copy in your email. Turn in your assignment and congratulate yourself on completing the research paper!

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