The main goal of a research paper is to investigate a particular issue and provide new perspectives or solutions. The writer uses their own original research and/or evaluation of others' research to present a unique, sound, and convincing argument.
Although the final version of a research paper should be well-organized, logical, and clear, the path to writing one is not a straight line. It involves research, critical thinking, source evaluation, organization, and writing. These stages are not linear; instead, the writer weaves back and forth, and the paper's focus and argument grows and changes throughout the process.
Click on the Timeline for a visual representation of the timeline. Click on the Checklist for a document containing the checklist items for a research essay.
Your stepsClick on the steps to expand or collapse.Expand All Steps (+)
Step 1: Getting Started
A: Understand your assignment 1%
Determine exactly what the assignment is asking you to do. Read the assignment carefully to determine the topic, purpose, audience, format, and length. For more information, see the Writing and Communication Centre's resource Understanding your assignment.
B: Conduct preliminary research 3%
Do some general reading about your topic to figure out:
- what are the current issues in your subject area?
- is there enough information for you to proceed?
See the Library's resource Conduct preliminary research.
C: Narrow your topic 3%
Use traditional journalistic questions (who, what, where, when, why) to focus on a specific aspect of your topic. It will make your paper more manageable, and you will be more likely to succeed in writing something with depth. Read more about Developing and narrowing a research topic.
D: Develop a research question 3%
A research question guides your research. It provides boundaries, so that when you gather resources you focus only on information that helps to answer your question. See the Writing and Communication Centre's resource Develop a research question.
Step 2: Research
A: Design your research strategy 5%
List the types of literature that may contain useful information for your topic, and isolate the main concepts. Use these concepts to build a list of relevant/useful search terms. For more information, see the library's resource on Designing your research strategy.
This Research strategy worksheet can help you organize your research strategy.
B: Find and evaluate sources 10%
Not all sources are equally useful. The content of sources you choose must be relevant and current, and you need to make sure you're using academically valid sources such as peer-reviewed journal articles and books. See the Library's resource on Evaluating your search results critically and the RADAR Evaluation Method.
C: Conduct research 20%
Gather your information and keep careful track of your sources as you go along. See the Library's resource Conducting research and taking notes.
Step 3: Organizing your essay
A: Move from research to writing: how to think 8%
This critical step involves using the information you've gathered to form your own ideas. This resource can help you get the most out of what you're reading: Reading and listening critically.
You've read a good deal of information and now you have to analyze and synthesize it into something new and worth writing about. See How to think: move from research to writing for the kind of questions that can guide you through this process.
B: Develop a thesis statement 3%
A strong thesis statement is the cornerstone of a good research essay. Your thesis needs to be clean, concise, focused, and supportable. In most cases, it should also be debatable.
C: Outline the structure of your paper 4%
Organize your ideas and information into topics and subtopics. Outline the order in which you will write about the topics. For more information on how create a good outline, see Two ways to create an outline: graphic and linear.
Step 4: Writing the first draft
Time to get writing! A first draft is a preliminary attempt to get ideas down on paper. It's okay if your ideas aren't completely formed yet. Let go of perfection and write quickly. You can revise later.
For additional help, check out the Writing and Communication Centre's resource on Writing a first draft.
Step 5: Revising and proofreading
A: Evaluate your first draft and conduct additional research as needed 10%
Determine if there are any gaps in your draft. Do you have enough evidence to support your arguments? If you don't, you should conduct further research.
B: Revise your draft 5%
Print out your paper and work from a hard copy. Read it carefully and look for higher order problems first, such as organization, structure, and argument development. For more help with these higher order issues, check out the tips for revision.
C: Evaluate your second draft and rewrite as needed 5%
Narrow your focus to paragraph-level issues such as evidence, analysis, flow, and transitions. To improve your flow and transitions, see the Writing and Communication Centre's resource on transitions and connectives.
D: Proofread and put your paper into its final format 5%
Last step! Read carefully to catch all those small errors. Here are some tips on proofreading strategies. Also take time to make sure your paper adheres to the conventions of the style guide you're using. Think about titles, margins, page numbers, reference lists, and citations.
The University of Waterloo's Writing and Communication Centre has a number of resources that can help you in revising and proofreading.
Tips for writing: