11 steps to structuring a science paper editors will take seriously
Editor’s note: This 2014 post conveys the advice of a researcher sharing his experience and does not represent Elsevier’s policy. However, in response to your feedback, we worked with him to update this post so it reflects our practices. For example, since it was published, we have worked extensively with researchers to raise visibility of non-English language research – July 10, 2019
Update: In response to your feedback, we have reinstated the original text so you can see how it was revised. – July 11, 2019
How to prepare a manuscript for international journals — Part 2
In this monthly series, Dr. Angel Borja draws on his extensive background as an author, reviewer and editor to give advice on preparing the manuscript (author’s view), the evaluation process (reviewer’s view) and what there is to hate or love in a paper (editor’s view).
This article is the second in the series. The first article was: “Six things to do before writing your manuscript.”
When you organize your manuscript, the first thing to consider is that the order of sections will be very different than the order of items on you checklist.
An article begins with the Title, Abstract and Keywords.
The article text follows the IMRAD format, which responds to the questions below:
- Introduction: What did you/others do? Why did you do it?
- Methods: How did you do it?
- Results: What did you find?
- Discussion: What does it all mean?
The main text is followed by the Conclusion, Acknowledgements, References and Supporting Materials.
While this is the published structure, however, we often use a different order when writing.
Steps to organizing your manuscript
. . . . Finalize the Results and Discussion before writing the introduction. This is because, if the discussion is insufficient, how can you objectively demonstrate the scientific significance of your work in the introduction? . . . .
Next, I’ll review each step in more detail. But before you set out to write a paper, there are two important things you should do that will set the groundwork for the entire process.
- The topic to be studied should be the first issue to be solved. Define your hypothesis and objectives (These will go in the Introduction.)
- Review the literature related to the topic and select some papers (about 30) that can be cited in your paper (These will be listed in the References.)
Finally, keep in mind that each publisher has its own style guidelines and preferences, so always consult the publisher’s Guide for Authors.
Step 1: Prepare the figures and tables
Remember that “a figure is worth a thousand words.” Hence, illustrations, including figures and tables, are the most efficient way to present your results. Your data are the driving force of the paper, so your illustrations are critical!
How do you decide between presenting your data as tables or figures? Generally, tables give the actual experimental results, while figures are often used for comparisons of experimental results with those of previous works, or with calculated/theoretical values (Figure 1).
Whatever your choice is, no illustrations should duplicate the information described elsewhere in the manuscript.
Another important factor: figure and table legends must be self-explanatory (Figure 2).
When presenting your tables and figures, appearances count! To this end:
- Avoid crowded plots (Figure 3), using only three or four data sets per figure; use well-selected scales.
- Think about appropriate axis label size
- Include clear symbols and data sets that are easy to distinguish.
- Never include long boring tables (e.g., chemical compositions of emulsion systems or lists of species and abundances). You can include them as supplementary material.
If you are using photographs, each must have a scale marker, or scale bar, of professional quality in one corner.
In photographs and figures, use color only when necessary when submitting to a print publication. If different line styles can clarify the meaning, never use colors or other thrilling effects or you will be charged with expensive fees. Of course, this does not apply to online journals. For many journals, you can submit duplicate figures: one in color for the online version of the journal and pdfs, and another in black and white for the hardcopy journal (Figure 4).
Another common problem is the misuse of lines and histograms. Lines joining data only can be used when presenting time series or consecutive samples data (e.g., in a transect from coast to offshore in Figure 5). However, when there is no connection between samples or there is not a gradient, you must use histograms (Figure 5).
Sometimes, fonts are too small for the journal. You must take this into account, or they may be illegible to readers (Figure 6).
Finally, you must pay attention to the use of decimals, lines, etc. (Figure 7)
Step 2: Write the Methods
This section responds to the question of how the problem was studied. If your paper is proposing a new method, you need to include detailed information so a knowledgeable reader can reproduce the experiment.
However, do not repeat the details of established methods; use References and Supporting Materials to indicate the previously published procedures. Broad summaries or key references are sufficient.
Reviewers will criticize incomplete or incorrect methods descriptions and may recommend rejection, because this section is critical in the process of reproducing your investigation. In this way, all chemicals must be identified. Do not use proprietary, unidentifiable compounds.
To this end, it’s important to use standard systems for numbers and nomenclature. For example:
- For chemicals, use the conventions of the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry and the official recommendations of the IUPAC–IUB Combined Commission on Biochemical Nomenclature.
- For species, use accepted taxonomical nomenclature (WoRMS: World Register of Marine Species, ERMS: European Register of Marine Species), and write them always in italics.
- For units of measurement, follow the International System of Units (SI).
Present proper control experiments and statistics used, again to make the experiment of investigation repeatable.
List the methods in the same order they will appear in the Results section, in the logical order in which you did the research:
- Description of the site
- Description of the surveys or experiments done, giving information on dates, etc.
- Description of the laboratory methods, including separation or treatment of samples, analytical methods, following the order of waters, sediments and biomonitors. If you have worked with different biodiversity components start from the simplest (i.e. microbes) to the more complex (i.e. mammals)
- Description of the statistical methods used (including confidence levels, etc.)
In this section, avoid adding comments, results, and discussion, which is a common error.
Length of the manuscript
Again, look at the journal’s Guide for Authors, but an ideal length for a manuscript is 25 to 40 pages, double spaced, including essential data only. Here are some general guidelines:
- Title: Short and informative
- Abstract: 1 paragraph (
- Introduction: 1.5-2 pages
- Methods: 2-3 pages
- Results: 6-8 pages
- Discussion: 4-6 pages
- Conclusion: 1 paragraph
- Figures: 6-8 (one per page)
- Tables: 1-3 (one per page)
- References: 20-50 papers (2-4 pages)
Step 3: Write up the Results
This section responds to the question “What have you found?” Hence, only representative results from your research should be presented. The results should be essential for discussion.
However, remember that most journals offer the possibility of adding Supporting Materials, so use them freely for data of secondary importance. In this way, do not attempt to “hide” data in the hope of saving it for a later paper. You may lose evidence to reinforce your conclusion. If data are too abundant, you can use those supplementary materials.
Use sub-headings to keep results of the same type together, which is easier to review and read. Number these sub-sections for the convenience of internal cross-referencing, but always taking into account the publisher’s Guide for Authors.
For the data, decide on a logical order that tells a clear story and makes it and easy to understand. Generally, this will be in the same order as presented in the methods section.
An important issue is that you must not include references in this section; you are presenting your results, so you cannot refer to others here. If you refer to others, is because you are discussing your results, and this must be included in the Discussion section.
- Indicate the statistical tests used with all relevant parameters: e.g., mean and standard deviation (SD): 44% (±3); median and interpercentile range: 7 years (4.5 to 9.5 years).
- Use mean and standard deviation to report normally distributed data.
- Use median and interpercentile range to report skewed data.
- For numbers, use two significant digits unless more precision is necessary (2.08, not 2.07856444).
- Never use percentages for very small samples e.g., “one out of two” should not be replaced by 50%.
Step 4: Write the Discussion
Here you must respond to what the results mean. Probably it is the easiest section to write, but the hardest section to get right. This is because it is the most important section of your article. Here you get the chance to sell your data. Take into account that a huge numbers of manuscripts are rejected because the Discussion is weak.
You need to make the Discussion corresponding to the Results, but do not reiterate the results. Here you need to compare the published results by your colleagues with yours (using some of the references included in the Introduction). Never ignore work in disagreement with yours, in turn, you must confront it and convince the reader that you are correct or better.
Take into account the following tips:
1. Avoid statements that go beyond what the results can support.
2. Avoid unspecific expressions such as “higher temperature”, “at a lower rate”, “highly significant”. Quantitative descriptions are always preferred (35ºC, 0.5%, p
3. Avoid sudden introduction of new terms or ideas; you must present everything in the introduction, to be confronted with your results here.
4. Speculations on possible interpretations are allowed, but these should be rooted in fact, rather than imagination. To achieve good interpretations think about:
- How do these results relate to the original question or objectives outlined in the Introduction section?
- Do the data support your hypothesis?
- Are your results consistent with what other investigators have reported?
- Discuss weaknesses and discrepancies. If your results were unexpected, try to explain why
- Is there another way to interpret your results?
- What further research would be necessary to answer the questions raised by your results?
- Explain what is new without exaggerating
5. Revision of Results and Discussion is not just paper work. You may do further experiments, derivations, or simulations. Sometimes you cannot clarify your idea in words because some critical items have not been studied substantially.
Step 5: Write a clear Conclusion
This section shows how the work advances the field from the present state of knowledge. In some journals, it’s a separate section; in others, it’s the last paragraph of the Discussion section. Whatever the case, without a clear conclusion section, reviewers and readers will find it difficult to judge your work and whether it merits publication in the journal.
A common error in this section is repeating the abstract, or just listing experimental results. Trivial statements of your results are unacceptable in this section.
You should provide a clear scientific justification for your work in this section, and indicate uses and extensions if appropriate. Moreover, you can suggest future experiments and point out those that are underway.
You can propose present global and specific conclusions, in relation to the objectives included in the introduction
Step 6: Write a compelling Introduction
This is your opportunity to convince readers that you clearly know why your work is useful.
A good introduction should answer the following questions:
- What is the problem to be solved?
- Are there any existing solutions?
- Which is the best?
- What is its main limitation?
- What do you hope to achieve?
Editors like to see that you have provided a perspective consistent with the nature of the journal. You need to introduce the main scientific publications on which your work is based, citing a couple of original and important works, including recent review articles.
However, editors hate improper citations of too many references irrelevant to the work, or inappropriate judgments on your own achievements. They will think you have no sense of purpose.
Here are some additional tips for the introduction:
- Never use more words than necessary (be concise and to-the-point). Don’t make this section into a history lesson. Long introductions put readers off.
- We all know that you are keen to present your new data. But do not forget that you need to give the whole picture at first.
- The introduction must be organized from the global to the particular point of view, guiding the readers to your objectives when writing this paper.
- State the purpose of the paper and research strategy adopted to answer the question, but do not mix introduction with results, discussion and conclusion. Always keep them separate to ensure that the manuscript flows logically from one section to the next.
- Hypothesis and objectives must be clearly remarked at the end of the introduction.
- Expressions such as “novel,” “first time,” “first ever,” and “paradigm-changing” are not preferred. Use them sparingly.
Step 7: Write the Abstract
The abstract tells prospective readers what you did and what the important findings in your research were. Together with the title, it’s the advertisement of your article. Make it interesting and easily understood without reading the whole article. Avoid using jargon, uncommon abbreviations and references.
You must be accurate, using the words that convey the precise meaning of your research. The abstract provides a short description of the perspective and purpose of your paper. It gives key results but minimizes experimental details. It is very important to remind that the abstract offers a short description of the interpretation/conclusion in the last sentence.
A clear abstract will strongly influence whether or not your work is further considered.
However, the abstracts must be keep as brief as possible. Just check the ‘Guide for authors’ of the journal, but normally they have less than 250 words. Here’s a good example on a short abstract.
In an abstract, the two whats are essential. Here’s an example from an article I co-authored in Ecological Indicators:
- What has been done? “In recent years, several benthic biotic indices have been proposed to be used as ecological indicators in estuarine and coastal waters. One such indicator, the AMBI (AZTI Marine Biotic Index), was designed to establish the ecological quality of European coasts. The AMBI has been used also for the determination of the ecological quality status within the context of the European Water Framework Directive. In this contribution, 38 different applications including six new case studies (hypoxia processes, sand extraction, oil platform impacts, engineering works, dredging and fish aquaculture) are presented.”
- What are the main findings? “The results show the response of the benthic communities to different disturbance sources in a simple way. Those communities act as ecological indicators of the ‘health’ of the system, indicating clearly the gradient associated with the disturbance.”
Step 8: Compose a concise and descriptive title
The title must explain what the paper is broadly about. It is your first (and probably only) opportunity to attract the reader’s attention. In this way, remember that the first readers are the Editor and the referees. Also, readers are the potential authors who will cite your article, so the first impression is powerful!
We are all flooded by publications, and readers don’t have time to read all scientific production. They must be selective, and this selection often comes from the title.
Reviewers will check whether the title is specific and whether it reflects the content of the manuscript. Editors hate titles that make no sense or fail to represent the subject matter adequately. Hence, keep the title informative and concise (clear, descriptive, and not too long). You must avoid technical jargon and abbreviations, if possible. This is because you need to attract a readership as large as possible. Dedicate some time to think about the title and discuss it with your co-authors.
Here you can see some examples of original titles, and how they were changed after reviews and comments to them:
- Original title: Preliminary observations on the effect of salinity on benthic community distribution within a estuarine system, in the North Sea
- Revised title: Effect of salinity on benthic distribution within the Scheldt estuary (North Sea)
- Comments: Long title distracts readers. Remove all redundancies such as “studies on,” “the nature of,” etc. Never use expressions such as “preliminary.” Be precise.
- Original title: Action of antibiotics on bacteria
- Revised title: Inhibition of growth of Mycobacterium tuberculosis by streptomycin
- Comments: Titles should be specific. Think about “how will I search for this piece of information” when you design the title.
- Original title: Fabrication of carbon/CdS coaxial nanofibers displaying optical and electrical properties via electrospinning carbon
- Revised title: Electrospinning of carbon/CdS coaxial nanofibers with optical and electrical properties
- Comments: “English needs help. The title is nonsense. All materials have properties of all varieties. You could examine my hair for its electrical and optical properties! You MUST be specific. I haven’t read the paper but I suspect there is something special about these properties, otherwise why would you be reporting them?” – the Editor-in-Chief.
Try to avoid this kind of response!
Step 9: Select keywords for indexing
Keywords are used for indexing your paper. They are the label of your manuscript. It is true that now they are less used by journals because you can search the whole text. However, when looking for keywords, avoid words with a broad meaning and words already included in the title.
Some journals require that the keywords are not those from the journal name, because it is implicit that the topic is that. For example, the journal Soil Biology & Biochemistry requires that the word “soil” not be selected as a keyword.
Only abbreviations firmly established in the field are eligible (e.g., TOC, CTD), avoiding those which are not broadly used (e.g., EBA, MMI).
Again, check the Guide for Authors and look at the number of keywords admitted, label, definitions, thesaurus, range, and other special requests.
Step 10: Write the Acknowledgements
Here, you can thank people who have contributed to the manuscript but not to the extent where that would justify authorship. For example, here you can include technical help and assistance with writing and proofreading. Probably, the most important thing is to thank your funding agency or the agency giving you a grant or fellowship.
In the case of European projects, do not forget to include the grant number or reference. Also, some institutes include the number of publications of the organization, e.g., “This is publication number 657 from AZTI-Tecnalia.”
Step 11: Write up the References
Typically, there are more mistakes in the references than in any other part of the manuscript. It is one of the most annoying problems, and causes great headaches among editors. Now, it is easier since to avoid these problem, because there are many available tools.
In the text, you must cite all the scientific publications on which your work is based. But do not over-inflate the manuscript with too many references – it doesn’t make a better manuscript! Avoid excessive self-citations and excessive citations of publications from the same region.
Minimize personal communications, do not include unpublished observations, manuscripts submitted but not yet accepted for publication, publications that are not peer reviewed, grey literature, or articles not published in English.
As I have mentioned, you will find the most authoritative information for each journal’s policy on citations when you consult the journal’s Guide for Authors. In general, you should minimize personal communications, and be mindful as to how you include unpublished observations. These will be necessary for some disciplines, but consider whether they strengthen or weaken your paper. You might also consider articles published on research networks prior to publication, but consider balancing these citations with citations of peer-reviewed research. When citing research in languages other than English, be aware of the possibility that not everyone in the review process will speak the language of the cited paper and that it may be helpful to find a translation where possible.
You can use any software, such as EndNote or Mendeley, to format and include your references in the paper. Most journals have now the possibility to download small files with the format of the references, allowing you to change it automatically. Also, Elsevier’s Your Paper Your Way program waves strict formatting requirements for the initial submission of a manuscript as long as it contains all the essential elements being presented here.
Make the reference list and the in-text citation conform strictly to the style given in the Guide for Authors. Remember that presentation of the references in the correct format is the responsibility of the author, not the editor. Checking the format is normally a large job for the editors. Make their work easier and they will appreciate the effort.
Finally, check the following:
- Spelling of author names
- Year of publications
- Usages of “et al.”
- Whether all references are included
In my next article, I will give tips for writing the manuscript, authorship, and how to write a compelling cover letter. Stay tuned!
References and Acknowledgements
I have based this paper on the materials distributed to the attendees of many courses. It is inspired by many Guides for Authors of Elsevier journals. Some of this information is also featured in Elsevier’s Publishing Connect tutorials. In addition, I have consulted several web pages: https://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/, www.physics.ohio-state.edu/~wilkins/writing/index.html.
I want to acknowledge Dr. Christiane Barranguet, Executive Publisher of Aquatic Sciences at Elsevier, for her continuous support. And I would like to thank Dr. Alison Bert, Editor-in-Chief of Elsevier Connect; without her assistance, this series would have been impossible to complete.
Angel Borja, PhD
Angel Borja, PhD
Dr. Angel Borja is Head of Projects at AZTI-Tecnalia, a research center in the Basque Country in Spain specializing in marine research and food technologies. Formerly he was also Head of the Department of Oceanography and Head of the Marine Management Area. His main topic of investigation is marine ecology, and has published more than 270 contributions, from which 150 are in over 40 peer-reviewed journals, through his long career of 32 years of research. During this time he has investigated in multiple topics and ecosystem components, having an ample and multidisciplinary view of marine research.
How to Write a Research Paper: 10 Steps + Resources
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How to Write a Research Paper
If you’re a college student, you will probably have to write at least one college-level research paper before you graduate. Writing a good research paper can be daunting if you have never done it before. We’re here to help.
This guide walks you through everything you need to do to write an effective, impactful research paper . . . and get the good grade you’re after!
Here are the steps and resources you need to write a strong research paper, as well as a checklist to go over to be sure you wrote a good paper. Research writing can be a challenge, but with a little practice, it can become an important part of your academic and professional toolkit.
The following steps will help you write a research paper, starting with nothing but an assignment or prompt and ending up with a well-crafted essay. The steps are:
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Step 1: Get Familiar with the Assignment
This may sound obvious, but it’s very important to understand what your teacher or professor is asking for before you start writing your research paper. Many students skip this step, and then wonder why they receive a low grade on a paper they worked hard on or were excited about. It’s often because they didn’t read the instructions.
Spend time going over the assignment. Look at everything your instructor has provided you with. Carefully read the writing assignment, prompts, grading rubric, or any other materials you’ve received. It might even be helpful to highlight and take notes on the assignment. Take time to understand exactly what you are being asked to write and how you will be graded on it. And if you aren’t sure, ask! Ask your teacher for clarification before you even pick a topic. That way, you will be sure you are on the right track.
Step 2: Pick a Topic
Once you understand what you’re being asked to write in your research paper, it’s time to decide what to write about. This can be daunting, but don’t get too bent out of shape. It can be very helpful to write about something you’re interested in or passionate about, but don’t worry about choosing the perfect topic. In many cases, a controversial topic can be ideal, so that you can exercise your ability to objectively explain differing positions, and even defend one if the assignment calls for that.
Use the guidelines given by your instructor to help pick your paper topic. If you have a topic that you love, but you’re having trouble fitting it into the guidelines, choose another topic. It will be easier on you in the long run to write about a topic that fits the assignment. It’s important to be engaged in the topic you’re writing about it, but you don’t have to love it. It’s also good to realize that you can use this research writing assignment as an opportunity to learn about something new. You will be somewhat of an expert in the topic by the end of this process, but you don’t have to know everything right now.
Step 3: Research
And now what you have been waiting for — research! This step is pretty flexible; different people will research for a paper in different ways. However, it’s important to stay focused and move pretty quickly. After all, you still have to write your research paper.
Several key things to remember as you research are: 1) skim, 2) find reliable resources, and 3) don’t ignore information.
First off, skimming. You don’t have to read in-full everything ever written about your topic. In fact, you probably can’t. Get comfortable reading through things quickly. Learn how to identify key points and arguments without getting bogged down and reading every word.
Next, find reliable resources. Although this may run contrary to what you’ve been told, you can use Wikipedia to write a research paper. But, you cannot use that as a final source. You can use general sources like Wikipedia to get familiar with a topic, find keywords that can further drive your research, and quickly understand large amounts of information. But, for the information you use in your paper, you have to find reliable resources.
Take what you have learned from a Google search or Wikipedia article and dig deeper. Check out the sources on the article, use keywords from your internet search to search an academic database, or ask an expert whether or not what you learned is valid and if it is, where you can find a reliable source stating the same thing. So, just to be clear: you can use Wikipedia as a starting point in your research, but you should not cite Wikipedia as one of the primary sources for your research paper.
Finally, don’t ignore information. You can find an article that says anything you want it to say. Did researchers recently discover that octopus DNA is made of alien DNA from outer space? Are the spires on the Cinderella Castle at Disney World removable in case of a hurricane? Did a cook attempt to assassinate George Washington by feeding him poisoned tomatoes? You can find articles testifying that all three of the previous claims are true; however, when you dig deeper, it’s clear that they’re not. Just because you find one article stating that something is true, that does not necessarily mean it is a proven fact that you can use in your research.
Work to understand all of the different viewpoints and schools of thought on your topic. This can be done by reading a variety of articles, reading a book or article that gives an overview of the topic and incorporates different points of view, or talking to an expert who can explain the topic in depth.
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Step 4: Organize Your Research
So you have all of this information, now what to do with it? Step four is all about getting organized. Like research, different people have different preferences here. It can also depend on your assignment. Some sort of bibliography (literally “book writing,” this is a list of the books, articles, and other sources you have used in your research) is helpful when it comes to organizing your research.
If your teacher requires you to turn in a bibliography with your research paper (think back to step #1; you ought to already know exactly what the assignment is by now!), create a bibliography that meets the requirements for the paper. If you are just making one just for yourself, think about how you would like to organize your research. It might make sense to bookmark resources on your web browser or make a digital bibliography that allows you to link the resources you found. You might prefer a printed list of your resources or you might want to write down all you have learned that is relevant to your project on notecards or sticky notes and organize your research paper on a table or the floor.
Step 5: Form a Thesis
Now that you understand what you’ve been asked to do, have chosen a topic that fits the assignment, and have researched and organized that research, you’re ready to articulate your own opinion, argument, or assertion. Even if you aren’t arguing for or against anything, your paper needs a thesis. A thesis is a short statement that you — as researcher and author — put forward for the readers of your paper as what you are trying to explain or prove.
A starting point when writing a thesis might be to write a one-sentence answer to the question: what is your paper about? The answer might be something like the following examples:
- My paper explains the relationship between dogs and humans.
- It’s about university policies on freshman living on campus.
- I wrote about views on marriage in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice .
See, that wasn’t so hard. But, what is important to remember, is that this is just a starting point. Many students stop right there, and then don’t understand why their instructor graded them poorly on their thesis statement. A thesis needs to be definitive, and should not be about you. So, you might change the above answers to statements like:
The relationship between dogs and humans goes both ways; not only are dogs man’s best friend, but human interactions have influenced the way that modern dogs’ behavior and anatomy.
Many universities require freshmen students to live on campus for their first year, which keeps students out of trouble, helps students get better grades, and increases their likelihood of staying in school.
In Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, marriage is seen as a number of things, including as a social mobility tool, as a mistake, and as a beneficial partnership.
Can you see the differences between the first set of sentences and the second set of thesis statements? It might take a few tries, but work to eliminate words and phrases like “I think,” or “My paper is about.”
It is also very important not to be too vague. Don’t be afraid to make a strong statement. If you look at the above examples, each of them makes a specific point about the topic. Another key to crafting a strong thesis statement is making sure that your thesis is arguable. That doesn’t mean it’s controversial or particularly opinionated, but it does mean that someone could disagree.
For example, someone might argue that humans haven’t influenced dogs all that much, that requiring freshman students to live on campus isn’t a good thing, or that marriage in Austen’s Pride and Prejudice is all about romance. (Another way to check whether or not your statement is arguable: Is Pride and Prejudice a book? Yes. So the statement, “Pride and Prejudice is a book written by Jane Austen,” doesn’t work as a thesis because no one could disagree. There is no point in writing an entire essay about that obvious fact.) Checking whether or not someone could argue with your thesis statement is a good way to make sure you have written a strong, specific thesis statement that will guide you as you write your paper and earn a good grade for your efforts.
After you have worked to create a specific, arguable, definitive thesis statement, this is another place that it could be helpful to check in with your professor, a writing center tutor, or another trusted educator or mentor. Show them your thesis statement and ask them if they think itis a powerful thesis that you will guide you as you build your essay.
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Step 6: Create an Outline
Like a bibliography, the way that you create your outline may depend on your assignment. If your teacher asked you to turn in an outline, be sure to make an outline that follows the example, guidelines, or requirements you have been given. If you aren’t required to write an outline, it can still be a helpful tool as you build your research paper.
Creating an outline is really about structuring your paper. Don’t be too formulaic, but it can be helpful to follow patterns and guides. In high school you might have written three- or five-paragraph essays, and it’s okay to use those same patterns for a college research paper, but be sure that whatever format you choose makes sense for your paper. If you have two main points in your thesis, three or five main sections might not work for your research paper. If the assignment asks you to introduce a topic, explain different opinions on the topic, and then choose and explain your opinion, then your paper probably needs three main sections, one for each of those objectives.
As you create an outline, think critically about what you are trying to explain or communicate in your research paper and what structure allows you to do that in a clear, organized way. It usually makes sense to have an introduction and conclusion, but what goes between will vary based on the contents of your essay.
The outlining stage of producing your argument is a great time to think about bad forms of argumentation you should avoid. If you aren’t familiar with logical fallacies, take some time to review the most common fallacies; your grade could depend on it!
Step 7: Write
And then, finally, it’s time to actually write your paper. You might feel like you should have started writing sooner, but, rest assured: the work you have done up to this point is important. It will help you create a strong, clear, interesting research paper.
As you write, don’t be a perfectionist. Don’t worry about finding the perfect words, using the perfect grammar, or crafting the perfect title. There is time to perfect your research paper as you edit. Right now, you just need to write.
It might be helpful to look over your research before you start writing, but don’t write directly from your research. If you’re looking back and forth between your resources and your paper as you begin writing, it’s easy to copy ideas without really creating your own work. You have done a lot of work already, so trust that and work from memory as you write your research paper. It’s okay to look up a specific quote or statistic, but in general your ideas should be your own at this point.
Working from your own ideas will help you avoid plagiarism. Plagiarism is the uncredited use of someone else’s words or ideas, whether you meant to use them without credit or not. This sounds scary, but it doesn’t have to be. If you follow the steps outlined in this guide, you can be confident that you’ve created your own essay that builds on the ideas, writing, and work of others, without stealing, copying, or plagiarising.
If you quote something word-for-word, you need to cite your source. Use quotation marks and mention the source of the quote. You will also need to include more information about the quote on a Works Cited or References page. If you paraphrase, that is, you don’t use the exact words, but do use someone’s idea, it’s still important to give credit. You don’t need quotation marks here, but it is important to mention where the idea comes from.
If something is a common fact (generally accepted if you can find the fact stated, without credit, in three or more credible sources), you don’t need to mention where the idea comes from. For example, Bill Gates is a billionaire who founded Microsoft. That is a common fact; you can find it stated in numerous trustworthy sources. But if your paper is about the why behind Bill Gates’ wealth, fame, and success, then you’re going to need to credit and cite specific quotes and statistics, as well as theories about why the Microsoft billionaire is so successful.
Step 8: Edit for Content
Now that you’ve got a paper written, take a moment to congratulate yourself. You have done a lot of work to get to this point! And then, get back to work. You still need to edit your paper before it’s ready to turn in. Remember how you weren’t supposed to worry about being perfect? You still don’t need to worry, but it is time to make your paper as perfect as you possibly can.
Start by editing for content. This means thinking about structure, organization, wording, and length. You carefully organized your paper when you created an outline. Now that you have written your paper, does that organization still make sense? If so, great. If not, what do you need to move around? Look carefully at how you’ve worded your sentences. Did you communicate what you meant to get across? Can you make your paper clearer or easier to understand? This is also a good point to think back to Step 1. Does your paper include everything the assignment asked for? If not, where can you include the missing pieces?
If your paper is too long or too short, now is the time to cut it down or build it up to an acceptable length. Don’t just delete your conclusion because your paper is too long. Don’t waste your time playing with the font size and margins to try to make your essay longer. Be careful and thoughtful about these edits. If you need to take something out, what makes sense to cut and how can you re-organize your paper so that it maintains a strong structure? If you need to lengthen your paper, don’t just randomly add words or repeat things you have already said. Think about where you could expand or what you can add that fits in with the rest of your paper, further develops the ideas you are presenting, or adds valuable information to your research paper.
Once you have made all the changes you think necessary, read back through your paper again to be sure it all makes sense. Especially when working on a computer, it is easy to leave or delete a word, sentence, or paragraph that you didn’t mean to. If you are tired of looking at your research paper, give it to a friend, mentor, or teacher and ask them to take a look at your paper and let you know what they think of the content.
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Step 9: Edit for Grammar
It is also important to edit for grammar. This might seem daunting, but there are lots of tools and resources that can help. Check out resources like Grammarly or Strunk and White’s Elements of Style if you’re unsure of what to do with commas, semicolons, or run-on sentences.
Like editing for content, editing for grammar might take a few run-throughs. If you need to take a break, that’s fine. It can even help you come back to your paper feeling more focused, which is key to catching and fixing mistakes.
Step 10: Re-read and Submit your Research Paper
Once you’ve finished Steps 1–9, it’s definitely time to take a break. Give your paper a day or two (or an hour or two, if you are running short on time) and give it a final read-through. It can be helpful to print a copy of your paper and read a hard-copy if you have only read through it on a screen thus far. You might notice mistakes or formatting issues that your eyes missed while reading on your computer. Once you have read your research paper for a final time and double checked that your paper does everything the assignment is asking for, it is time to submit.
Be sure to follow any instructions you have been given about turning in your research paper. Also give yourself time to troubleshoot if things go wrong. If you try to print your paper five minutes before class starts, what are you going to do if your printer is out of toner? If you are supposed to submit your paper online at midnight and the wifi is down when you login to submit your assignment at 11:58 PM, even though that is unfortunate, it is still something you could have avoided by logging on with enough time to solve any problems that arise before the deadline. Your teacher will appreciate and respect your preparedness, and it will likely impact your grades positively.
Don’t be afraid to reach out to your instructor for help, but be reasonable and responsible about it. If you log on the day before and see that the place where you are supposed to turn in your assignment is locked or unavailable, send your teacher an email so that they can help you submit your paper before it is due. Just don’t expect them to help you in the middle of the night, on a weekend, or minutes before an assignment is due. Some instructors might, but you are just lucky at that point. If you prepare and give yourself time to turn in an assignment, you don’t have to count on getting lucky about whether or not your professor is sitting at their computer and available to help you at the very moment you email them.
Your Teacher or Professor
When writing a research paper for a teacher or professor, it is important to step back and think about why they asked you to write this essay in the first place. More than likely, they are giving you an opportunity to learn something. Learning often involves trial-and-error, making mistakes, and asking lots of questions. Don’t be afraid to ask a question; in fact, don’t be afraid to ask your instructor lots of questions! However, do remember to be respectful of them, their time, and efforts. It is important to follow any directions that you have been given by your teacher or professor, to take responsibility and not expect them to do your work for you, and to listen to the answers and advice they share with you. Working with your teacher and asking them for help is an often overlooked resource when it comes to writing research papers. Be sure to take advantage of this help; your paper will be all the better for it.
Another often-overlooked resource is the research librarian. Did you know that, in addition to tons of books and online materials, college and university libraries often have staff whose job it is to help answer your questions? Research librarians specialize in research (it might sound obvious, but take a second to get excited about how much this could help you and your research paper!). These librarians usually specialize in particular fields and subjects, so you can get specific, expert help that pertains to your topic. They can help you search for resources, connect you with experts in the field your researching, or give you suggestions about the direction of your research and writing.
In addition to research librarians, many college and university libraries often house writing centers. While research librarians can help you more with your research, writing center staff can help you actually write your research paper. You can usually schedule an online or in-person appointment with a tutor or instructor that will help you through any step of the writing process. You might want to visit a writing center early on as you develop the concept for your paper, in the middle as you struggle to think of how to discuss one of your key points, or right before you turn in your paper to be sure it’s in near-perfect shape before it goes to your professor for a grade. Many professors even give you extra credit for taking advantage of writing center services. Win-win!
As mentioned earlier in this guide, you can use Wikipedia for introductory research. But, because Wikipedia articles can be edited by anyone and therefore aren’t 100% credible, your professor will likely frown on citing it as a source for your research paper. So, do not use Wikipedia as a primary source for your research paper. When it comes to writing research papers, the references section of a Wikipedia page is one of your best friends. Just like you should be citing your sources at the end of your research paper, Wikipedia articles link to their primary sources. You can use the list of references to find books, articles, and other material that can help you find reliable, relevant primary sources for use in your research.
Your instructor may require you to use peer-reviewed academic articles as some or all of the sources for your research paper. As a college student, you probably have access to a number of academic databases that you can use to find scholarly articles. If you are unsure of how to search for articles in an academic database, it’s worth asking your professor or a research librarian to help you learn. This skill will be a useful one to have, and you will be easily finding trustworthy, interesting sources in no time.
OWL at Purdue
This is not a nocturnal bird that lives at a university in Indiana, but rather the Online Writing Lab (OWL) at Purdue University. This online resource offers a number of helpful writing materials, including information on how to cite sources, grammar rules, choosing a topic, and even how to write a research paper. You can search for specific help, or browse resources by category. This free website is a must-visit online resource when writing a college research paper.
Grammarly is like a super-powered spell checker. It’s a free Chrome extension that allows you to edit your writing. You can copy and paste your paper into the Grammarly editor and get spelling and grammar advice that is easy to implement. If you’re looking for additional help or want to use the software without leaving Microsoft Office, check out Grammarly Premium or Grammarly for Microsoft Office. However, it’s important to remember when using this software (or any spelling or grammar checker!) that it is a computer and therefore doesn’t always understand your writing. You need to go over each suggestion made by the software and make sure that it is indeed correcting an error or improving a sentence and not changing something that you meant to say. That being said, Grammarly is great at catching errors and provides easy-to-understand explanations of spelling and grammar suggestions so you can knowledgeably make changes to your research paper.
The Elements of Style — William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White
Style guides may be mostly a thing of the past. You have probably used a spell checker or Googled where to put a comma, but you may never have opened a style guide. However, this book, The Elements of Style, has helpful advice and information about writing. If you are looking for guidance when it comes to editing your paper, picking up a copy of this book may be just what you need. The book consists of different sections, some with specific grammar and writing rules and definitions and others with general writing advice. One rule that is worth knowing, even if you don’t read The Elements of Style is Rule #17: “Omit needless words.” Keep that in mind as you edit your paper; it will help you craft a clear, strong, concise research paper that your teacher will enjoy reading (and even grading!).
Style Guides (MLA, APA, Chicago, etc.)
You might feel like we keep saying this (we do . . . ), but it’s for a good reason: know what your research paper assignment is asking for. That is especially important when it comes to formatting your paper. There are several different formatting styles and each has specific rules and guidelines. The main three are MLA, APA, and Chicago. Your instructor likely gave you instructions on which style to use, and if not you can ask which they prefer. Each style has a different name for the list of sources you attach at the end of your paper, different rules about headers and page numbers, etc. Many teachers will deduct points from your grade if you don’t adhere to the style they have asked you to for your research paper; some teachers may not accept the paper at all. You can find more information about whatever style you are working with in a style guide or from OWL at Purdue.
If you are crafting a paper from scratch, start by reading through the above steps to learn how to write a strong research paper. If you have already written a paper, go over this checklist to ensure that it is ready to turn in.
- Does your paper fulfill all of the requirements that the assignment asked for? (If not, or if you are unsure, look back at Step 1.)
- Did you stick to a topic that fits the assignment? (Reference Step two as you think through topic selection.)
- Are your sources credible, reliable, and logical? (Look at Steps three and four for help reflecting on your research.)
- Do you have a clear, arguable thesis statement? (For help with thesis statements, take a look at Step 5.)
- Is your paper organized in a logical way that is easy to understand? (When thinking about outline and structure, see Step 6.)
- Did you plagiarize? (If you have any doubts, check out Step 7.)
- Did you proofread for content and grammar improvements and errors? (See Steps eight and nine for more information about proofreading and editing.)
- Is your paper properly formatted? (See Step one and check out the resources section for information about being sure your paper is formatted correctly.)
- Are you prepared to submit correctly? (Read Step 10 for a few last pieces of advice before you turn in your research paper.)
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Writing a Research Paper
Although this list suggests that there is a simple, linear process to writing such a paper, the actual process of writing a research paper is often a messy and recursive one, so please use this outline as a flexible guide.
Discovering, Narrowing, and Focusing a Researchable Topic
- Try to find a topic that truly interests you
- Try writing your way to a topic
- Talk with your course instructor and classmates about your topic
- Pose your topic as a question to be answered or a problem to be solved
Finding, Selecting, and Reading Sources
You will need to look at the following types of sources:
- library catalog, periodical indexes, bibliographies, suggestions from your instructor
- primary vs. secondary sources
- journals, books, other documents
Grouping, Sequencing, and Documenting Information
The following systems will help keep you organized:
- a system for noting sources on bibliography cards
- a system for organizing material according to its relative importance
- a system for taking notes
Writing an Outline and a Prospectus for Yourself
Consider the following questions:
- What is the topic?
- Why is it significant?
- What background material is relevant?
- What is my thesis or purpose statement?
- What organizational plan will best support my purpose?
Writing the Introduction
In the introduction you will need to do the following things:
- present relevant background or contextual material
- define terms or concepts when necessary
- explain the focus of the paper and your specific purpose
- reveal your plan of organization
Writing the Body
- Use your outline and prospectus as flexible guides
- Build your essay around points you want to make (i.e., don’t let your sources organize your paper)
- Integrate your sources into your discussion
- Summarize, analyze, explain, and evaluate published work rather than merely reporting it
- Move up and down the “ladder of abstraction” from generalization to varying levels of detail back to generalization
Writing the Conclusion
- If the argument or point of your paper is complex, you may need to summarize the argument for your reader.
- If prior to your conclusion you have not yet explained the significance of your findings or if you are proceeding inductively, use the end of your paper to add your points up, to explain their significance.
- Move from a detailed to a general level of consideration that returns the topic to the context provided by the introduction.
- Perhaps suggest what about this topic needs further research.
Revising the Final Draft
- Check overall organization: logical flow of introduction, coherence and depth of discussion in body, effectiveness of conclusion.
- Paragraph level concerns: topic sentences, sequence of ideas within paragraphs, use of details to support generalizations, summary sentences where necessary, use of transitions within and between paragraphs.
- Sentence level concerns: sentence structure, word choices, punctuation, spelling.
- Documentation: consistent use of one system, citation of all material not considered common knowledge, appropriate use of endnotes or footnotes, accuracy of list of works cited.
Academic and Professional Writing
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