One of the most important things I have learned in college is how to write a successful research paper. Another thing I have learned from working in the office of student success and just listening to other students, a lot of people hate writing them. It may just be the nerd in me or the subject I study, but I LOOOVE research papers. I am a history major though so that may be why.
I wasn’t always a natural at writing research papers however. I wouldn’t say I was ever bad at them, but mediocre for sure. Now, I personally believe I thrive at writing research papers. I once even had a professor call me into his office to give me back a paper (which let me tell you, that terrified me because I thought I did bad or did something wrong). Turns out he just wanted to tell me how well he thought I did (I got a 94 on that paper and I couldn’t have been more excited).
I don’t want to use this post to brag about research papers, but rather to share my tips and tricks on how to write a killer research paper in college! My first thing is that I have gotten better over the years. There are many students who went through their primary education never having to write a real research paper and that’s okay. Not everyone is going to be great at this, but it is a skill that you can develop! So be patient with yourself, take your time on your papers, and get help when you need it!
PICK A TOPIC THAT INTERESTS YOU
If you have free range on what topic you’re picking, even if it’s a sub-topic within a topic a professor has assigned, pick a topic that interests you. If you asked me to write a paper on the American Civil War, I’m not going to put as much effort into it as I will a paper on a topic I like such as British Imperialism.
For my degree, I have to complete a thesis this year and picking a topic for that took some time. There were so many subjects I could pick from, but I knew if I was going to be reading about this subject and doing interviews for an oral history section I needed to pick a topic I loved! Since I am doing “Unsung Heros of the Civil Rights Movement” I’m so excited to dive in and get to digging!
WRITE DOWN ANY REQUIREMENTS OF THE PAPER
Before you get started, make sure you know everything there is to know about the assignment itself. Try creating a checklist and mark it off as you go. For example, if you need so many sources, write that down so as you’re searching for information you can make sure you have everything! Nothing sucks more than getting a paper back and not having the grade you wanted because you forgot such a small thing.
DON’T READ EVERYTHING
So one huge misconception about research papers is that you have to read everything. Once you get to a higher level, this would be the case, but at the basic level, you don’t have to read everything. Speed reading/skimming is a skill many of my professors have actually suggested. When you’re doing this, just pick out some keywords and some of the most important facts. Be careful here though, make sure the first sentence you read isn’t contradicted by the second. That could reduce the credibility of your paper.
DO NOT PLAGARIZE
I know this is probably a no-brainer, but you would be surprised how many people plagiarize their paper, even if it’s a single sentence. Any time you quote someone else, use their ideas or even paraphrase their thoughts, you need to cite your sources. Make sure you understand your subject’s citation style and use it accordingly. More citations are better than too few, I mean, better safe than sorry.
Proofread the crap out of your paper. I don’t mean just read over it once or twice, I mean really tear it apart. I use a couple of websites I found through google searches to help me proofread my papers. These include passive/active voice checkers, punctuation, style and word choice, even unnecessary commas. Many schools even have writing tutors who can take a look at your papers before you turn it in. If you even want to go the extra mile, you can ask your professor if they’d be willing to read over your paper and give any basic feedback, just make sure you do this with plenty of time to spare. Asking your professor to read over your paper the day before it’s due is not a good idea and they most likely won’t do it.
USE YOUR RESOURCES
This can mean both your scholarly resources and those people around you. Go to museums or archives in your area to get extra information, ask your library reference desk if they can help you get started, or ask a tutor to help you narrow down your topic, look through and discuss sources or even read your paper over.
Building research skills take time to develop. Don’t be discouraged if that first paper you get back isn’t what you want. I promise over time if you put the work into your papers and actively try to improve then you will. As I have said a couple of times, it took me time to develop my skills in writing research papers, but I’m glad I did. Through these skills, I have been able to advance myself academically and professionally.