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How to write a research paper

There is no magic formula for writing a successful research paper. It is basically a question of learning to organize your time and materials effectively. The steps outlined below can help serve as a general guide for writing your next paper. For more detailed information on researching and writing term papers or essays, consult the Books on researching and writing term papers section that appears below. Individualized writing assistance is offered by the Student Success Centre's Learning Support.

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Start early

Begin working on your research paper as soon in the semester as possible. Take advantage of the time at your disposal to do your research and writing in order to meet the assignment due date. If you wait until the last minute, you may have difficulty finding the best materials, particularly if other students are researching the same topic, and you may also feel pressured by other assignment deadlines.

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Selecting the topic

Keeping in mind the guidelines your instructor has set down for the assignment in terms of length, subject matter, types of sources, etc. If possible, try to select a topic that is of interest to you, even if it may appear to be the most difficult one. Avoid broad topics for research papers. Try to narrow your topic to one particular aspect that you will be able to investigate thoroughly within the prescribed limits of your paper.

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Background reading

If the topic is unfamiliar to you, consider doing some background reading to help you to develop your understanding. Subject encyclopedias and handbooks provide concise, scholarly overviews and they often refer you to major writings on the topic. Consult the appropriate Subject or course guide for the encyclopedias and handbooks in your area of research or simply ask a librarian.

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Researching the topic

Your next step is to verify that there are sufficient and relevant sources and that they meet the requirements of the assignment (e.g. scholarly journal articles). This will require using Library resources, the tools for locating books and journal articles. There are subject librarians to assist you with finding the best sources for your specific topic.

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Preparing an outline

Map out your approach by composing a detailed sentence outline. First, compose a thesis statement. This one sentence statement is the most important one of your entire research paper so be sure to phrase it carefully. A thesis statement clearly communicates the subject of your paper and the approach you are going to take. It is the controlling factor to which all information that follows must relate. Secondly, group and regroup your notes according to the various aspects of your topic until you find a sequence that seems logical. This can serve as the basis for your outline.

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Writing and revising a rough draft

In writing a rough draft you are striving for a flow of ideas. Write using your final outline and organized notes as guides. Do not worry about correct spelling or punctuation at this stage. Remember that the purpose of a rough draft is to see if you have a logical progression of arguments and sufficient supporting material.

Make the necessary adjustments until you are satisfied your statements flow logically and your ideas have been fully presented in clear, concise prose. You may need to review your documentation if some sections of your text need further development.

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Writing the bibliography (list of sources used)

Be sure you have all of the publication information (author, title, date, pages, etc.) appropriate for each source that you consulted. This information will then be compiled in a bibliography. A bibliography is a listing of all the sources you consulted in writing your research paper. You must closely follow the specific rules for writing bibliographies that are provided in style manuals, the most common ones being APA, MLA, and Chicago. These style manuals will also guide you on the correct way of citing (attributing) each of your sources in the content of your paper (see the Plagiarism section below). Concordia University provides a Web-based tool, RefWorks , that helps organize the references you find, incorporates citations into the content of your paper, and automatically prepares a bibliography in the style appropriate for the particular assignment.

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You are now ready to focus primarily on the style of your paper rather than the content. Make use of:

  • a dictionary or spellcheck for correct spelling
  • a thesaurus for synonyms
  • a grammar book
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Representing another person's ideas as your own within the context of your term paper is plagiarism. Serious penalties can be exercised against students who plagiarize, not the least of which can include failure of the course for which the paper was submitted. Please consult Concordia University's position on plagiarism.

Play it safe - acknowledge any use of another person's ideas, whether the information is quoted directly, paraphrased, or summarized. The correct procedures for citing (attributing) sources is described in the style manual guides.

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Selected books on researching and writing term papers

For more information, ask a librarian.

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page last updated on: Monday 8 August 2016
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