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How to write a research paper

There is no great mystery involved in producing a successful term paper. It is basically a question of learning to organize your time and materials effectively. The steps outlined below can serve as a guide in preparing 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. Specialized workshops on academic writing are offered by Counselling and Development.

Start early

Begin working on your essay as soon as the assignment is given. Take advantage of the time at your disposal to do your research and writing to meet the due date. If you wait until the last minute, you may have difficulty finding library materials, particularly if other students are researching the same topic, and you may be pressured by other assignments.

Select a topic

Keeping in mind the guidelines your instructor has set down for the assignment in terms of length, subject matter, types of sources, etc., choose a topic you would be interested in pursuing. Your next step is to verify at the library that thereis sufficient material to support your choice. If not, discard your topic and adopt a more realistic one.

Narrow the topic

Do not fall into the trap of selecting a topic that is so broad you would have to write a book to do it justice. Limit your topic to one particular aspect that you will be able to treat thoroughly within the prescribed limits of your essay. Background reading in a general or specialized encyclopedia will give you a clue as to the subject's natural limits and divisions. A librarian can direct you to the encyclopedia that will be appropriate to your particular needs. You can also consult Research Guides by Subject.

Compose a tentative outline

Roughly organize your thoughts to produce an outline that will give direction to your reading and note-taking.

Gather supporting material

Take advantage of the Libraries' varied resources:

  • Check the library catalogue, for books, government publications, or videos on your topic.
  • Consult the databases to locate articles from scholarly journals, newspapers and other sources.
  • Request the advice of your instructor or a librarian who may be able to direct you to other sources pertinent to your subject area.

Read and review your documentation

For each source that you have consulted, be sure you have all the information necessary to cite it in your bibliography. Accuracy at this stage will save you the trouble of having to re-trace your steps when you are writing your final draft. For a book, mark down the author, title, place of publication, publisher and copyright date. For an article from a journal, take note of the author, title of the article, title of the journal, volume and issue number, date and inclusive page numbers. For a Web document, take down the author, title, date, URL (Web address) and date consulted.

Draft a final 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.

Write 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.

Revise the rough draft

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.

Compile your bibliography

A bibliography is a listing in alphabetical order according to the author's last name of all the sources you consulted in preparing your research paper. It is presented on a separate page at the end and is set up according to a standard format that you will find described in most style manuals. Examples of the most commonly used citation styles (APA, MLA, Chicago) are available. RefWorks is a Web-based tool that helps organize the references you find and automatically prepares a bibliography .


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

  • a dictionary or spellcheck for correct spelling
  • a thesaurus for synonyms
  • a grammar book
  • a style manual for the mechanics of citing references


Representing another person's ideas as your own within the context of your essay is plagiarism. In most universities, serious penalties are exercised against students who plagiarize, not the least of which can include failure of the course for which the essay was submitted. Play it safe - acknowledge any use of another person's ideas, whether the information is quoted directly, paraphrased, or summarized. The correct procedure for referencing is described in most style manuals (see also the citation style sheets and guides on avoiding plagiarism).

Books on researching and writing term papers

Badke, W.B. (2004). Research strategies: finding your way through the information fog.
Z 710 B33 2004 Webster Vanier

Bailey, S. (2006). Academic writing: a handbook for international students. 2nd ed.
PE 1413 B28 2006 Webster Online

Harvey, M. (2003). The nuts & bolts of college writing.
PE 1408 H3927 2003 Webster

Hunt, A. (2005). Your research project: how to manage it.
LB 2369 H843 2005 Webster Online

Lester, J.D & Lester, J. (2002). Writing research papers: a complete guide, 10th ed.
LB 2369 L4 2002 Webster Vanier

Mace, G. (2000). Guide d'élaboration d'un projet de recherche, 2e éd.
LB 2369 M3 2000 Webster

For additional titles, search the library catalogue by subject using the subject headings "Report Writing" or "Research Handbooks, Manuals".

For more information, ask a librarian.

page last updated on: Wednesday 26 August 2015
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