Person writing a research paper

9 Steps to Writing a Great Research Paper

By Amanda Marie Clark

The research paper can be intimidating for even the most well-seasoned writer. Working on such a big task isn’t exactly what most of us want to do with our out-of-class time. But you can own that process and come out with a paper you’re proud of. Let’s break up that research paper into steps and make your life a whole lot easier.

1. Choose a topic

You might think this step is common sense, but sometimes that first step is the hardest. Even if your teacher gives you a general subject or topic, you still need to narrow it down.

For example, say your teacher assigns a research paper on volcanoes, that’s a huge topic to cover! Are you looking at why volcanoes erupt? Maybe you’re doing a survey of all the active volcanoes in the world, or are talking about what happens when they die. Obviously, you need to zero in on one thing.

2. Gather sources

So you have a topic. Great! Now it’s time to gather all of your sources. Make sure that you diversify. Prime example: try not to have your sources all be websites or all be authored by the same person. Strong research is built upon diverse sources, authors, observations, and experiments all supporting (or disproving) the same concept. Your teacher will thank you.

Aside from just websites, maybe look at a book, a journal article, videos, maps, etc. That will help you build a good basis for an excellent research paper.  

Don’t forget: make sure your sources are reliable! Consider the credibility of your sources. That includes factors like credibility, relevance, currency, authority, and purpose.

3. Write the bibliography

Waiting to do your bibliography when you’re at the end of writing your paper seems like a good idea, but actually doing them as you gather sources is the way to go.

Why? Because the last thing you want to do is go back through your paper to identify information you need to cite, while also trying to remember where the information came from. Worse still, if you miss or forget to cite a source, it could be considered (accidental) plagiarism. Yikes!

Whether it be in APA or MLA format, the easier and smarter way is to make your citations from the get-go. Also, doing it at the beginning of a project means you will still have steam to properly format and proofread your paper at the end.

4. Take notes

All right, on to the meaty part. After you have your topic and sources, it’s time to roll up your sleeves and start taking notes.

So what’s the solution? I found that having a separate page for every source helped. But you might try graphic organizers like T-charts or Cornell notes. Some students also like writing all of their notes with bullets.  

There are many approaches to choose from. So once you find a strategy that works for you, go with it.

5. Write your thesis

Some people like writing their thesis right after finding their topic. This helps them set up a research strategy.

Others like writing the thesis after researching and taking notes. The information gathered helps them look at the topic more clearly and puts them in a better-educated place to come up with a thesis.

Either way is fine as long as it works for you. Just remember that a thesis is a crucial element to a research paper and needs to be done before working on your outline.

You can also think about your thesis as you narrow down your topic and begin to research.

Let’s stick with that volcano paper example. You could form a question like: “How are volcanoes formed?” This allows you to research an answer that you can use as the basis of your thesis.

For more information on how to form a thesis read 4 Simple Steps to Writing a Good Thesis Statement.

6. Write an outline

Outlines help a lot! They get your thoughts in order and provide starting points for writing. When you start to expand on them, the ideas should flow.

An outline organizes your thoughts in note formation. Start by brainstorming the main ideas of each paragraph’s topic sentence and then jot down the main ideas around each topic.  

There are many ways to create a research paper outline. An easy way to approach one is to use numbers for each of your main paragraphs and letters for specific points within each paragraph.

An outline also breaks down the structure of your paper. So your introduction, body paragraphs, and concluding paragraphs should be in their proper places and good to go.

7. Write a rough draft

Next, sit down and start typing a rough draft based on the outline. The outline is the blueprint to your paper; build out each section based on it. Don’t worry too much about punctuation or making total sense, just get some thoughts in full sentences on paper.

Seriously, type and push those thoughts forward while trying not to press backspace.

8. Move on to the second, third…drafts

Now you can get analytical. Go through and start fixing your draft up. 

Try to make sure that everything in your paper relates to your thesis. If it doesn’t, get rid of it.

Look for concrete details. That means if you made a claim, support it with research.

After looking over your second draft, take a breather. Don’t try to correct it again for a little while. Your brain needs a break. Go jogging, do some yoga, watch a movie, or sleep on it (if it’s not due the next day). Then go back and reread it.

Repeat this process a couple of times.

Also consider having someone proofread your paper, or even running it through an automated tool like the BibMe Plus grammar checker. It’ll catch the typos and small grammar errors you just didn’t see. Then finish off with a lovely typed, final draft.

9. Hand it in with pride

Lastly, hand in that sparkling, finished research paper with pride because you just gave it your all. And I bet you learned a lot about volcanoes too!


Before you begin typing, refresh your grammar knowledge with our guides on relative pronouns, coordinating conjunctions, prepositions, and other parts of speech.