How to Write a Research Paper in 7 Steps

Academic Writing updated on  March 10, 2023 7 min read

A research paper explores and evaluates previously and newly gathered information on a topic, then offers evidence for an argument. It follows academic writing standards, and virtually every college student will write at least one. Research papers are also integral to scientific fields, among others, as the most reliable way to share knowledge.

Steps to Writing a Research Paper

So you’re sitting at your computer, staring at a blank document. Now what? How do you write a research paper?

Here are the 7 steps you need to take in order to write a stellar academic research paper.

1. Understand your goal

Trying to write a research paper without understanding the guidelines is like trying to bake a cake without following a recipe. You’re likely to use the wrong ingredients and techniques and therefore get poor results.

Instead, closely examine the requirements of the assignment:

  • Rubric and assignment instructions—provided by your instructor
  • Required components and length—abstract, literature review, reference list, etc.
  • Style guide for citations and body text—MLA, APA, CMOS, AMA, or other
  • Formatting requirements—double spacing, margins, etc. (often depend on style guide)
  • Deadline and how to submit—date and time, file format, etc.

You might find it helpful to create a checklist that you can use to review your work in step 7. If you have any questions after looking over these elements, ask your instructor before you go any further. It will save you the time and effort of redoing everything later.

2. Choose your topic

If you haven’t been assigned a topic, you’ll need to choose one. These are some questions you can ask yourself to narrow it down:

  • What am I interested in? Choosing a topic you like will make the work easier.
  • What specific aspect of this topic can I focus on? A good research paper topic is not so general that you can’t say something new about it, but not so specific that you can’t find quality information on it.
  • Will I have enough material to work with? You need to be able to discuss evidence both for and against your position.
  • What question(s) do I want to answer? This question will help you focus your research, and its answer might even be your main idea. It’s a good idea to add a few sub-research questions that you might dig into.
  • What unique perspective can I offer? Think about what topic gives you a chance to add new ideas to the existing research.

To answer the above, you may need to spend some time glancing through the available studies and resources online or in a library, depending on your potential topic(s). Don’t forget to write down any sources that you look through so you can properly cite them later on.

3. Research your topic

Once you’ve settled on a topic, begin the preliminary research. You can take a deeper dive into some sources you examined while choosing your topic. Look for data and evidence that answer the questions you developed in step 2. Critically examine a variety of reputable sources that both support and contradict your own view.

As you conduct research, remember to record citation information, including direct quotes and page numbers. You may be tempted to leave that task for later and just focus on gathering information from further research, but if you do, you’ll regret it. You’re already looking at the sources now; why waste time making a second trip?

Failing to cite a source used in your research paper means that you've plagiarized the uncited work, which can lead to a number of consequences, academic and otherwise.

4. Build an outline and thesis statement

You’ve collected all the information you need, and now it’s time to organize it to take the reader on a journey from uninformed to informed.

A research paper outline is like turn-by-turn GPS directions that guides the reader to the conclusion you reached during your research. Chart your course before you start writing so you can organize your paper cohesively and avoid missing anything.

A useful outline breaks your paper into sections with a logical flow. It can include as much or as little detail as you need to organize your thoughts and evidence, but it should include the key points you plan to cover and any relevant information that you don't want to miss.

Your thesis statement is like the address of the destination. As part of the research paper’s introduction (and included in the outline), it broadly tells the reader where you’re going in the paper. In the thesis statement, you answer the question that inspired your research and summarize your main points in a sentence or two.

5. Write your first draft

Now that you’ve outlined what you’ll say, put words on the page. Yes, it’s that simple. Ignore the urge to censor your thoughts or revise your phrasing and focus on getting your ideas down.

You don’t have to start with the introduction; start wherever you feel the most inspired. You can make sure everything flows together once all the sections are finished.

6. Cite your sources

The key to learning how to write a research essay is learning how to cite sources. Depending on the style guide you’re following, you may need to create in-text citations, a Works Cited page, a reference list, a bibliography, or footnotes. Pay close attention to what information is included and how citations are punctuated and formatted.

Citing sources can be tedious, so tackle it only when you’re alert and feeling well so you can follow the guidelines to a T. Making a mistake can be too easy when you’re tired and can even lead to accidental plagiarism.

All research papers rely on existing information and research; not citing a source properly can lead to serious consequences, which can include assignment or grade failure, expulsion, or even jail time.

Make sure all sources are properly cited.

7. Edit and proofread

You may have thought the real writing was done in step 5, but the truth is you’re just getting to it. However, you’re also at the last step—so close to the finish line.

To edit effectively, you must consider both the big picture and the details. It may be easier to divide these views into two editing stages, and you may want to go through each stage more than once. The big-picture stage considers major points like these:

  • Formatting
  • Organization and headings
  • Flow of ideas and arguments
  • Support for the main research question or thesis statement

Once you’ve finished reviewing larger issues, you can move on to the finer points:

  • Grammar, spelling, and punctuation
  • Clear and precise word choices and sentence structure
  • Transition words and phrases
  • Definition of terms that may be unfamiliar to readers
  • Citations, both in-text and full
  • The requirements listed in step 1

At both stages, remove anything that doesn’t support your thesis and add value, from entire sections to unnecessary words. Cutting can be the most painful part of the writing process, but also the most effective.

Conversely, you may need to add content if your paper is too short after cutting or if you realize some parts need a bit more fleshing out.

Expert editing tip: Don’t procrastinate! Start writing your research paper as soon as possible so that you can give yourself downtime between editing rounds. Taking a break for a few days can help you see the paper with new eyes and catch mistakes that you may have repeatedly overlooked.

Once you’ve finished the editing and think your research paper is ready to submit, proofread it. Read through the whole thing again slowly and with a critical eye to catch any lingering errors.

How QuillBot tools can help

Still feel like you need expert academic writing help? QuillBot offers an assortment of writing tools that can assist you as you learn how to write a good research paper.

Use our...

Need to Cite sources used by you?
QuillBot's Citation Generator will enable you to quickly create citations in APA, MLA, Chicago, and other styles.

Polish your writing and ensure that it is error-free
QuillBot's grammar checker makes sure that your work is polished and error-free

  • Paraphraser to understand ideas you read in your research and improve the fluency of your writing
  • Summarizer to compose a potential thesis statement and concluding sentences for paragraphs and sections
  • Co-writer to work on your research paper from start to finish

Research papers require a lot of work, and we're here to help.

You might be a native or multilingual English speaker and you might be writing in US, UK, Canadian, or Australian English. But no matter what, you can follow these seven steps and write a world-class research paper with QuillBot.

Happy research and writing!

What are the parts of a research paper?

Most research papers contain at least an introduction and sections for methodology, results, discussion, and references. Many also include an abstract and a literature review. Some other common elements are a title page, a table of contents, tables and figures, and appendices.

How do I cite sources for a research paper?

As you research, write down citation information for any sources you plan to use. Record quotes and ideas carefully, along with the page numbers where you found them. You can write them on note cards, on paper, or in a digital document.

When writing your first draft, include enough citation information in the text to ensure accurate referencing. After finishing the draft, you can go through your paper and add the full citations, following the style guide. You may use a citation generator, but remember to proofread the citations even if you do. Finally, use a plagiarism checker to double-check your work.


Hannah Skaggs

Along with Paige Pfeifer

Hannah, a writer and editor since 2017, specializes in clear and concise academic and business writing. She has mentored countless scholars and companies in writing authoritative and engaging content.

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