How to Write a Research Paper | 123Read&Write

What is a research paper? How do I write this type of document? Simply put, a research paper is a multi-paragraph essay, which offers your personal evaluation, interpretation, or knowledge on a particular topic or argument. While writing a research paper, as the primary writer and researcher, you combine your personal knowledge with existing literature in the particular topic you’re researching. A research paper requires investigating previous works or research on any particular topic, in order to showcase the the best and most accurate information on your chosen topic or field of study.

The Research Paper

What is a Research Paper?

The research paper is a piece of writing, which compiles information done during investigating a particular topic, from a variety of resources.

Lesson 1 – What’s the Point of My Paper?

You must determine a clear purpose for your paper. Is your paper going to be . . .

a. explanatory – as the writer, you must provide factual information to your intended audience. Examples of explanatory research paper topics may include:

-Define and explain how GPS systems work.

-Trace the factors that led to the Stock Market Crash of 2008.

b. persuasive – as the writer, you choose a particular side (position) on a debatable topic and write to defend your chosen position. Examples of persuasive research paper topics may include:

-Video game violence contributes to violent acts amongst children.

-The assassination of JFK was not done by a lone gunman.

c. analytical – as the writer, you are analyzing a particular topic. You must research the chosen topic thoroughly, showing various angles, comparing and contrasting, etc. Examples of analytical research paper topics may include:

-How diet affects one’s chances at developing Type 2 Diabetes.

-What are some preventative measures humans can take to slow down global warming?

Lesson 2 – So Many Topics and I Have to Choose One!

First and foremost, when choosing a topic to investigate, make sure it’s one you find interesting. Research papers are a great deal of work, and you do not want to get stuck with a topic you find boring. It’s a good idea to try and come up with more than one possible topic, in case your first idea falls through. A brainstorm list may be a good way to organize your ideas for possible topics.

 Printable Version of Brainstorm Web

Lesson 3 – Narrow Your Focus

Once you’ve decided on your topic, in all likelihood, it will be too broad. For example, if you chose football, that is a huge topic. Where is the focus? Are you talking about its history, how it has changed over time, Super Bowl Champions, rules, etc.? If you were to choose Football, for example, to narrow this topic, ask some questions to yourself about the topic and see where this leads.

-Why is there an increase in concussion injuries, in the past five years?

-How does a salary cap work for a football franchise?

-Are sports enhancement drugs a problem in the NFL

Lesson 4 – The Pitfalls of a Poorly Developed Topic

When selecting the topic to pursue, avoid these common problems:

1. Topics that have a lack of available information.

Example: Why do presidents golf?

Better Option: What president was known as the best and most avid golfer?

2. Topics which are completely reliant on an opinion.

Example: What’ the best Disney movie?

Better Option: What is the most commercially successful Disney movie made?

3. Topics which are too limited

Example: What is the North Pole?

Better Option: What are some similarities and differences between the North and South Pole?

4. Topics which are too broad

Example: What are the Salem Witch Trials?

Better Option: Why were innocent people accused of witchcraft during the Salem Witch Trials?

5. Topics which are confusing, because they offer no clear direction.

Example: What were Albert Einstein’s favorites?

Better Option: How did Einstein’s interest in the human mind affect his studies?

Putting It Together 1 – Is it Specific or Not?

Take what you’ve learned thus far and put it to the test. Some of the topics below are acceptable for a well-rounded research paper. However, some of the items below would not be suitable for a research paper topic. Next to each topic, do the following: Draw a happy face for a good topic and an unhappy face for a topic that would not work well.

___Global Warming

___Moonshot (the first landing on the moon)


___The benefits of recycling on our Earth


___Improvements in cancer treatments over the past decade

___Natural Disasters

___The financial impact of Hurricane Katrina

Printable Version of Is it Specific or Not

Putting It Together 2 – Too Broad to Specific

Remember, when selecting a possible topic, start with a very general topic. Then think of a more specific subtopic to narrow your focus. Below, look at the general topics provided. Next to the general topic, write a more specific subtopic which you could explore. The first one has been done for you.

Printable Version of Broad to Specific Chart

Putting It Together 3 – Will There Be Enough Available Information?

Printable Version of Enough Information Chart

Utilizing the chart you completed in Putting It Together 2, choose one topic (not black holes) to see if you can locate enough resource to help you in your research process. If you have difficulty finding enough resources, the chosen topic would probably be difficult to produce a quality research paper. 

Putting It Together 4 – Is This Topic Right for Me?

Now, before you put a pen to paper, make sure you pick a topic that’s right for you. If you’re not interested in your topic, your work will suffer for it. Try filling in the organizer provided below with some topics that may interest you. Start with a very general topic and then simply begin to narrow that topic down providing a couple of supporting details, as well. I’ve made one for you to look at, too. Make sure to ask yourself the following questions before you get too far!

  • What length of paper am I expected to write?
  • Is there enough available information on my selected topic to conduct research?
  • Am I actually interested in my topic?

Printable Version of Topic Organizer

Lesson 5 – How to Write Bibliography Cards

Throughout your research process, at any time in which you find information of use, document it by creating a bibliography card. For the best results, record the necessary bibliographic information on individual 4x6 notecards. In addition, number each of the cards as it will become helpful when you begin to take notes. Your bibliography cards are an imperative resource when the time comes to create your bibliography. For correct bibliographic notation requirements, see the bulleted list below:

Books with a single author

  • Author’s last name, author’s first name
  • Title of book
  • City of publication
  • Publisher name
  • Most recent publication date

Books with a multiple authors

  • Author’s names — the last name of the first author listed on the title page; and then the remaining authors in regular order.
  • Title of book
  • City of publication
  • Publisher name
  • Most recent publication date

Encyclopedia article with an author

  • Author’s name
  • Title of article (in quotation marks)
  • Encyclopedia title (underlined)
  • Edition of encyclopedia

Encyclopedia article without an author

  • Title of article (in quotation marks)
  • Encyclopedia title (underlined)
  • Edition of encyclopedia

Newspaper or magazine with an author

  • Author’s name
  • Title of article (in quotation marks)
  • Name of the newspaper or magazine (underlined)
  • The date of the newspaper or magazine
  • Page number(s) of the article

Newspaper or magazine without an author

  • Title of article (in quotation marks)
  • Name of the newspaper or magazine (underlined)
  • The date of the newspaper or magazine
  • Page number(s) of the article


  • If applicable, name of author(s) or editor(s)
  • Name of website (underlined)
  • Name of sponsor (if given)
  • Access date (when you looked at the site)
  • URL

Simple Guidelines for Documentation

Basically, documentation means that your giving credit where credit is due. If you didn’t originally write the material, you must properly cite who did. Currently, the most accepted manner to do so is to use parenthetical documentation. Therefore, following the information you’ve utilized, in parentheses you place the author’s last name and the page number where you found the information directly after sentence. For example, (Jones, 117). 

One of the most difficult tasks when writing a research paper is determining when information needs to be documented. For example, if information is common knowledge, it does not need to be to be cited. For instance, the fact that Abraham Lincoln gave the Gettysburg Address speech does not need citation, as it is commonly known.  

Take a look at the following chart for some more simple guidelines to help you along the way with regards to citation rules. 

For further assistance, take note of the following pictures of how to write in-text citations for various situations that may arise.

Lesson 6 – To Cite or Not to Cite . . . That is the Question

Take a look at the following statements. If you feel the information needs documentation, make a smiley face. If you  don’t feel the information needs documentation, draw a minus sign.

____Martin Luther King was a famous civil rights activist.

____Autism now affects 1 in 68 children.

____Boys are nearly five times more likely than girls to develop autistic tendencies.

____John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Texas.

____The planet Saturn is big enough to hold over 760 Earths.

____Nearly 2,200 children die every day as a result of dirty drinking water.

Printable Version of To Cite or Not to Cite

Lesson 7 – How to Take Proper Notes

Once you’ve begun finding and reading resources for your selected topic, you will need to take proper notes to gather quality information to present in your paper. A good way to organize your note taking is to separate them into note cards, using a new card for each new piece of information. 

Note Taking Tips

  • In the top left corner, write the main idea or concept which details the information given on the note card. Another important tip is to try your best to only use the front of the card. It’s much easier for organizing later.
  • In the top right corner, annotate the number of the bibliography card which correlates with the information you’ve gathered. 
  • Make sure to paraphrase the information on your note card. This means to put the author’s words into your own words. By doing so, you’ll avoid plagiarizing someone else’s material.
  • When using someone else’s words, make sure to put them in quotation marks. Use this concept sparingly. It’s not wrong to use another person’s words here and there; but you want the majority of your paper to be your words, not someone else’s. 
  • Finally, at the bottom of your note card, place the page number where you found this information. It will be helpful later if you need to gather further information; or if you need reminding of why the information was important in the first place. 

Note: You’ll notice that this note card was created from my first resource listed in the bibliography card section: Great White Shark by Richard Ellis.

Note Cards Using Someone Else’s Words

During your research, if you come upon a portion which you’d like to copy into your research paper, place quotation marks around that specific section of words. Furthermore, make sure to give credit to the author by including their name as the source.

Let’s Give It a Go!

Key Points

Let’s say you’re going to write a research paper on one of my favorite topics: Alcatraz Prison. You’ve decided that your main idea is going to be the History of Alcatraz. Look at the text below and decide what information would be important enough to include in your paper. To take adequate notes, write down important words and phrases, which you believe will help support your topic: The History of Alcatraz.

Look at the note card below of some information you may want to have included to support your topic: The History of Alcatraz. 

Deciding on Key Information

Let’s try some practice at organizing information into specific topics. Read the selections below regarding the history of Alcatraz. Then, decide and take notes on key ideas which would be useful in a research paper on this topic, on two separate note cards.

Printable Version of Alcatraz Notes Activity

Lesson 8 – Your Thesis Statement

When you have finally decided on the topic right for you and have located a decent amount of information, it’s time to write down the key ideas you want to investigate in your paper. Before making the list, you must decide on your main idea, known as a thesis statement. The thesis statement will be written somewhere in your opening paragraph, when you start your paper. The ideas you’ve included in your list will be placed in an outline. 

The Thesis Statement

A thesis statement is just fancy wording for your main idea. That being said, it’s also very important, as it sets the tone for the direction your paper will take. When you have a clear idea of your thesis statement, then you can decide on what specific information you’d like to include in your paper. It gives you a sense of direction. Otherwise, it can become overwhelming at the amount of information you’re looking at. See below for example of a breakdown:

Subject: Great White Shark

Topic: Attack Patterns of the Great White Shark

Thesis Statement: The Great White Shark is drawn to sounds and vibrations in the water when hunting for prey.

A strong thesis statement is the most important piece of your research paper. A thesis statement:

  • lets the reader how you will explain the importance of your chosen subject. 
  • gives the reader knowledge of what to expect within your paper.
  • a thesis offers the reader a way to understand and interpret your material.
  • makes a claim that others may not agree with.
  • is a single sentence within your first paragraph that presents your argument or case to the reader.

Now that you’re probably ready to get to work, let’s take a moment to practice writing thesis statements, as it is the single most important component regarding your research paper. You may need to do a little research for this part, so you may write a clear and concise statement. The first one has been done for you.

Printable Version of Thesis Statement Activity

Not done, yet! This is important stuff. Let’s practice a little more.

Printable Version of Thesis Statement Activity

Lesson 9 – Focus Your Lens

The First Outline

The main reason for your first outline is to provide a road map for writing your research paper. To start your outline, ask yourself “What are my main topics and supporting topics?” As an example of this process, let’s look at the following scenario:

You’ve decided that you are truly interested in Great White Sharks. Here are few questions you may come up with regarding the subject.

1. What are Great White Sharks?

2. Why are they feared?

3. Are they truly man-eaters?

After doing some research on Great White Sharks, you’ve written the following points you want to include in your research paper:

  • Great whites are the largest predatory fish on Earth. They grow to an average of 15 feet (4.6 meters) in length, though specimens exceeding 20 feet (6 meters) and weighing up to 5,000 pounds (2,268 kilograms) have been recorded.
  • Of the 100-plus annual shark attacks worldwide, fully one-third to one-half are attributable to great whites. 
  • Most attacks by Great Whites are not fatal, and new research finds that great whites, whom are naturally curious, are "sample biting" then releasing their victims rather than preying on humans.

By looking at your key ideas, you’ve decided on the following thesis statement:

The reputation of the Great White Shark as a vicious man-eater has led to the unnecessary hunting and killing of this magnificent and beautiful creature.

Now, you’re ready to create your preliminary outline by listing the topics and subtopics you wish to cover.

Writing Your Research Paper’s Thesis Statement

Printable Version of Writing Your Thesis Statement Activity

Lesson 10 – Time to Write the Outline

Rules for Your Outline

  • Place your title at the top of the page.
  • Write a the correct Roman numeral (with a period) in front of each main topic.

Example:      I. The Great White Shark

  • Your subtopics are written below the main topics. Make sure to use capital letters (with a period) for your subtopics. You should also line up your first letter (A.) of the subtopic to the first letter of its main topic.

Example:      I. The Great White Shark

                           A. Characteristics

  • There’s no need to place a period after your main or subtopics unless they are written in sentence format.

Example:     I. The Great White Shark

                          A. The Great White Shark has many unique hunting characteristics.

  • Make sure to begin main and subtopics with a capital letter. Also, make sure to capitalize any proper nouns.
  • Your outline should follow a similar patter (i.e. parallel structure). This means that if you begin your subtopics as phrases, you should not have a complete sentence following it. The example below is incorrect.

Example:     I. The Great White Shark

                          A. Characteristics

                          B.  The Great White Shark has many unique hunting traits.

Let’s Give It a Go!

Practice Putting Together an Outline

Below, categorize the following information into main topics and their corresponding subtopics with the outline provided.

Printable Version of Outline Activity

Practicing Putting a More Detailed Outline Together

One of the most infamous prisoners on Alcatraz was Al Capone. Look at the mixed up information. Decide on which are main ideas, subtopics, and details and utilize them to complete the outline provided.

Printable Version of Al Capone Outline Activity

It’s Time to Write Your Outline

Begin to review your note cards and decide on the following:

  • Main Topics
  • Subtopics
  • Supporting Details

Note: If you feel any of your topics are lacking information, go back to the research process to fill in the blanks. Then, when you feel you’ve gather enough information, complete your outline on a piece of paper. Also, remember to keep the following guidelines in mind:

  1. Choose between either a topic outline (words and phrases), or a sentence outline (ideas are all written in complete sentences.)
  2. Make sure your information is organized in a logical fashion (topics, subtopics, and details).
  3. All topics and subtopics should support your thesis statement.
  4. Your conclusion must summarize the main ideas supported in your paper.

Lesson 11 – It’s Time! Your First Draft

Let’s take a look back at what you’ve accomplished! Now that you have your note cards and outline complete, it’s time to begin the first draft of your paper. Your research paper will likely be divided into the following components:

In addition, you should include a bibliography page which indicates the sources you utilized to develop your paper. Preferences vary, but it’s a safe bet if you utilize MLA format. If you get stuck, please see Lesson 5 to review how to document specific documents. Your bibliography page should be alphabetized, as well. See below for an example:

Screen Shot 2014-03-01 at 10.55.35 PM

For more help with MLA format, the Purdue OWL website offers a wide variety of resources.

Additionally, the Easybib website takes the guessing out of the equation. Simply input the indicated information and hit the “create citation” button and there you go! 

Lesson 12 - Let’s Get This Started! Your Opening Paragraph

With regards to the opening paragraph, there are some key elements to keep in mind.

  • It must include your thesis statement
  • Gives the reader some background information on your particular topic.
  • Offers an explanation of the topic.
  • Make your paper’s purpose very clear.
  • The opening must contain a hook; a manner of getting your reader’s attention.

Below, look at the opening paragraph of a middle school student’s essay regarding the connection of a song to a relationship in the novel, Ender’s Game

Take note of the following regarding the above opening paragraph:

a. The hook is colored in red. 

b. Background information is offered in purple.

c. The thesis statement is provided in green.

When it comes to writing your introductory paragraph, please for the sanity of your teachers and all else who read your hard work, avoid the following pitfalls:

1. Do not state “I am here to tell you about . . .”

2. Do not state “The main reason of my paper is to . . .”

3. Do not state “My paper is going to be about . . .

Printable Version of Introductory Paragraph Check 

Lesson 13 - The Meat and Potatoes . . . the Body

There are a variety of ways, which can shape the body of your research paper. It mainly depends on what tone you’re aiming for, and the type of paper you’ve chosen to write (i.e. explanatory, persuasive, or analytical). Take a look at the following cards and see which may work best for your intended purposes. Remember, depending on the length of your paper, you may use more than one of these within the body of your research.

Lesson 14 - Make the Body Come to Life with Visual Aids

While certainly not something to overdo, the proper use of visuals (i.e. graphs, charts, pictures, etc.) can enhance the body of a research paper. It’s important to note that just as you would cite an author for using their words, you must also reference any visual aids you utilize, as well. 

When choosing visual aids, make sure that they compliment your written material. For example, don’t just throw a graph or picture into the body of your paragraph, because it looks “pretty”. It must have a strong correlation to your written material. Finally, if possible, try to put your visual aids as close to the written material it pertains to, as possible.  For example, don’t put a graph showing shark attack data next to a paragraph talking about a shark’s swimming patterns. 

Lesson 15 - That’s a Wrap! The Closing Paragraph

Bar none, as an educator, the paragraph that causes students the most trouble is the closing. One would think that now that you’ve gotten to the end of the paper, it should be a breeze to wrap it up . . . but, that’s not always the case.

Most importantly, make sure that you have restated your thesis statement within your closing paragraph. It is also helpful to offer any final thoughts or opinions you may have based off your research, and how it relates to your thesis statement. In addition, make sure to reiterate any key points made or discovered throughout your research. This can help validate your findings and leave your reader with a clear understanding of how you came to your basis of thought, leaving them with a clear and conclusive ending. 

Below, take a look at how the student restates their thesis in green. Then, notice how they offer a few final thoughts which coincide with the thesis statement, bringing the paper to a close. To remind you, take a look at the paper’s opening paragraph below the closing.

Lesson 16 - Clean It Up! Revising and Editing the Rough Draft

The revision and editing process is an integral part in polishing your research paper. Within this stage of the writing process, make all the necessary changes to improve and enhance the ideas you’ve put forth in your paper. 

Look below to take yourself step by step through your revision and editing experience.

Hard Work Pays Off!

Take a look at two papers by the same 8th grade student below. Their research paper, following the format provided here at 123read&write, has paid off greatly. Look at their improvement. Certainly a paper to be proud of!

September Paper

April Paper