Let’s face it: writing a research report can feel like wrestling a big, hairy monster into 5 pages with footnotes. But if you make and follow a plan from the beginning, you’ll write a paper to make yourself proud. As tempting as it may seem to dive right in and start writing (so you can get it done) a good research paper starts before you start crafting stellar sentences. First, you’ll need to brainstorm a topic, then move on to researching. To keep yourself from getting totally overwhelmed, you’ll need to make time for each step. On the day your paper is assigned, use a calendar to plan backwards from the day it’s due. Divide your time into mini assignments, print the calendar, and hang it someplace you’ll see it often. So, if you have a month to write a paper, you might spend about 3 days brainstorming, a full week each for researching and writing, and 5 to 6 days each on your outline and revision. An outline is a roadmap to keep you from getting lost when you start to write.

It’s where you organize the questions you’ll answer and the information and subtopics you’ll cover in your paper. It’s a tool to help you, not another assignment to check off the list. There are lots of ways to make an outline and it makes sense to try out different versions to see what works for you. Term Paper Terrence likes to spend lots of time on his outline to make it really specific, down to noting what quotes he’ll use where. Terrence finds the more detail he puts into the outline, the easier the paper is to write. Research Project Rachel feels differently about outlines. She looks through her research and makes a list of broad subtopics she’ll cover. For her paper on rhinoceri (you know, more than one rhinoceros) she’ll list things like: where they live and what they like to eat — mostly vegetables, they’re vegetarians — but she generally doesn’t break it down into smaller details. Rachel likes to structure her paper as she writes and revises.

She looks back at what she has as she goes and decides on what to write about next. She often changes the structure of earlier parts based on what she’s writing later on. Compared to Terrence, she spends a lot more time writing and revising, but not nearly as much on the outline itself. Once you’ve got your topic, research, and outline in hand, it’s time to start writing. In your introduction, sometimes called your thesis statement or lead paragraph, you’ll outline exactly what someone reading this paper can expect to learn from it. It’s a tantalizing look at all the neat stuff the reader can look forward to finding out about. Don’t worry about getting the first sentences absolutely perfect on your first try. Sometimes it’s better to keep writing and adjust later. Your introduction will usually be between one and three paragraphs long and will act almost like a summary of the topics to come. Every paragraph tells a story, or at least it should. There should be a point to it, a piece of information you’re explaining.

Often the first sentence of the paragraph will serve as a bridge or link from the previous paragraph and as an introduction to what the new paragraph is about. The next few sentences will provide examples or information to back up the first sentence. You have time specifically put aside for revision, but as you write do keep in mind that every sentence should have a reason for being and that reason is to support the paragraph as a whole. Likewise, every paragraph should have information that helps give meaning to the topic. Extra words and ideas are sure to sneak in there and clutter up your writing. It’s your job to keep those words and sentences out of your paper. There’s a fine balance between providing enough explanation and examples and making your paper unclear with extra words and thoughts. A good conclusion is related to a good introduction. They’re like cousins, not entirely the same, but with many of the same qualities.

At the end of the paper, you’re wrapping up all your ideas and reminding the reader of what he learned. There usually isn’t new information; it’s more about revisiting the big ideas. A conclusion is often just a paragraph long or it might be two or three. Imagine saying to your reader, “As you can see from reading my paper…” The rest of that statement is the end of your paper. Here’s a secret: writing is hard, but revising effectively might be even harder. But it’s worth the effort because this is the step that takes your okay, pretty good paper and transforms it into an assignment that really shines. Revision or editing is not, I repeat, is not the same as re-writing the whole thing from scratch. You’re not starting from square one here and you most likely don’t need to scrap everything. What you are doing is taking a close and careful look at each word, sentence, and paragraph to make sure you’ve made the best choices. Is everything spelled correctly? Are there any extra words, sentences, or paragraphs that don’t add to the paper and should be deleted?

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