If you are transitioning to college or just need some pointers for writing a good undergraduate research paper, you’ve come to the right place. While you may have written academic papers before, in college you will likely be graded subjectively based on what your professor outlines in the assignment. Developing your writing skills is a process, but luckily, no matter what degree program you’re in, you’ll get lots of practice writing for almost every college course.
Effective research will be your ticket to success, no matter how good of a writer you are. It doesn’t matter how much you think you know about the topic, if you don’t cite your argument and findings, your paper will be viewed as an opinion piece or simply plagiarism.
It may go without saying, but use resources that are from a legitimate source. If you are searching online, only use reputable websites to build your argument from. The best place to start looking is your university’s library. Not only will they have tons of print sources to use, they will also have access to reputable online resource databases like JSTOR, newspapers, Academic OneFile, and other scholarly, peer-reviewed journals. The quality of your sources will speak to the quality of your argument.
Developing a thesis
Use your own curiosity to guide you when coming up with a thesis. You want to choose a thesis that is original, but has enough resources on the topic to draw conclusions from. Try to ask a question that warrants deep reflection and can only be answered in a well-thought out argument. Brainstorm topics when you are first starting out, do some research on your top three or five, and then choose the one that you are most passionate about.
Choose a topic that is relevant to your field of study, timely, sparks your interest, and is able to be answered in the page limit and time you are given to write the paper. While you don’t want to run out of things to say, you also want to be able to hit all of the main points.
Outlines are very helpful when first starting out. Start out with a one sentence introduction, jot down phrases of your main points that you want to make, and then finish with a one sentence conclusion. You will fill it all in later. The purpose of an outline is to get a visual representation of your paper before you start writing so that you can move things around and fill in some of the blanks if you need.
Many people will jump around when they write, so don’t feel like you have to go from beginning to end. Start with the point in your argument that you know most about, or write your conclusion first. As long as everything goes together at the end of writing, it doesn’t matter where you start.
Quotes will be the sails to your ship. They allow you to legitimize your argument with published statements from experts in the field. Use quotes sparingly, but use them effectively. If you are trying to make a point, for example, state your point, use the quote as evidence for your argument, and then always explain the quote in your own words after.
When you use quotes, be sure to use the required format, for example MLA, APA, or Chicago. Look up online for guides on how to cite your articles correctly if you are unsure. You don’t want to get docked points off your grade for something as simple as a formatting error.
Now is the time to write. All of the knowledge you have gained by researching needs to come out naturally, so just start writing. Don’t think too hard, just write. Revising comes later.
Some people call this freewriting, and in academic papers it is no different. Write and write until you run out of things to say. Even if you have to jump around in your argument or aren’t sure how to end a paragraph, go on to the next one. The idea here is to get all of your thoughts down on paper so that you don’t forget something by trying to go in order.
Revising is the final step in writing a research paper. Well, kind of. You may have to revise multiple times in order to get your paper in the place it needs to be to get a good grade. And there is nothing wrong with that. Editing is part of the revision process as well, but try not to get bogged down with correct spelling and sentence structure until the very end. Your argument is more important than what comma goes where.
When you revise, have other people read your paper. Ask them questions about the argument and if it made sense to them while reading. Ask them to underline or highlight parts in your argument that doesn’t make sense so that you can clear up any sense of confusion.
Remember, writing is a process, and most writers are never happy with their finished product. In How to Use the Power of the Printed Word, Kurt Vonnegut said, “If a sentence, no matter how excellent, does not illuminate your subject in some new and useful way, scratch it out.”