Over the years, I've managed to vastly improve how I write research papers.
The three major game-changers for me, in terms of quality of the finished piece, have been:
- Following the research paper checklist (see below)
- Developing the thesis before starting to write
- And, more recently, using AI to improve my research paper draft
Let's break down each of these elements and produce the kind of research papers that get cited in magazines.
What is a research paper, and how is it written differently?
Research papers are longer and more in-depth than essays. They require extensive research and evidence-based arguments. Research papers also typically have a more formal structure and require citations and references.When academics want to find a balanced and comprehensive view on a given topic, they usually seek a research paper.
Like most writing assignments, a research paper can be broken down into simple steps. Research papers follow the same basic writing process as explanatory or persuasive essays — but instead of making an argument or drawing greater meaning from the topic, the research paper is primarily concerned with concrete facts that may be analyzed, examined, or interpreted to better understand the paper’s central topic.
This is good news if you enjoy research: you’ll be doing a lot of it. The ultimate quality of your paper depends on you conducting thorough, complete research — and relying on reputable sources.
1. Make a checklist based on the assignment description.
Your professor has likely specified some criteria for your research paper:
- Length (in pages or words)
- Type of topic (the War of 1812, ancient Greece, agriculture, etc.)
- Elements that must be included, such as analysis, discussion, and comparison.
- Types of sources you must draw from (academic papers, encyclopedias, etc.)
- Source attribution style
- Formatting style
Go through the assignment description and create a checklist of those criteria. You can use this checklist throughout the research and writing process as well:
2. Choose a topic you’re curious about.
A sure way to write a boring research paper is to pick a topic you have no interest in, like summer temperatures in the desert or the life cycle of a flea. (Though someone’s probably interested in those things.)
Instead, follow your curiosity.
If your paper is for a writing class, you may have a lot of freedom to choose what you write about, so tap into your interests. Are you intrigued by the history of roller skating or the invention of the soccer cleat? Or how teen social dynamics have changed with evolving technology (think: home phones → online instant messaging → flip phones → smartphones)?
If you’re writing for a class in a subject like history, art, or science, you’ll probably have more restrictions on what you can write about — like a time period or type of art or science — but you can still use your curiosity to pick an interesting topic.
If you’re having a tough time, try brainstorming a list of things you’ve wondered about. Ask “what’s up with…” and see what comes to mind.
Once you have a list, choose the topic you find most interesting (and appropriate for the assignment).
Use AI to find a topic
If your mind draws a blank, you can utilize AI to help you choose a topic. Let's say your course is about mid century art. You can go to a tool like ChatGPT and ask it to give you ideas for creative mid century art essays. See example below.
3. Develop your thesis (and guide your research) by asking a research question.
Even though a research paper may not necessarily take a side on a topic, it still needs a thesis, aka a central idea or focus that drives the piece from beginning to end.
We wrote a whole guide on writing thesis statements, so here we’ll just give you this tip:
Use a research question to develop your thesis.
A research question is a variation on the “What’s up with…” questions from the last tip — but it will zoom in more specifically on the aspect of your topic that you’re investigating.
You may already know the answer to these questions, or you may not. Either way, they give you a place to start in your research. Once you have your question, set out to:
- Find the initial answer.
- Gather more context (the who, what, when, where, why, how) around that answer.
- Revise your research question and turn it into your thesis.
This process helps tighten your focus from a broad topic that could fill books to a specific angle that can be meaningfully explored in the few pages of your paper.
4. Skim sources to save time finding relevant information.
Your research question can help you quickly determine whether information is relevant to your paper. As you gather initial sources, skim them — and then use your research question to decide whether to keep or discard the source.
This approach will save you precious research time. You won’t waste limited hours reading sources that don’t have a single helpful fact.
Use AI to perform research for your paper
If skimming is hard for you (as a deep reader, I get it), Wordtune Read can help. Paste the link to your online source, upload a scanned PDF, or copy the text, and the tool will scan and summarize for you. You can always come back later and closely read the most useful sources.
5. Make note of the most interesting facts you find.
Along with taking detailed notes of your research (complete with all the source info you need to make proper citations), highlight the most interesting facts you come across. You could stick these in a section together or mark them in a way that makes them stand out.
Why should you do this?
Because later on, one of these fascinating factoids could have a direct connection to your thesis — and make a great hook for the start of your paper. Instead of digging through all of your notes to try to remember what that interesting tidbit was, you’ll be able to find it easily.
6. Organize your research.
There are plenty of ways to organize your notes, but I suggest breaking them up into subtopics and categories.
- Subtopic: A topic related to your main topic or thesis that needs to be explained and understood by readers in order to understand your main topic or thesis. For example: Land ownership in Ireland under British rule.
- Category: An overarching concept that several subtopics fall under. For example: British restrictions on the Irish.
To start, I would focus on the subtopics and then group them into categories.
As you organize, use the formatting tools in your word processor to tag headings and subheadings. For example, all categories would be an H2 (Heading 2), while all subtopics would be an H3 (Heading 3).
Tagging your categories and subtopics this way will help you develop your outline. Just organize your categories and subtopics in a logical order, and you’ll have a skeleton of an outline ready to go.
7. Write with your research document open.
No one can remember everything they found while researching — you’ll need to reference your research document throughout the writing process. No question there.
But you can make this easier (and keep your writing process efficient) by:
Keeping your research document open and in clear view.
I like to put my draft document and my research document side by side on my screen, so I can see them both at the same time.
Another approach would be to paste the information you need directly into your draft document — in the order you’ll need it. (Your outline will help you know what you need.)
8. Steal the TK trick from journalists.
In the middle of drafting your paper, you find that you’re missing a fact.
You neglected to write down how many Irish people starved due to the potato famine.
You don’t know what age Spartan women were able to own property.
Instead of derailing your writing and searching for that information, write the sentence you want to write and stick a “TK” where the missing fact should go.
“TK” stands for “to come” (don't ask us why) and is a placeholder used by journalists to mark missing information they’ll fill in later. Using TK allows you to keep writing without getting off track every time you discover your research didn’t cover everything.
9. Revise, explain, paraphrase with AI as your research/writing assistant.
If you’re ever at a loss for words — writing clunky, clumsy sentences, struggling to explain a concept, or having a hard time paraphrasing a source — Wordtune can serve as your AI sidekick.
Simply highlight the sentence in question and browse Wordtune’s suggestion for a better wording.
You can also use Wordtune Spices to come up with examples and counter arguments for whatever you're writing about or even find stats and facts, complete with source citations
Wordtune doesn’t do all of the writing for you, but it can help you sharpen your ideas on the sentence level, so you can hand in a research paper with good writing that’s still very much your own.
This article was co-written with Wordtune. Wordtune didn’t write the whole piece. Instead, it contributed ideas, suggested rephrasing alternatives, maintained consistency in tone, and of course - made the process much more fun for the writer.