How to Start a College Research Paper

December 21, 2020

So it's happened, you've been assigned your first college research paper. Where do you start? What should you write about? Where can you find sources for your paper? Often, research papers feel daunting at first, but with support and planning, they don't have to be.

Decide On a Topic

The first question to ask when writing a research paper is what are you going to write about? Depending on the course and assignment, you may have a topic assigned to you, or you can choose your own. Once you have a topic, the next step is to ask yourself, what about this topic interests me? What questions can I answer? It can be helpful to write down some questions about the topic to help brainstorm ideas about your paper. This can narrow down the types of sources you're looking for.

Start Your Research

The next step is to gather sources about your topic. There are a wide variety of sources for research papers, but the most popular are books and academic journal articles. The sources can vary widely based on the topic of the paper and the discipline being researched. Talking with your professor about where to find reliable resources based on the discipline is a good start. Many college libraries have research librarians who can help students find relevant sources for their academic work. They may also know about sources that you haven't thought of yet.

Take Time to Organize

The next step is to read your sources, and take notes about how they support your main argument. Using your sources, you should start to craft a paper which proves your main research point, using strong, well-cited sources from your research. The research point is your argument, or hypothesis, about your topic. Consider what is the information in your research that supports your argument, and how you will include that information in your paper as a well-cited source that moves your argument along.

Review and Edit

The first draft you write may not meet your standards, but that's okay. That means it is time to start editing. Well-written research papers require a lot of careful editing. It may take a few drafts of your paper until you are happy with the final product. Even after a few edits, it may be helpful to have someone else read your paper to catch things that you missed before. Many colleges and universities have a writing center which can help students edit their papers.

Fine-Tune Your Paper

It's a great idea to read your paper aloud to hear for sentence inconsistencies, wrong verbiage, and to find spelling errors. It's important to make sure your source citations are in the correct format for your discipline, and the paper is formatted to meet your professor's directions. It's a lot of work to write a research paper, so make sure you begin early to give yourself time to write and edit before submitting it for your class. Pat yourself on the back, you did it! The next paper will be a breeze now that you're a seasoned research paper writer!