To write a research paper—one that includes peer-reviewed journals, books, and other sources gathered together and analyzed to come to some specific conclusions about the subject studied—one needs a research question. The question is everything because it kicks off the search for information and evidence, and it will later become the paper’s thesis. I ask myself, what do I want to know? What intrigues me? To write research one has to have an inquiring mind. It is not a passive act. Even in the most esoteric subject, the writer must find something of interest, some way into the research. If it is an exercise to fulfill a requirement, it will read like an exercise to fulfill a requirement. So, the research question is the equivalent of the Big Bang of a writer’s journey to write something true and meaningful and intelligent. It is the all-too-crucial starting point.
I usually wind up rewriting my research question and thesis many times over before I am satisfied. With a draft of my research question, I start digging for sources. I log into library sites and other databases to find material. I like to read academic papers on the subject which contain a wealth of information, graphs, charts, statistics and, best of all, a bibliography that might lead me to more sources. I really like this stage of the process, too, which helps, although there is always a point where I must tell myself to stop researching and move on to the writing stages.
I work a specific way with articles from databases. I print them, if possible, so I have hard copies. This might be cost-prohibitive if the article is 30-plus pages, but if it is under ten pages, I go for it. If it is too long or there is some other reason I cannot print it, I convert it to a PDF and save it on my computer. I always find it difficult to locate the article again if I do not save it, or at least bookmark it. I also copy the citation details into a Word document so I have an informal list of sources saved there. Once printed, I begin to highlight and annotate the text (you can find some tips how to do this here). I select specific quotes I want to use from the text and make sure to document page numbers so I can refer to them in my citations. Once I have my materials, I make out a rough schedule of deadlines so I can finish on time. If necessary, I also revise my thesis depending upon the research.
My first writing step is to outline. The outline structure that works the best for me is to write out the first paragraph, the opening with the thesis. I make notes for each body section, specifically the points I want to cover as I construct my analysis or argument. Then I write out the final paragraph. The opening hooks the reader and the closing leaves him or her something to think about, and because of that importance, I spend a lot of time revising and rewriting the opening and closing.
The method that works for me when drafting my paper is to make voluminous notes and outlines before I write. Structure is key. Notes and outlines give you the final piece, as the great writer Joan Didion tells us in her Paris Review interview. All of this material is usually handwritten on legal pads or in notebooks. When I reach critical mass with notes and outlines, I type my first draft on the computer straight through without stopping. I just need to get the ideas down on paper and typing is much faster to catch those ideas. Going in, I know this draft will suck, but it is all about capturing the ideas now. I do include citations and quotes, direct and paraphrased, because I find it too easy to forget to add them later. I also put in the bibliography at the end.
Now comes revision. I print out my draft, mark it up, put the changes into the computer, and print another draft. Lather, rinse, repeat. Over and over again. I do not save each individual draft under a different name on the computer, but I do print them so they are in the folder and I can access them easily should I want to put something I cut back in on a later draft. Writers can often tell you how many drafts it takes to get the piece right. For me, it is four to five drafts; David Foster Wallace has talked about being a five draft man. Ernest Hemingway has quoted different figures, claiming he rewrote the ending to one of his stories twenty or thirty times.
Once I feel I am simply going around and around, putting back in commas I took out, it is time to let the bird fly off into the world. I proofread, distinct from revision in that I am looking for typos and other formatting errors I missed when revising. Once this is done, I print a clean draft—one for my files and one for submission, or I submit it electronically, which is more common these days. If I submit over the internet or as an email attachment, I try to check with the recipient later to make sure it arrived in the digital mailbox.
At the conclusion of writing a piece, I make sure to save all notes, outlines, drafts and source materials for reference. This is proof of my research and helps with fact checking the piece before publication.
Is this the only way to write a research paper? No. The process of writing is unique to each person, and one must find the way that works best. I do like reading how other writers I admire do it, and I have borrowed from them extensively in my own process and in teaching students. In the craft, the final piece should look like it was composed effortlessly in a voice that is clear and concise, but to do that, like any good builder, one must hide the seams and structural supports to make the architecture sound as well as beautiful. That is the goal of all writers.