Having just come out of a harrowing week cramming in a 10 page research paper – that was supposed to have been started in December – into one weekend, I can safely say that, at least for me, research papers are the hardest types of papers to write. But what, you may ask, is so difficult about them? They’re rather straightforward, they can be factually based, and in some cases, there’s no need to have an argument at all. So what’s the catch?
I would definitely say, all of the above. During my second year, I had the lovely experience of having submitted (and received with a mark that made me :-)) a research paper gone right, and also undertaken the nightmarish task of producing a research paper at the very last minute. With these in mind, I’ve developed a (hopefully!) fool proof plan for getting the best mark possible on a research paper.
1. Start WAY early. But not too early.
Okay, so the weekend before the paper is due is really not going to cut it. Especially if you’re looking for that A+ mark. But in my experience, starting on the essay too early just leads to a false sense of security and a whole lot of procrastination. Start thinking about the topic you want to do as soon as the essay is assigned, or, if it’s written in the syllabus, about three weeks before its due. Give yourself a week to think of what you want to write about. Then….
2. Talk about your chosen topic with your Prof.
Professors really do like it when you come and talk to them about your ideas. It shows enthusiasm, and it gets them interested in your paper from the onset. Additionally, if you were given a list of suggested topics to potentially choose from, try not to choose one of them. Chances are, the professor teaching your course has already read hundreds of essays on those topics and is bored to death by it. Take a risk, pick something new and think about what YOU want to write about as well. When you go talk to them about it, they’ll likely get excited about it and start recommending books for you to consider or authors to consult – which is never a bad thing!
3. Gather books and research materials.
Usually around 2 weeks before the paper is due I begin my research. Now, I operate on a compressed time schedule and this just works for me, but if you know that you need more time for the actual writing part of it, start your research a week earlier. Gather as many resources that seem relevant for your topic, and yes, actually make that trip to the library. While scholarly articles found in databases are useful, good old fashioned books tend to flesh things out more, and not everything is available on Google Books! I try to give myself around a week to take many notes on these sources. It’s during this time that you should….
4. Formulate a THESIS.
Even though this is a research paper, it still needs a thesis, otherwise your paper will lack sophistication and complex arguments. I usually find that while doing my research, I start to hone in on certain things, and the vague blurry outlines of a thesis begin to emerge. For me, this is the hardest part. Often that evasive thesis remains out of reach until the moment I’m done with my essay, when I realize what I’ve been arguing the whole time. So sometimes, even if you don’t have a thesis, you need to just start to…
This is probably the easiest and hardest part at the same time. Lately, I’ve been overthinking it, and writing essays has become that much more difficult. Take it from me, and just sit down and write the essay. You’ll discover your refined thesis by the end of it, and you’ll have the structure of your essay.
Edit, edit, edit! Restructure sentences, reorganize paragraphs and rejuvenate your essay by trying not to repeat adjectives or words and by adding in your own writing style. Professors look for a certain flair and panache that screams confidence and sophistication of argument. And, when you’re done editing, give it to your best friend to edit (or to someone you know who won’t be afraid to rip it apart!)
7. Avoid stupid mistakes!
After all that hard work, don’t forget your footnotes/works cited/page numbers/title of the essay/your name! With the amount of dedication you’ve just put into that essay, do yourself a favor and double check that you have all of the above (and whatever else your prof requires of you!) I tend to over-cite things, (my last essay had 98 footnotes…) but hey, better safe than sorry right?
In the end, you want to hand in an essay that you enjoyed working on and that you feel is the best you could have done. Submit it with no regrets and a clear conscience, and you’re on your way to that A+!