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How To Write A Personal Research Paper

What is a research paper? A research paper is a piece of academic writing based on its author’s original research on a particular topic, and the analysis and interpretation of the research findings. It can be either a term paper, a master’s thesis or a doctoral dissertation. This Chapter outlines the logical steps to writing a good research paper. To achieve supreme excellence or perfection in anything you do, you need more than just the knowledge. Like the Olympic athlete aiming for the gold medal, you must have a positive attitude and the belief that you have the ability to achieve it. That is the real start to writing an A+ research paper.

STEP 1. HOW TO START A RESEARCH PAPER? CHOOSE A TOPIC

Choose a topic which interests and challenges you. Your attitude towards the topic may well determine the amount of effort and enthusiasm you put into your research.

Focus on a limited aspect, e.g. narrow it down from “Religion” to “World Religion” to “Buddhism”. Obtain teacher approval for your topic before embarking on a full-scale research. If you are uncertain as to what is expected of you in completing the assignment or project, re-read your assignment sheet carefully or ASK your teacher.

Select a subject you can manage. Avoid subjects that are too technical, learned, or specialized. Avoid topics that have only a very narrow range of source materials.

STEP 2. FIND INFORMATION

Surf the Net.

For general or background information, check out useful URLs, general information online, almanacs or encyclopedias online such as Britannica. Use search engines and other search tools as a starting point.

Pay attention to domain name extensions, e.g., .edu (educational institution), .gov (government), or .org (non-profit organization). These sites represent institutions and tend to be more reliable, but be watchful of possible political bias in some government sites. Be selective of .com (commercial) sites. Many .com sites are excellent; however, a large number of them contain advertisements for products and nothing else. Network Solutions provides a link where you can find out what some of the other extensions stand for. Be wary of the millions of personal home pages on the Net. The quality of these personal homepages vary greatly. Learning how to evaluate websites critically and to search effectively on the Internet can help you eliminate irrelevant sites and waste less of your time.

The recent arrival of a variety of domain name extensions such as .biz (commercial businesses), .pro, .info (info on products / organizations), .name, .ws (WebSite), .cc (Cocos Island) or .sh (St. Helena) or .tv (Tuvalu) may create some confusion as you would not be able to tell whether a .cc or .sh or .tv site is in reality a .com, a .edu, a .gov, a .net, or a .org site. Many of the new extensions have no registration restrictions and are available to anyone who wishes to register a distinct domain name that has not already been taken. For instance, if Books.com is unavailable, you can register as Books.ws or Books.info via a service agent such as Register.com.

To find books in the Library use the OPAC (Online Public Access Catalog).

Check out other print materials available in the Library:

  • Almanacs, Atlases, AV Catalogs
  • Encyclopedias and Dictionaries
  • Government Publications, Guides, Reports
  • Magazines, Newspapers
  • Vertical Files
  • Yellow Pages, Zip or Postal Code and Telephone Directories

Check out online resources, Web based information services, or special resource materials on CDs:

  • Online reference materials (including databases, e.g. SIRS, ProQuest, eLibrary, etc.)
  • Google Scholar 
  • Wall Street Executive Library
  • Index to Periodicals and Newspapers (e.g. MagPortal.com, OnlineNewspapers.com, etc.)
  • Answers.com – an online dictionary and encyclopedia all-in-one resource that you can install on your computer free of charge and find one-click answers quickly.
  • Encyclopedias (e.g.Britannica, Canadian Encyclopedia, etc.)
  • Magazines and Journals
  • Newspapers
  • International Public Library 
  • Subject Specific software (e.g. discovering authors, exploring Shakespeare, etc.)

Check out public and university libraries, businesses, government agencies, as well as contact knowledgeable people in your community.

Read and evaluate. Bookmark your favorite Internet sites. Printout, photocopy, and take notes of relevant information.

As you gather your resources, jot down full bibliographical information (author, title, place of publication, publisher, date of publication, page numbers, URLs, creation or modification dates on Web pages, and your date of access) on your work sheet, printout, or enter the information on your laptop or desktop computer for later retrieval. If printing from the Internet, it is wise to set up the browser to print the URL and date of access for every page. Remember that an article without bibliographical information is useless since you cannot cite its source.

STEP 3. MAKE YOUR THESIS STATEMENT

Most research papers normally require a thesis statement. If you are not sure, ask your teacher whether your paper requires it.

A thesis statement is a main idea, a central point of your research paper. The arguments you provide in your paper should be based on this cenral idea, that is why it is so important. Do some critical thinking and write your thesis statement down in one sentence. Your research paper thesis statement is like a declaration of your belief. The main portion of your essay will consist of arguments to support and defend this belief.

A thesis statement should be provided early in your paper – in the introduction part, or in the second paragraph, if your paper is longer.

It is impossible to create a thesis statement immediately when you have just started fulfilling your assignment. Before you write a thesis statement, you should collect, organize and analyze materials and your ideas. You cannot make a finally formulated statement before you have completed your reseach paper. It will naturally change while you develop your ideas.

Stay away from generic and too fuzzy statements and arguments. Use a particular subject. The paper should present something new to the audience to make it interesting and educative to read.

Avoid citing other authors in this section. Present your own ideas in your own words instead of simply copying from other writers.

A thesis statement should do the following:

  • Explain the readers how you interpret the subject of the research
  • Tell the readers what to expect from your paper
  • Answer the question you were asked
  • Present your claim which other people may want to dispute

Make sure your thesis is strong.

If you have time and opportunity, show it to your instructor to revise. Otherwise, you may estimate it yourself.

You must check:

  • Does my statement answer the question of my assignment?
  • Can my position be disputed or opposed? If not, maybe you have just provided a summary instead of creating an argument.
  • Is my statement precise enough? It should not be too general and vague.
  • Does it pass a so-called “so what” test? Does it provide new/interesting information to your audience or does it simply state a generic fact?
  • Does the body of my manuscript support my thesis, or are they different things? Compare them and change if necessary. Remember that changing elements of your work in the process of writing and reviewing is normal.

A well-prepared thesis means well-shaped ideas. It increases credibility of the paper and makes good impression about its author.

More helpful hints about Writing a Research Paper.

STEP 4. MAKE A RESEARCH PAPER OUTLINE

A research paper basically has the following structure:

  1. Title Page (including the title, the author’s name, the name of a University or colledge, and the publication date)
  2. Abstract (brief summary of the paper – 250 words or less)
  3. Introduction (background information on the topic or a brief comment leading into the subject matter – up to 2 pages)
  4. Manuscript Body, which can be broken down in further sections, depending on the nature of research:
  • Materials and Methods
  • Results (what are the results obtained)
  • Discussion and Conclusion etc.
  1. Reference
  2. Tables, figures, and appendix (optional)

An outline might be formal or informal.

An informal outline (working outline) is a tool helping an author put down and organize their ideas. It is subject to revision, addition and canceling, without paying much attention to form. It helps an author to make their key points clear for him/her and arrange them.

Sometimes the students are asked to submit formal outlines with their research papers.

In a formal outline, numbers and letters are used to arrange topics and subtopics. The letters and numbers of the same kind should be placed directly under one another. The topics denoted by their headings and subheadings should be grouped in a logical order.

All points of a research paper outline must relate to the same major topic that you first mentioned in your capital Roman numeral.

Example of an outline:

I. INTRODUCTION - (Brief comment leading into subject matter - Thesis statement on Shakespeare) II. BODY - Shakespeare's Early Life, Marriage, Works, Later Years A. Early life in Stratford 1. Shakespeare's family a. Shakespeare's father b. Shakespeare's mother 2. Shakespeare's marriage a. Life of Anne Hathaway b. Reference in Shakespeare's Poems B. Shakespeare's works 1. Plays a. Tragedies i. Hamlet ii. Romeo and Juliet b. Comedies i. The Tempest ii. Much Ado About Nothing c. Histories i. King John ii. Richard III iii. Henry VIII 2. Sonnets 3. Other poems C. Shakespeare's Later Years 1. Last two plays 2. Retired to Stratford a. Death b. Burial i. Epitaph on his tombstone III. CONCLUSION A. Analytical summary 1. Shakespeare's early life 2. Shakespeare's works 3. Shakespeare's later years B. Thesis reworded C. Concluding statement

The purpose of an outline is to help you think through your topic carefully and organize it logically before you start writing. A good outline is the most important step in writing a good paper. Check your outline to make sure that the points covered flow logically from one to the other. Include in your outline an INTRODUCTION, a BODY, and a CONCLUSION. Make the first outline tentative.

INTRODUCTION – State your thesis and the purpose of your research paper clearly. What is the chief reason you are writing the paper? State also how you plan to approach your topic. Is this a factual report, a book review, a comparison, or an analysis of a problem? Explain briefly the major points you plan to cover in your paper and why readers should be interested in your topic.

BODY – This is where you present your arguments to support your thesis statement. Remember the Rule of 3, i.e. find 3 supporting arguments for each position you take. Begin with a strong argument, then use a stronger one, and end with the strongest argument for your final point.

CONCLUSION – Restate or reword your thesis. Summarize your arguments. Explain why you have come to this particular conclusion.

STEP 5. ORGANIZE YOUR NOTES

Organize all the information you have gathered according to your outline. Critically analyze your research data. Using the best available sources, check for accuracy and verify that the information is factual, up-to-date, and correct. Opposing views should also be noted if they help to support your thesis. This is the most important stage in writing a research paper. Here you will analyze, synthesize, sort, and digest the information you have gathered and hopefully learn something about your topic which is the real purpose of doing a research paper in the first place. You must also be able to effectively communicate your thoughts, ideas, insights, and research findings to others through written words as in a report, an essay, a research or term paper, or through spoken words as in an oral or multimedia presentation with audio-visual aids.

Do not include any information that is not relevant to your topic, and do not include information that you do not understand. Make sure the information that you have noted is carefully recorded and in your own words, if possible. Plagiarism is definitely out of the question. Document all ideas borrowed or quotes used very accurately. As you organize your notes, jot down detailed bibliographical information for each cited paragraph and have it ready to transfer to your Works Cited page.

Devise your own method to organize your notes. One method may be to mark with a different color ink or use a hi-liter to identify sections in your outline, e.g., IA3b – meaning that the item “Accessing WWW” belongs in the following location of your outline:

I. Understanding the Internet A. What is the Internet 3. How to "Surf the Net" b. Accessing WWW

Group your notes following the outline codes you have assigned to your notes, e.g., IA2, IA3, IA4, etc. This method will enable you to quickly put all your resources in the right place as you organize your notes according to your outline.

STEP 6. WRITE YOUR FIRST DRAFT

Start with the first topic in your outline. Read all the relevant notes you have gathered that have been marked, e.g. with the capital Roman numeral I.

Summarize, paraphrase or quote directly for each idea you plan to use in your essay. Use a technique that suits you, e.g. write summaries, paraphrases or quotations on note cards, or separate sheets of lined paper. Mark each card or sheet of paper clearly with your outline code or reference, e.g., IB2a or IIC, etc.

Put all your note cards or paper in the order of your outline, e.g. IA, IB, IC. If using a word processor, create meaningful filenames that match your outline codes for easy cut and paste as you type up your final paper, e.g. cut first Introduction paragraph and paste it to IA. Before you know it, you have a well organized term paper completed exactly as outlined.

If it is helpful to you, use a symbol such as “#” to mark the spot where you would like to check back later to edit a paragraph. The unusual symbol will make it easy for you to find the exact location again. Delete the symbol once editing is completed.

STEP 7. REVISE YOUR OUTLINE AND DRAFT

Read your paper for any content errors. Double check the facts and figures. Arrange and rearrange ideas to follow your outline. Reorganize your outline if necessary, but always keep the purpose of your paper and your readers in mind. Use a free grammar and proof reading checker such as Grammarly.

CHECKLIST ONE:

1. Is my thesis statement concise and clear?
2. Did I follow my outline? Did I miss anything?
3. Are my arguments presented in a logical sequence?
4. Are all sources properly cited to ensure that I am not plagiarizing?
5. Have I proved my thesis with strong supporting arguments?
6. Have I made my intentions and points clear in the essay?

Re-read your paper for grammatical errors. Use a dictionary or a thesaurus as needed. Do a spell check. Correct all errors that you can spot and improve the overall quality of the paper to the best of your ability. Get someone else to read it over. Sometimes a second pair of eyes can see mistakes that you missed.

CHECKLIST TWO:

1. Did I begin each paragraph with a proper topic sentence?
2. Have I supported my arguments with documented proof or examples?
3. Any run-on or unfinished sentences?
4. Any unnecessary or repetitious words?
5. Varying lengths of sentences?
6. Does one paragraph or idea flow smoothly into the next?
7. Any spelling or grammatical errors?
8. Quotes accurate in source, spelling, and punctuation?
9. Are all my citations accurate and in correct format?
10. Did I avoid using contractions? Use “cannot” instead of “can’t”, “do not” instead of “don’t”?
11. Did I use third person as much as possible? Avoid using phrases such as “I think”, “I guess”, “I suppose”
12. Have I made my points clear and interesting but remained objective?
13. Did I leave a sense of completion for my reader(s) at the end of the paper?


The Elements of Style, Fourth Edition, by William Strunk, Jr.

For an excellent source on English composition, check out this classic book by William Strunk, Jr. on the Elements of Style. Contents include: Elementary Rules of Usage, Elementary Principles of Composition, Words & Expressions Commonly Misused, An Approach to Style with a List of Reminders: Place yourself in the background, Revise and rewrite, Avoid fancy words, Be clear, Do not inject opinion, Do not take shortcuts at the cost of clarity, … and much more. Details of The Elements of Style by William Strunk, Jr. partially available online at Bartleby.com. Note: William Strunk, Jr. (1869–1946). The Elements of Style was first published in 1918.

There is also a particular formatting style you must follow. It depends on the field of your studies or the requirements of your University/supervisor.

There are several formatting styles typically used. The most commonly used are the APA style and the MLA style. However, there are such style guides as the Chicago Manual of Style, American Medical Association (AMA) Style, and more.

APA (American Psychological Association) style is mostly used to cite sources within the field of social sciences. The detailed information can be found in Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association, (6th ed., 2nd printing).

MLA (Modern Language Association) style is most commonly used for the liberal arts and humanities. The most recent printed guide on it is the  MLA Handbook (8th ed.). Instead of providing individual recommendations for each publishing format (printed, online, e-books etc.), this edition recommends a single universal set of guidelines, which writers can apply to any kind of source.

You should necessarily ask your instuctor which formatting style is required for your paper and format it accordingly before submitting.

STEP 8. TYPE FINAL PAPER

All formal reports or essays should be typewritten and printed, preferably on a good quality printer.

Read the assignment sheet again to be sure that you understand fully what is expected of you, and that your essay meets the requirements as specified by your teacher. Know how your essay will be evaluated.

Proofread final paper carefully for spelling, punctuation, missing or duplicated words. Make the effort to ensure that your final paper is clean, tidy, neat, and attractive.

Aim to have your final paper ready a day or two before the deadline. This gives you peace of mind and a chance to triple check. Before handing in your assignment for marking, ask yourself: “Is this the VERY BEST that I can do?”

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The easiest way to write a personal essay is to use the standard form taught in Composition 101: an introductory paragraph followed by three paragraphs outlining three main points and a final summary paragraph. But instead of just blathering about yourself, describe vivid scenes and what they mean to you, such as when your 2-year-old son, Jordan, solemnly declares from the bathtub “I can't swim—my penis is hard” and you tell him it's OK, it's normal, knowing it'll subside and he'll be able to swim soon, but you don't tell him that teeny little weenie he's holding will be the source of the most intense worries, sorrows, and pleasures he'll ever experience, and you wonder if you'll ever be able to tell him the truth. You could follow this thought with the trials and tribulations of your own penis, unless you're a woman—but of course females are involved with love, sex, and life built around their own body parts, which can provide many interesting topics. The key to maintaining reader interest is to be open and honest, displaying your concerns and fears through specific, true-life examples rather than abstract concepts about how you think sex education is important because you learned the hard way on your own and you doubt you'll explain things any better than your own father did. Follow this format and, while you may not become a world-renowned author, you will be able to complete a personal essay.

Use five sentences in each paragraph. Some authors, like Faulkner, write immensely long sentences that drift into nooks and crannies of life, enlightening the reader about how, at age 16, you were tricked by a girl into trying on ring sets from her mom's jewelry-making equipment to find your ring size and later presented with a black onyx and silver ring you were too scared to wear because it implied going steady, which leads to sex, and Dad had just given you and your brother a box of Trojans the week before when Mom and Brooke had gone shopping at Sears for dresses and you were as uncomfortable as Dad when he grunted out his heart-to-heart “Use these to be safe,” especially since you'd recently calculated and realized he'd knocked Mom up with you when she was 16 and he was out of the army after a four-year hitch and you figured it must have happened by accident since their meeting was accidental, him picking her and her sisters up at a railroad crossing in the rain on Halloween and giving them a ride home, coming later to visit, finally getting down in April without a condom or maybe with one that broke and there you are in December but at least they'd gotten married over the summer and you realize it's April now and you stare at the ring and finally throw it away and tell her later you don't wear jewelry. Tough guys like Hemingway write short, straightforward sentences, such as: “The author stopped typing. His thick fingers lay bare on the keyboard. Although he's been married for eight years, his ring finger is naked. His wife knows he doesn't wear jewelry. Ever.” Yet other writers like to mix up the lengths of their sentences, using long, compound run-ons that begin with one thought then drive on to others but eventually circle back for completion, then follow with a short, crisp, prissy sentence that would satisfy an eighth-grade grammar teacher. Not me.

Write about things you've done or people you know, introducing your first true love or your first sexual encounter at age 17 crammed in the back of a Volkswagen Beetle with Danielle who will do it for free 'cause she has a crush on you and you need the experience to be ready for your true first time with Julie whom you love and can't get off your mind while you're wedged against the cold side window, remembering Julie's taste, the force of her tongue in your mouth, the way she holds your hard-on like she knows what she wants and you need to be sure how to do it exactly right so here you are pumping away feeling cheap and drunk and ashamed and excited and sore and thinking sex should be a lot more fun or magical than this floundering on the back seat. You can write in sober first person (“I found later with Julie I didn't need the practice session with Danielle”), but some feel this is self-serving and others, such as myself, need the safe distance from slivers of memory provided by humor, misdirection, and second or even third person (“At least he wore a condom both times”). Don't take examples from television or books or newspapers unless they have an effect on you. Don't write about Kurt Cobain's suicide after achieving fatherhood or Jimi and Janis overdosing when you were a teen unless you're a musician—even a part-time folk-rock banjo-picker—wondering how you ever made it out of adolescence since you were so horny yet scared of sex you could only function by smoking a joint first thing in the morning to slow down your thoughts yet still dragged home at midnight after playing a party and jerked off into a dark toilet bowl before passing out in bed worried if you'd wake the next morning and mostly hoping you wouldn't, having all these memories from those horrid nights years ago cascade through your mind when you returned home from a jam session last Wednesday night a little drunk and then—after checking on Jordan and his sister sleeping peacefully—crying for Kurt who'll never know his own child and crying for Jim Morrison and Carla Hill and Randy Batson who died in a car accident in high school and all the others you remember, knowing it was just luck you made it and they didn't, finally wiping away the tears as you piss tequila residue into a murky toilet before going to sleep knowing you're gonna drag tomorrow at work but sure you'll wake up in time as you always do. Write about universal themes you've experienced personally and others can relate to, like love, fear, and death—or sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll.

Use specific examples that stick to one theme. Don't write generically about how condoms might break when you can write specifically about the first time with Melanie who'd just gotten over an abortion and her new IUD wasn't ready yet so you ran back to your cabin at the summer camp where you were both counselors to get the jet-black, ribbed Love Machine you'd bought in a gas station in North Carolina and carried for two years for just such an occasion but after shredded pieces of black latex dripping with semen fell onto the rumpled sheets and Melanie stared like it was a loaded shotgun pointed right at her belly and all you could do was shrug “Sorry” and the only worry on your mind was when your next day off was so you could get to town and buy some that worked because this first time with her was what you'd always hoped sex would finally turn out to be—a fun, relaxed sharing of talk, laughter, and touch. Stick to one theme. Don't write about Carla Hill in ninth grade when you were 14 if you're writing about your sex life because she was murdered before anything happened, her throat cut in her own bed during an attempted rape the night before you'd finally mustered up enough courage to ask her to go steady and your buddies had helped you out by sitting in all the seats in the front, right-hand side of the bus where she always sat, leaving the only open space right next to you so she'd just have to sit there and you had your name bracelet all ready but she never got on and everyone else was sobbing, telling you about it. I feel that stories like that, despite being of possible interest, lack relevance to the major themes of “your sex life” in this essay and should be saved for some other piece of writing—unless, of course, you can tie the story in using a new focus, perhaps discovered while writing the essay, such as maybe realizing your refusal to wear jewelry has nothing to do with your dad, condoms, and pregnancy but is instead related somehow to your first attempt at commitment that went totally sour and you simply compensated in the best way your 14-year-old mind could think of.

Personal essays come in all kinds. Some are forms of reportage, such as those by John McPhee or Tracy Kidder, telling the truths about people they've interviewed yet injecting the honesty of the reporter's perception rather than trying to pretend a writer has no slant that skews a story. Other essays deal with decisions made, such as when you finally decide to make a baby and Cheryl leaves her diaphragm out for the first time in 14 years and you laugh as you remember getting sick of her mom asking about grandkids and telling her you both wanted to get really good at sex before doing it for real and now here you are for real and scared if you'll be good enough, and you're not talking just about sex now. Essays can also be speculative: questions about found objects, thoughts about missed opportunities and things that never were, or memories that haunt you such as Lindsey in Washington, D.C., who lived in an all-women's house that banned men and made you stand outside in the snow when you came over to get some banjo books abandoned by a former tenant but something happened and Lindsey moved into your room the weekend you hitched down to North Carolina as bodyguard and companion to her friend Rose and stayed when you got back to hump you two or three times a night until you got so raw you could hardly walk and with no talk or even real emotion of love or commitment to prevent you leaving a month later, but now you remember how there also wasn't any talk of contraception because you'd assumed she took care of it since she was so much older, yet now you jerk awake in the middle of the night years later with the stark realization that a lesbian has no need of IUDs or diaphragms or the pill but she does need something to make a baby of her own and maybe there's a little Stan Junior walking around someplace who is 6 years older now than you were then and you wonder if he's as naive as you suddenly discover you were (probably still are) and the only minuscule iota of relief you can find is that at least you'll never have to give him that man-to-man about the birds and bees. By baring your life, using concrete situations and honest thoughts, and following the basic rules of grammar and composition, you too can write a personal essay in 25 sentences.

From Georgia Review (Fall 1998). From the University of Georgia, Athens, GA 30602-9009.

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