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Organizing Academic Research Papers: 2. Preparing to Write

Things to Think About Before You Begin

After you've determined the type of research design you will use, but before you sit down and begin to organize your paper, there are few things you should consider doing that will help make the actual writing process go much smoother.

Make a Schedule

If your professor has not already created a schedule to follow in developing and writing your research paper by requiring intermediary deadlines for completing the assignment, then drafting a schedule should be your first step. Drawing from key dates in your class syllabus, write in your calendar when the final paper is due, then work backwards from there.

Choose specific dates for important steps along the way but focus on setting realistic goals, and then sticking to them. Make sure to give yourself enough time to find out what resources are available to you [including meeting with a librarian, if needed], to choose a research problem to investigate, to select and read relevant research literature, to outline your paper, to organize the information you are going to cite in your paper, and to write your first and final drafts [and any necessary drafts in between]. Developing a calendar will also help you manage your time in relation to assignments you receive in other classes.

Analyze the Assignment

Carefully analyze the assignment to determine what you are specifically being asked to do. Look for key terms, topics, subject areas, and/or issues that can help you frame a research problem that interests you. Also, be sure that you understand the type of paper you are being asked to write. Research papers discuss a subject in depth and cite to credible sources that can back up the evidence that you present in arguing a particular perspective.

For tips and tricks in analyzing any research assignment, complete this tutorial: Dissecting an Assignment.

The way in which your professor may ask you to frame your analysis can include any of the following approaches:

  • Comparison approach in which the task is to compare and contrast two ideas, constructs, or tangible things with one another.
  • Definition approach that asks you to discuss in depth the cultural and associative meanings of, for example, a political theory, a policy proposal, or a controversial practice.
  • Descriptive approach where you choose a subject that you know well and help others to understand it.
  • Evaluative appoach that asks you to assess a theoretical concept, issue, person, place, or thing in a critical, but not necessarily critical, way.
  • Exploratory approach in which you are asked to pursue a specific line of inquiry, often with the purpose of making recommendations for further research or to advocate for specific actions to be taken.
  • Interpretive approach that requires you to apply the theoretical knowledge gained in a course to a particular case study, such as, a business situation in a management course or a psychological case profile.
  • Narrative approach written from a certain point of view, usually your own and written in the first person.
  • Persuasive approach in which you are asked to take a position in a scholarly argument and give the reader reasons why they should agree with your position.
  • Policy memorandum approach in which you are asked to write short factual sentences devoid of emotion that summarize a situation to date, identifiy the main issue of concern, provide a breakdown of the elements of this main issue, and then recommend how to address the issue based on research about the topic.

Composing Processes: Planning and Organizing. Writing@CSU. Colorado State University; Invention: Starting the Writing Process. The Writing Lab and The OWL. Purdue University; Invention: Overview of the Writing Process. The Reading/Writing Center. Hunter College; Williams, Joseph M. and Lawrence McEnerney. Writing in College 2: Preparing to Write and Drafting the Paper. Writing Program, The University of Chicago; Prewriting Strategies. Writing Center. University of Kansas; Prewriting Techniques. Hawley Academic Resource and Advising Center. Simpson College.

General Information

To make a paper readable:

  • Use a 12 point standard font, such as New Times Roman, Calibri, Geneva, Bookman, Helvetica, etc.
  • Text should be double spaced on 8 1/2" x 11" paper with 1 inch margins on all four sides.
  • Number pages consecutively. Do not number title page as page 1.

General mistakes to avoid:

  • Start each new section on a new page--avoid orphan headings [insert a page break!].
  • Dividing a table or figure--if possible, confine non-textual elements, such as a table or chart, to a single page.
  • Submitting a paper with pages out of order.
  • Not adhering to recommended page limits.

General  stylistic and grammatical mistakes to avoid:

  • Use normal prose ["a," "the," "an"].
  • Spell checkers and grammar checkers are helpful, but they don’t catch everything. Always proofread and, if possible, get someone to do it for you before submitting your final paper.
  • Indent the first line of each paragraph.
  • If a paragraph is nearly a page long, or longer, then it is probably too long for the reader.
  • Write in active voice, whenever possible.
  • Define all abbreviations the first time they are used but don’t use too many abbreviations. They shorten the text but make it more difficult to read. Never start a sentence with an abbreviation.
  • Do not use contractions in academic writing and do not start sentences with conjunctions (and, but, or) or numerals.
  • Avoid informal wording, addressing the reader directly, and using jargon, slang terms, or superlatives.

In all sections of your paper:

  • Stay focused on the research problem you are investigating [follow the steps in this guide].
  • Use paragraphs to separate each important point.
  • Present your points in logical order.
  • Use present tense to report well accepted facts [e.g., "The Prime Minister of Bulgaria is Boyko Borissov."]
  • Use past tense to describe specific results from your study [, e.g., "Evidence shows that the impact of the invasion was magnified by events in 1989."]
  • Avoid the use of superfluous non-textual elements [images/figures/charts/tables]; include only those necessary for presenting or enhancing an understanding of the results.

The Guide to Grammar and Writing. Capital Community College Foundation; Grammar. The Writing Lab and The OWL. Purdue University; Writing Tips. Writers Workshop.  University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign;  Handouts. The Writing Center. University of North Carolina.