Mohave Community College Libraries

Steps to Begin Writing a Paper

As you begin your research projects and papers, it is important to remember that research is a process. The seven steps below outline a general approach to that process and are suitable for any research project or paper.

Your experience with the steps may be in slightly different order and/or you may find yourself repeating some steps (the research process is rarely perfectly neat and tidy).

1. Select a Topic

2. Find Background Information on your Topic

3. Develop a Research Question

4. Search for Information on your Research Question

5. Evaluate your Sources

6. Organize your Information 

7. Write Your Paper & Cite!


Useful Resources

1. Select a Topic

Picking a research topic can be difficult. Your professor may assign you a topic, but most often students are responsible for selecting their own. Make sure you fully understand your assignment parameters and requirements before you start searching for a topic.

Remember, your topic needs to be broad enough to be able to find an adequate amount of information but also narrow enough that you are not overwhelmed. 

Generate Topic Ideas:​ Choose a topic that interests you, below are some questions you can ask yourself to generate some ideas. When thinking about topics, be careful about overused ones such as the death penalty, gun control, marijuana legalization, and other hot button issues.

  • Do you have any strong opinions on any social, scientific, or political controversies or issues?
  • Have you read, watched, or heard any news stories that interested you or made you angry?
  • Do you or a member of your family have any personal issues, illnesses, or diseases you would like to learn more about?
  • Was there an area of study or topic in the class that you would like to learn more about?

If you are having trouble generating topic ideas then why not scan for topics and see if one interests you from the following websites:

Additionally, MCC provides access to Gale Databases, which include such tools as "Topic Finder" and "Browse Resources." Gale resources will not only help you pick a topic, but will also start pulling up sources on that topic for you to help you get started on research.

If you need help, please use our LibChat feature "Chat with us."


List Key Words: Once you have selected your topic, make a list of key words or terms you can use to search for background information. You will revise/add to this list later once you have devised a research question. Utilize the handout below to devise a list of keywords.

2. Find Background Information on your Topic 

Reading a summary of background information on the topic you have chosen provides a good initial overview, which you will need for a research assignment. Background information will also help you find a specific research question to answer for your assignment.

Where to Search: The databases below are excellent places to start your search for background information (It is not an exhaustive list). Use your list of keywords (generated in Step 1) to search. 

Focus and Refine your Topic: Topics are flexible and as you search for background information you may find that your topic is too broad or too narrow. See examples below.

A topic such as "Liver Disease" is very broad and will be hard to write on, but you can narrow your focus in several ways. See some of the common ways listed below to narrow down any topic:

  • Geography
  • Population Type
  • Age Range
  • History
  • Causes
  • Culture
  • Subfield/type

Remember! If a topic is too narrow it may be difficult to research and you may need to broaden it. You may have trouble finding peer reviewed sources if your topic is too:

  • Local: If a topic is local it will likely only be covered in local sources (newspapers, newscasts, local government reports etc...).
  • Current: Recent or current topics may be too new to have books or peer-reviewed articles written on them. However, popular articles (newspapers or magazines) or websites with useful information may be available. 
  • Interdisciplinary: Your topic tries to cover too many subject areas and you are overwhelmed with information. 

3. Develop a Research Question

Once you have selected a topic (making sure it is not too broad or too narrow), the next step is to develop a research question. It is suggested you develop several research questions and then choose the one you think will work best.

A good way to develop research questions is to:

  • List what you do know about the topic and what you do not know or want to know about the topic.
  • Use that list to develop research questions.
    • Make sure to ask "probing questions" such as "why" or "what if."
    • Avoid "yes" and "no" type questions.

Example: What do I know about liver disease? What do I not know or want to know about liver disease?

Do know:

  • Alcoholism can cause liver disease
  • The symptoms of liver disease 
  • Parts of liver sometimes have to be removed

Do not know/want to know:

  • What part of the liver it damages
  • If it is treatable or curable
  • If there are other causes to liver disease besides alcoholism
  • If its preventative
  • Can it impact other vital organs or systems in the body?

Research questions:

  • What types of treatments or medications are available besides removing parts of the liver?
  • What are the other causes of liver disease besides chronic alcoholism?
  • What are the rates of liver disease in the Southwestern United States among people age 50 and older?
  • What steps can a person take to minimize their risk of liver disease?

You should continue to focus or refine your research question until you are satisfied.

4. Search for Information on your Research Question

Now that you have selected a research question, it is time to search for information specific to that question. The fact that you have done some background research on the general topic should help you out since you have already started a list of keywords and utilized some resources.

List Keywords: 

  • Go back to some of the sources you used for background information on the topic:
    • ​What are the words or subjects used to define the topic? Add these to your list of keywords.
    • What are the "important" words used to describe the topic? Add these to your list of keywords?
    • Hint: Subject terms and other important terms can be found on the electronic record of articles from databases.
  • Look at your research question and generate new keywords to add to the list.
  • Come up with 2-3 synonyms for each key word. Using an online thesaurus will be very helpful for finding synonyms.
  • Combine your key with Boolean Search Operators to create search strings so you can begin searching using our A to Z Database List.
  • Use the "Choosing Keywords" and "How to Search Databases/Boolean Searching" handouts to assist you in creating search strings or visit the How to Search Databases page.

5. Evaluate your Sources

It is very important to evaluate your sources, this is especially important when finding sources on the internet and not a database (where you can easily find peer reviewed sources)

Lateral Reading: is evaluating information for currency, relevance, authority, accuracy, and purpose by finding out what other sources have to say. In other words, you are evaluating the information on one website by checking other websites. Lateral reading is the opposite of "vertical reading."


Stanford History Education Group. (2020, January 16). Sort fact from fiction online with lateral reading

[Video]. YouTube. 

6. Organize your Information

Take Notes: It is suggested that you take hand written or electronic notes as you research.

Why should you take notes?

  • Summarize the most important parts of the information you have read.
  • Writing down the information will help you retain and understand it.
  • Notes keep your information organized (making it easier to outline and write your paper).

How to take notes: There are many different ways to take notes and in the end the best note taking method is the one that works best for you. Below are some general note taking tips:

  • ​Take notes as you read (decide if you are going to take handwritten or electronic notes).
  • For electronic notes, EBSCO and Gale databases have note taking features.
  • All sections of an article are important, but the Abstract, Discussion, and Conclusion sections (including the tables, charts, and diagrams in them) generally contain the most relevant information.
  • Use a highlighter to highlight the most important points (do not do this on library books).
  • Print it out if it helps.
  • Summarize main or important points in terms you can understand.
  • Don't try and cram everything onto a single index card or small section of paper (it gets jumbled fast)! Many students use one card or half piece of paper per main point.
  • Write down the source of information for every note you take. If you do this, you will not have to try and find where you got it from when you do your citations.

Create an Outline of your Paper: Making an outline organizes your paper in a logical order, keeps track of the information you have gathered, and can make writing the paper easier.

Steps to creating an outline:

1. Put your thesis statement/research question at the beginning.

2. List the main points you are going to use to support your thesis (Label as Roman numerals))

3. List supporting arguments under each main point (label as capital letters)

4. If need be, list facts under each of your supporting arguments (Label as 1,2, 3, etc...)

7. Write your Paper & Cite

Write a Draft of your Paper: Your draft should included quotations, paraphrases, and summaries of the information from your sources. After you write your draft:

1. Revise and Edit: It is highly unlikely that your first draft will be the draft you submit. Your end goal is to produce a paper that conveys information in a smooth and precise manner. Find a quiet place to read over your work: 

  • Check for improper spelling and grammar. 
  • Can you reword any paraphrases or summaries to make it easier to read (without losing any value)?
  • Is there any unnecessary or repetitive information included that you can remove?
  • Do you need to provide background information or clarify anything so that a reader can understand your main points.

2. Have someone else read over your draft: A fresh set of eyes may be able to see something that you cannot. It is important to have at least one objective person (family and friends are not objective) read, evaluate, and suggest changes to your paper. Suggestions for objective people below:

  • Peer- Review: Have a classmate read your paper and offer their feedback. Note: many instructors incorporate this process into their class. It is suggested that you go beyond this and have someone else also review your work such as:
    • Another classmate
    • A person who is in the same class but different section
  • SmarThinking:  Submit your draft to the Writing Center and have a tutor review your work (allow for 24 hours).

Citations: Proper citations allow readers to easily locate the sources of information used in your work. Additionally, you do not want to be accused of plagiarism, so it is important to cite all paraphrased and quoted information. The only exception to this is if a fact is common knowledge.

According to the Mohave Community College Student Code of Conduct, plagiarism is:

intentionally or knowingly representing the words or ideas of another as one’s own in any academic exercise. Plagiarism includes, but is not limited to, the use of paraphrase or direct quotation of the published or unpublished work of another person without full and clear acknowledgement. It also includes the unacknowledged use of materials prepared by another person or agency engaged in the selling of term papers or other academic materials. Information gathered from the Internet and not properly identified is also considered plagiarism. False Citation, incorrect or inadequate citation of sources, and purchasing, downloading, or using papers written by another individual is also included under plagiarism.

Paraphrase: To use someone’s ideas, but by putting them in your own words. This is probably the skill you will use most when incorporating sources into your writing. Although you use your own words to paraphrase, you must still acknowledge the source of the information by including a citation.

Quotation: Using someone’s exact words. When you quote, place the passage you are using in quotation marks, and document the source according to a standard documentation style.

Please visit MCC Libraries' Avoiding Plagiarism web page for examples of plagiarism 

Questions to ask yourself:

  • Did I cite all paraphrased or quoted information in my work?
  • Did I use the correct citation style?
  • Did I use the correct in-text citation format?
  • Did I use the correct reference page citation format?

Useful Resources: