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Steps to Writing a Research Paper

Understand the Assignment

The first step is making sure you understand what the assignment is and what it is asking you to write about. Before you do ANY research or writing, make sure you do the following:

  • Read the assignment directions (usually found in your syllabus OR class modules).
  • After having READ the directions, ASK your instructor any questions that you have about the assignment.

What are some important details to know before I begin research and writing?

  • What type of paper is this?
  • What length does the paper have to be (pages or number of words)?
  • How many sources are required?
  • What kinds of sources can I use (books, articles, websites)?
  • Do any of my sources need to be peer-reviewed?
  • What citation and format style do I need to use (APA or MLA)?
  • Does my paper need to be arranged in certain sections or answer any specific questions?
  • When is the due date?

Find a Topic

After you have an understanding of the assignment, it is time to find your topic. There are several factors to consider when deciding on a topic:

  • Does your topic fall within the scope of the assignment (if you are not sure, ask your instructor for approval)?
  • Do you find the topic interesting? Your research and writing will be much easier if you enjoy your topic, especially since you may be working on it for several weeks. 

What do I do if I am stuck on finding a topic?

No problem! You can browse for topics on the the following databases:

You can also use "Gale's Topic Finder" found in the bottom left hand corner of any Gale database:

Search for Background Information

Why do I need background information?

Researching for background information is an important step in the writing process for several reasons:

  • You will need to provide some background information in any paper so your audience has context.
  • It gives you an overview of the subject or topic.
  • It will help you identify the most important facts/aspects of your topic.
  • It will help you refine (narrow or broaden) your topic.

Where can I find background information?

Refine your Topic

It is not unusual for students to find that their initial topics are either too broad or too narrow to reasonably research (after they have done background research) and that they have to refine their topics into something that is more researchable. Refining a topic is an important part of the writing process and it is best to take a few minutes to do so before you get too vested in your paper. It is also not unusual to refine your topic more than once.

How do I know if my topic is too broad?

Your topic is too broad if:

  • You find too many sources to look look through and feel overwhelmed.
  • You realize you will need more space to cover everything you need or want to cover within the page limit.
  • You feel like your topic is pulling you in too many directions or down too many paths.

How do I know if my topic is too narrow?

Your topic is too narrow if:

  • You find few or no sources of information about it.
  • You realize you can cover your topic in less than the required number of words or pages.

How can I narrow my topic? 

While it is good to start the research process with as many ideas as possible, you will need to narrow (limit) your topic before you get too far along so you are not attempting to put too much information in your paper.

  • Can I limit my topic by population group?

Consider factors such as age, gender, profession, demographic, species, or ethnic group. Example: If your topic is Marfan syndrome, research the demographic or group of people most affected.

  • Can I limit my topic by looking at a particular aspect or sub-area of it?

Consider researching one small area of your topic. Example: if your topic is Marfan syndrome, research eye complications associated with the disease.

  • Can I limit my topic by time span? 

Consider researching a specific decade, century, era, or date. Consider a compare and contrast between two time periods. Example: If your topic is Marfan syndrome, compare and contrast public perception between the 1960s vs. the 2010s. 

  • Can I limit my topic by geographic area?  

Consider whether your research will be looking at a country, region, state, county, rural areas, urban areas, military towns, or another area. Don't be afraid to compare and contrast two different areas. Example: If your topic is Marfan Syndrome research the affordability of treatment in urban vs. rural areas.

How can I broaden my topic?

If your topic is too narrow (and you are finding no information on it) you will need to broaden it enough that you can research it. Ask yourself these questions to help broaden your topic. 

  • Is my topic too new? 

If your topic is too new there is likely no peer reviewed research on it. If it's a recent event, you are likely to only find information about it in the news media. Search databases that contain articles from newspapers and magazines. If you are still not finding anything, you may need to change your topic.

  • Is my topic too specific?

Sometimes your topic is too specific and you need to "generalize" your search in order to find information. Example: if your topic is the burnout of ER doctors ages 30-40 in Phoenix. You may need to broaden it to include ER doctors in all of Arizona.

  • Can I explore related issues instead?

You are more than likely to have come across some related issues while searching for information on your topic, look at some of these issues in more depth and see if they would make good topics instead.

  • Can I check other databases?

Search other databases for information (don't just search a database because it's the first one you saw or because it's what you used before). Read the description below the database to be sure it's the best one for you to be searching. It's okay if you have to use multiple databases.


Need more help narrowing your topic? The website Thesis Helpers can assist you.


Develop a Research Question

After you have narrowed down your topic, the next step it to develop a research question. You may find yourself narrowing your topic even further as you develop a research question (this is normal).

What is a research question?

A research question is a focused question you propose answering in your paper. In other words, it is a question on a topic that you set out to answer.

Why do I need a research question?

A research question will keep you focused in your research so you know exactly the type of information you need for your paper. Additionally, a research question makes writing a thesis statement easier since your thesis statement will be the answer to your research question.

What makes a good research question?

  • Cannot be answered with a "yes" or "no" response.
  • Should not be something you can find the answer to with Google.
  • Should be a question on a topic you find interesting.
  • Should not be several questions crammed into one.
  • Should be stated as simply as possible (no filler words).
  • Should not be too broad or too narrow.

You can form a research question by restating your topic as a question.

Need more help in this area? See Chapter 2 of Student's Guide to Writing College Papers.

Thesis Statement

What is a Thesis Statement?

A thesis statement is a statement that expresses the main point or argument of your paper. Readers should be able to look at your thesis statement and identify two things:

  • What your paper is about (the topic).
  • What you are saying about it (your point of view).

A thesis statement:

  • Is the answer to your research question expressed as a clear statement with strong language.
  • Is short and concise (one sentence).
  • Is the specific claim your paper will support (with evidence). In other words, it states your position on your topic.

A thesis statement should NOT include opinion phrases such as:

  • "I believe..."
  • "In my opinion..."
  • "I think..."

A thesis statement should NOT include words such as:

  • Might
  • Maybe
  • Perhaps

What is the difference between a thesis statement and a research question?

The primary difference is that a thesis statement makes a specific claim that you will attempt to prove in your paper. In contrast, a research question asks an open ended question on a topic that your paper will discuss. Having a a good research question is the first step towards writing a thesis statement.

Where does a thesis statement go in my paper?

Thesis statements should go in two places in your paper:

  • At the end of the first paragraph (in your introduction)
  • A reworded version should go in the conclusion.

What are some examples of thesis statements?

Time to Search

Finding sources for your paper in a database can be a frustrating process, especially for new college students.  When searching any database it is important to keep two things in mind. You want to make sure to:

  • Pick databases to search that are likely to have the type of information you are looking for within them.
  • Use the proper search strategies when searching databases.

Picking a Database

How many databases do I have access to?

Mohave Community College provides access to 85 databases on our A to Z Database List. Several of these databases are from our EBSCO or Gale vendors. But there are also several databases not associated with either of these vendors available to search.

What types of sources can I find on databases?

Databases may contain articles, videos, images, newspaper and magazine articles, eBooks, government reports, and more.

Can I just pick the database that is first on the A to Z Database List or choose a database at random to start my search with?

You can do this but it is not a recommended strategy:

  • While some databases have a wide focus and are LIKELY to have information on your topic, others have a narrower focus and are LESS likely to contain information on your topic.
  • The databases on the A to Z Database List are listed alphabetically and being at the top of the list does not automatically mean it is the "best database" to search.

Which database should I pick to start my search with?

That depends on your topic. There are several ways to determine which database you should start your search with:

  • Read the description below each database to find out what subjects it covers.

  • Filter the list of databases you are able to see by subject matter.

  • Click on a subject or course guide to see lists of databases most useful for the area you are researching.
  • Ask a librarian for help.

Can I search more than one database at once?

Yes you can. You can search multiple EBSCO or Gale databases simultaneously using the widgets below (these are also located on the homepage).

Research Databases
Limit Your Results:

Time to Search: Search strategies

Finding sources for your paper in a database can be a frustrating process, especially for new college students.  When searching any database it is important to keep two things in mind:

  • Before you start searching, make a list of keywords.
  • When you start searching, use Boolean searching and Boolean operators.

Making a List of Keywords | Boolean Searching and Operators


Choosing keywords is a critical part of the search process because keywords function as your search terms. In general, keyword searching is what you use when you are first beginning a search.

Unlike Google and other internet search engines that utilize Natural Language Searching, databases are designed to retrieve results that contain every word that has been typed into a search box (the database won't retrieve it as a result otherwise). This is why selection of your keywords is very important (more on this in the next section). 

What are keywords? 

Keywords are the main ideas represented in your research topic or question and/or the main words you would use to describe the topic to another person.

What are the main steps in the keyword process? 

1. Determine which words or phrases represent the main concepts of your research question.

Example: What is the relationship between children drinking diet soda and weight gain? (keywords are underlined)

2. Determine synonyms or related words for those concepts. If you are having trouble, try looking the term up in a thesaurus to help you generate a list.



Diet Soda

Weight Gain


low calorie soda



diet beverage



diet pop

increased body mass

3. Determine which words you are going to combine into a search. Start with your original search terms to see what results you get and then modify your search by using some of the synonyms you came up with. You will likely find more synonyms as you start searching.

Example: For my first search, I would use the terms "children," "diet soda," and "weight gain," and then look at my initial results. For a modified search, I might use the synonyms "minors" and "diet beverage" in place of children and diet soda.

Don't start searching on a database quite yet, because you still need to combine your keywords with Boolean Operators for a successful search. 

Boolean Searching & Boolean Operators

What is Boolean Searching? 

Type of search that allows for fewer (but more focused), search results. In other words a Boolean search can filter out information that is irrelevant for your purposes.

What are Boolean Operators? 

Words used to connect and define relationships between search terms. Use Boolean operators to narrow or broaden your search. The three primary Boolean Operators are explained below.

What is Natural Language Searching? 

Natural language searching is when you use regular everyday language to ask a question (as if you were asking a person). Internet search engines (such as Google) utilize natural language searching. You use cannot use natural language searching and expect to get effective results.

There are three primary Boolean Operators that databases utilize: ANDORNOT.

What does the AND operator do if I use it in a database?

Using the operator AND between two (or more) search terms means that you will retrieve results that contain all of the search terms. If it does not contain all the search terms, it will not show up as a result. Using this operator between search terms will decrease (narrow) the number of results you retrieve.

Example: a search for "obesity AND soda" would retrieve results that contain both the words "obesity" and "soda" in them.

What does the OR operator do when I use it in a database?

Using the operator OR between search terms means that you will retrieve results that contain at least one of the search terms. Using this operator between search terms will increase (broaden) the number of results you retrieve.  Use the OR operator when there are synonyms or variations of a word or when you want to search for two or more aspects of the same topic. 

Example: a search for  "obesity OR overweight" would retrieve results that contain either the word "obesity" or the word "overweight." in them. The results may also contain both of the terms but they must contain at least one of the terms.

What does the NOT operator do when I use it in a database?

Using the operator NOT before a search term means that you will exclude that word from your search results. Meaning any results that contain that search term will not show up. You may want to use this operator to exclude words or terms that are not relevant to your search or to exclude words that have multiple meanings. It will decrease (narrow) your results.

Example:  a search for "diet NOT beverage" would exclude any search results from appearing that contain the word "beverage."

Review the full "How to Search Databases" guide for more tips and tricks on how to search online databases.

Creating an Outline

Why should you create an outline before writing your paper?

  • Organizes your thoughts, ideas, and any other information you want to include in your paper.
  • Makes writing quicker (main points and supporting points will be laid out).
  • Shows relationships between your ideas.
  • Allows you to see any gaps in your argument that need to be addressed.
  • Can see if your argument is logical and flows.

What is the basic structure of an outline?

  • Thesis statement, research question, placed at the top.
  • List the main points that support your thesis or research question as Roman Numerals (I, II, III...)
  • List supporting points, ideas, arguments for each main point as capital letters (A, B, C...)
  • List details about each of your supporting points (1,2,3....)

Is there a video I can watch on creating an outline?

Is there an example of an outline I can use?

How do I know if my outline is ready to turn into a rough draft?

Ask yourself the following to see if you are ready to write:

  • Does my thesis control the direction of my outline?
  • Do each of my main points support my thesis (are they relevant)?
  • Does the logic, order, and format make sense (does it flow)?
  • Does my argument steadily progress to support my thesis or does it stall?
  • Is there enough supporting evidence for each of my main points?
  • Does my outline have room for opposing points of view?
  • Does this outline reflect a thorough, thoughtful argument?

Now that you have created an outline, you are ready to use it to guide you in the actual writing of your paper. In other words, you know what your are going to say in your paper, you just have to figure out the best way to say it:

  • Don't worry about making your paper perfect at this time. Remember, this is the first draft of your paper (you are going to revise and edit this draft before submitting it), so don't waste time trying to get a paragraph or sentence "perfect."
  • Don't over-quote. Quotes are good; over-quoting is not. Use a combination of quoting, paraphrasing, and summarizing when you write.
  • Organization is important. Don't mix different thoughts and ideas in a section or paragraph or scatter the same type of information throughout your paper. Your paper will read much better with a logical order.
  • Make sure your own voice comes through. Intermix your own thoughts and opinions with facts to back up your conclusions.

What are some tips for writing my introduction?

  • Beginning sentence(s):
    • Grab your reader's attention with an interesting fact, quote, or anecdotal story (if you have done your research, you should have no trouble finding any of these). AVOID phrases such as "In this paper" or "This paper will talk about."
  • Middle sentences:
    • These sentences will talk about the different points in your paper, which if you have done your outline should be listed already. You don't have to cover ALL the points you are going to talk about, just the main ones.
  • Ending sentence:
    • This is the easy part, the ending sentence to your introduction is your thesis statement (which you should have already written out).
See "Introductions" from Excelsior Online Writing Lab for more information.


What should I keep in mind when writing the body of my paper?

The body of your paper contains the points, evidence, and analysis used to support your thesis (main argument). When writing the body, keep the MEAL plan in mind for each paragraph:

  • Main idea
  • Evidence
  • Analysis
  • Lead out

What should I keep in mind when writing my conclusion?

A conclusion should provide readers with closure by reminding them of the main ideas and arguments of your paper.

  • Conclusions SHOULD:
    • Be 1-2 paragraphs (typically).
    • Include a restated version of your thesis statement from your introduction.
    • Summarize and "pull together" the main points of your paper (what did you find).
    • Make clear that your paper has come to an end. One way to do this is by suggesting areas of future research on your topic.
  • Conclusions SHOULD NOT:
    • Open with an empty phrases such as as "In conclusion..." or "To conclude..."
    • Introduce new information.
    • Restate your thesis word for word.
See "Conclusions" from Excelsior Online Writing lab for more information

Revising, Editing, and Proofreading

Why should I revise and edit my paper after my first draft?

Sitting down and reading your own work gives you the chance to read what others are going to read (including the person grading your paper). In short, it will allow you to  see if your paper "makes sense."

What does revising my paper mean?

Revising is the process of reading (and re-reading) your paper to check for big picture issues such as focus, organization, and intended audience.

Revising tips and tricks:

  • Avoid burnout by taking a break for a few hours or days and start your revising with "fresh eyes."
  • Make sure you are looking at the overall (big picture) content, organization, and focus of your paper. Does it fall in line with your assignment guidelines?
  • Does your paper communicate what you want your reader to know about the topic in a clear and organized manner?
  • If someone else reads your paper, will they understand your main points, ideas, arguments and the overall point you are trying to communicate? Ask another person to read it and then discuss it with them.

What does editing my paper mean?

Editing is the process of reading your paper to improve its style, flow, sentence and paragraph structure, and citations.

Editing tips and tricks:

  • Don't edit right off the bat. Instead, wait until you feel your paper's focus and organization are correct.
  • Check to make sure your transitions are logically guiding your readers through the paper.
    • Make a paragraph using only your thesis and topic sentences. Does it make sense? If not, it is a sign that your topic sentences are not logically guiding readers through your paper.
  • Read your paper sentence by sentence.
    • Are the ideas stated clearly?
    • Look at word choice. Are you using the same words or phrases repeatedly? If so, replace some of these words with synonyms (use to find alternates word choices).
  • Read your paper out loud. Hearing it helps ensure your ideas are stated clearly. It will also help you catch other errors.

What does proofreading my paper mean?

Proofreading is the process of reading your paper to check for common errors such as punctuation, typos, misspelled words, grammar, and formatting.

Proofreading tips and tricks:

  • Do not rely on spell check to catch all mistakes.
  • Do not proofread until you have revised and edited.
  • Make sure to have a resource handy you can turn to if you have questions (see helpful resources box).
  • Check for one type of error at a time.
  • Check for citation errors. These include reference page citations and in-text citations.
  • Make sure to check for formatting errors. Common errors are title page formatting, reference page formatting, incorrect fonts.

What does it mean when I'm told my paper doesn't "flow well"?

This typically means your writing doesn't sound natural and that you need to work on sentence clarity.

Paper flow tips and tricks:

  • Read your paper out loud. If it doesn't sound right, it probably isn't.
  • If you find yourself running out of breath, you may have some run on sentences.
  • Do your sentences sound short and choppy?
  • Check to make sure you are pausing only at punctuation. You should only be able to take a breath at sentencing ending punctuation.

How can I find someone to read over my paper?

It's a good idea to have someone read over your work who can point out mistakes, errors, or parts of your paper that are unclear before submitting it for a final grade. Find someone who is unbiased who can offer honest feedback (avoid friends and family members).

Integrating sources into your research paper 

It is important to draw on the work of experts to formulate your own ideas. Make sure that your sources are cited properly. Backing up your points with evidence from experts provides support for your argument or thesis statement. You are contributing to a scholarly conversation with scholars who are experts on your topic. 

This is the difference between a scholarly research paper and any other paper. You must include your own voice in your analysis and ideas alongside scholars or experts. 

All your sources must relate to your thesis, or central argument, whether they are in agreement or not. It is a good idea to address all sides of the argument or thesis to make your stance stronger. 

What is the best way to incorporate sources into your research paper? 

The three ways to present sources in support of your central argument are: 

1. Quotation - when you use the exact words from the source. You will need to put quotation marks around the words that are not your own and cite where they came from. 

  • “It wasn’t really a tune, but from the first note the beast’s eyes began to droop…. Slowly the dog’s growls ceased – it tottered on its paws and fell to its knees, then it slumped to the ground, fast asleep” (Rowling 275). 

2.  Paraphrase - when you state the ideas from another source in your own words. Even when you use your own words, if the ideas or facts came from another source, you need to cite where they came from. 

  • With the simple music of the flute, Harry lulled the dog to sleep (Rowling 275). 

3. Summary - much like a paraphrase but used in cases where you are trying to give an overview of many ideas. As in paraphrasing, quotation marks are not used, but a citation is still necessary. 

  • Through a combination of skill and their invisibility cloak, Harry, Ron, and Hermione slipped through Hogwarts to the dog’s room and down through the trapdoor within (Rowling 271-77). 

With paraphrasing, you must write out the idea in your own words. Simply changing a few words from the original source or restating the information exactly using different words is considered plagiarism. If you cannot state an idea in your own words, you should use the direct quotation. More information can be found in this guide to Quoting and Paraphrasing. 

When integrating a source into your paper, remember to use these three important components: 

  1. Introductory phrase to the source material: mention the author, date, or any other relevant information when introducing a quote or paraphrase. 
  2. Source material: a direct quote, paraphrase, or summary with proper citation. 
  3. Analysis of source material: your response, interpretations, or arguments regarding the source material should introduce or follow it. When incorporating source material into your paper, relate your source and analysis back to your original thesis. 

Works Cited 

Rowling, J.K. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone. A.A. Levine Books, 1998.