How to Write a Research Paper: 11-Step Guide

Writing a research paper can be challenging, not to mention time-consuming. Follow these 11 steps to write a stellar college research paper.

portrait of Dr. Samantha Fecich
by Dr. Samantha Fecich

Published March 4, 2022

Edited by Hannah Muniz
Share this Article
How to Write a Research Paper: 11-Step Guide


You've been assigned a research paper for a college class — but where do you begin? How do you start writing a research paper? What kind of research do you need to do? And how should you set up and format your essay?

Below, we introduce 11 steps to teach you how to write a research paper that's bound to impress your professor.

www.bestcolleges.com is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

Ready to start your journey?

Step 1: Read the Rubric

Before you start your research paper, make sure to read the syllabus or rubric first. Know what to expect from this assignment. You should be able to answer the following questions:

If you often feel your paper needs to be perfect before turning it in, it's time for a mindset shift. Nobody — not even your professor — expects you to write a perfect research paper. Having said that, don't wait until the last minute to get started.

Step 2: Organize Your Schedule

Once you've read the rubric, note in your planner or on your calendar when your research paper is due. Then, make a schedule so that you can accomplish this task in small steps rather than over the course of one (likely stressful) night. Having a plan in place can help you feel better and write a stronger research paper.

It's best to schedule two days for each step of the process. Getting your research paper done in a timely, efficient manner usually takes about two weeks, depending on the length of the essay.

Step 3: Choose a Research Paper Topic

Your professor may give you specific research paper topics to write about. Or, your research paper may need to answer a certain question.

Before you begin, make sure you know what's expected of you regarding the topic. Are you clear on the question? Is it divided into parts? Do you understand each part? Go back to the rubric or syllabus to make sure you understand the parameters of the assignment.

If you're free to choose your own research paper topic, try to write about what you already know or something that genuinely interests you from the class or homework.

Step 4: Create a Research Paper Outline

Outlining is a key part of crafting an effective essay. Your research paper outline should include a rough introduction to the topic, a thesis statement, supporting details for each main idea, and a brief conclusion.

You can outline in whatever way feels most comfortable for you. Some students choose to use bullet points and sub-bullets for related ideas, while others may prefer flowcharts or visual representations of their topic.

Step 5: Research Your Topic

Start by collecting a variety of resources that discuss your topic. Look for credible sources such as textbooks, videos, newspaper articles, primary documents, and peer-reviewed journals.

The campus library is one of the best sources for writing research papers. Make an appointment with a librarian to learn how to utilize your school's online databases. You can sort and filter content using search tools like EBSCOhost to find peer-reviewed articles, data, and journals.

As you read the sources you've collected, be sure to highlight and add notes as needed. You might also keep a running document of potential quotations and data points to use in your paper.

Step 6: Start Writing

To start writing, simply incorporate content from your outline into your research paper. Don't forget to include citations, or where you got your information from. You can use tools like Mendeley, Citation Machine, and Cite This for Me to help with this.

As you write, don't worry about editing yet — just focus on getting your ideas down. If you're a better talker than you are a typist, you might consider using tools like dictation to type out the text as you speak.

Step 7: Do Your First Round of Edits

Once you've completed the first draft of your research paper, it's time to start editing it. Besides using the spell checker function, it's important that you take time to read through your paper.

One trick is to read it aloud to yourself. When you read your paper aloud, you can hear the words as they were written. Doing this can help you find typos and identify areas that may be confusing or sound awkward.

Next, create your bibliography. Make sure you've cited all your sources properly, both within the text and in the works cited or bibliography section at the end.

Step 8: Get Feedback

It's critical that you get outside help when writing a research paper. For example, a peer can read over your paper and offer feedback. You could also set up an appointment at your campus's writing or tutoring center.

Another option is to talk to your professor. A professor or teaching assistant can offer you feedback on a paper before you turn it in for a grade.

That said, don't ask for feedback the night before the essay is due. Always give professors at least a week to give you notes on your draft.

Step 9: Complete a Second Round of Edits

After you get feedback on your research paper, you'll need to revise it accordingly. Review the rubric one more time and make sure you understand the requirements. You should also check that you've met each requirement.

Finally, be sure your in-text citations, bibliography, and research paper format comply with the assignment instructions.

Step 10: Submit Your Research Paper

By now you've finalized your paper and are ready to turn it in. Before you do that, though, check to see how you're supposed to submit it.

Does it have to be submitted through an online portal or emailed directly to your professor? Did you upload the file and click submit before the deadline? Do you need to print or bind the document in a certain way? Is it necessary to print and place it in a folder outside the professor's office?

Confirm that you know the specifics of how, when, and where to turn in your paper.

Step 11: Reflect on the Process

When you eventually receive feedback and a grade on your research paper, don't just stash it away in your backpack and forget about it. Go through your professor's comments and try to learn from them.

Feel free to ask your professor any questions you have about the feedback they gave you. You can also use this information in the future when writing other research papers.


Feature Image: sutichak / iStock / Getty Images Plus / Getty Images

BestColleges.com is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

Compare your school options.

View the most relevant school for your interests and compare them by tuition, programs, acceptance rate, and other factors important to find your college home.