8 Steps to Tackling a Big Research Paper

When your professor assigns you a lengthy research paper, it certainly feels like a daunting task. Everyone knows the feeling of staring at a research assignment and thinking, “where do I even start?” Starting the assignment and picking your direction can be overwhelming—let alone actually completing the lengthy task of writing.

There are 8 simple steps every student can follow to make this task manageable. Not only will your stress subside but you’ll also have a successful and well-researched paper in the end.

1. Topic Selection

The first step to any large research assignment is picking a strong topic. The topic should be one that’s discussed and debated, so you can actually find scholarly work on the subject. That being said, don’t select a topic that’s been talked about to death. The key is to pick a topic you can take a stance on—providing you with your thesis for the paper. The best places to start gathering ideas are news articles that interest you. It’s important to look into reputable news sources as a launching pad for your research paper. Pull from common themes in news articles that interest you to see what path you want to go down.

2. Do Background Research

Once you’ve narrowed down a general topic, do some background research to develop the direction of your paper. This background research will help you form your thesis and guide the rest of your writing. The best resources for this background research are secondary sources on the topic you selected. Secondary sources include other scholarly works by others who’ve analyzed your topic in some way. Start by searching your topic broadly, then get more specific as you go.

3. Pick a Thesis

The third step in tackling a large research project is to pick a thesis statement. This thesis will guide your reader through your paper in an organized fashion. A strong thesis statement includes a decisive stance on a topic and general reasoning for your stance. Include your thesis argument both at the beginning of your paper, and conclude with the thesis to remind your reader of the central arguments. All arguments and research should go to support your thesis statement.

4. Outline Your Arguments

Before you begin writing any substantial part of your research paper, outline your arguments. A strong outline is the most critical part of any research paper writing process. This outline includes your main arguments and what evidence you’re going to use to support those arguments. It’d be helpful to directly input these sources into the outline to allow you to do further research as needed. The more time you spend on your outline, the faster the writing process will be.

5. Use Primary Sources

When picking sources to support your arguments, look for primary sources. Primary sources are direct documents supporting what you’re writing about; e.g. statutes, original pieces of writing or audio recordings. These primary sources are the most persuasive sources when it comes to supporting your thesis—use them as often as possible. Primary sources are the sources your secondary sources analyze, so look to them for assistance.

6. Write a Rough Draft

After gathering your sources and creating an outline, it’s time to begin your rough draft. This is the time you’ll put pen to paper and follow the guide you’ve set up for yourself in your outline. Throughout the rough draft, be mindful of any jumps in logic or gaps in your arguments.

7. Give Credit Where Credit is Due

Throughout your writing, it’s imperative to cite your sources. Even when paraphrasing, give a citation wherever you use outside information to form your argument. Follow the citation guidelines provided by your assigning professor.

8. Edit

Once a rough draft is completed, it’s time to edit your writing. First, give yourself time between finishing your draft and the editing stage. This break allows you to look at your writing with fresh eyes. It’s helpful to read your writing aloud to see if there are structural or grammatical errors. Finally, if your professor allows it, have someone who’s not familiar with your topic read your paper. This allows you to see if your paper is easy to follow and if your argument is convincing.

Did we miss any steps? If so, share them in the comments.


Alexandra Abernethy is a third-year law student at the University of Wisconsin Law School in Madison. She attended DePaul University in Chicago with a major in Political Science and had plenty of practice writing large research papers. In her free time, Alexandra likes trying new restaurants, traveling and spending time outdoors.

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