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WAC / Engineering & Technology

How to Write a Research Paper

Before you begin, here are some DOs and DON’Ts you should follow throughout your writing process:




  • schedule time on your calendar for all phases of your paper (research, outline, draft, review, final draft) and the final due date


  • Be afraid to ask for help; your instructor and school librarians should be able to assist you
  • Use a writing guide or handbook (MLA or APA manual) for grammar and writing structure reference


  • Use regular speech when writing your paper (“The structure was totally cool cause it combined the old with the new. ”).
  • See a tutor for help with editing


  • Procrastinate
  • Save your document frequently (or set frequent auto save times) when typing on the computer


  • Use someone else’s work and take credit for it. This is plagiarism. Rules against plagiarism are strictly enforced by all institutions.

Step One: Exploration (From an idea to a topic)

Begin by doing some research on a general idea that you have chosen for your topic. Make sure that it is appropriate for your course assignment and that there are enough resources for your paper. A good place to start would be the library. You can ask the librarians for assistance.

Tip: Check with your instructor first about your idea/topic before spending time on research.

Step Two: Determining a Clear Topic and Research Question

After doing basic research on your ideas and developing a clear topic, it is time to develop a research question. Your paper will be devoted to answering this question. Make sure your question is broad enough or narrow enough to fit the length requirements for the assignment. If your question is too narrow, you may end up with only two pages, or the opposite can happen if your question is too broad.

Tip: It doesn’t hurt to run your research question by your instructor.

    Sample topic: The Getty Center

    • Sample research question 1: How do people use the space differently for research and pleasure?
    • Sample research question 2: How does the Getty center relate to its surroundings?

    Sample topic: Criminal Intent

    • Sample research question: May a defendant be charged with attempted murder for shooting at his victim through bullet-proof glass?

    Sample topic: Automotive industry in North America

    • Sample research question: How does General Motors, Ford, and Daimler Chrysler (the big three domestic manufacturers) compete for engine parts?

Tip 2: Make sure the topic and research question are interesting to YOU and fit the assignment. You may need to re-read the paper assignment several times to be sure of this. This will help motivate you to complete a successful paper.

Step Three: Organization (Put your sources in order)

After doing research and collecting resources, make sure to organize them in a way that you can reference them easily.  Every time you use an idea or quote from a source (book, journal, magazine), make sure you write down the page number and source that it came from. This will make it easier to find later if you need to go back to that source. You can use a separate piece of paper for each source and list the source title, author, publisher, edition, year of publication, and page numbers. You can also use index cards to keep track of your sources (one per card).

Tip: It’s a good idea to use only one technique and then stick with it.  Sometimes using more than one technique can be confusing.

Step Four: Outline to Draft Paper

To prepare an outline, create headings, subheadings, and supporting details from the information you have collected onto an outline format.  The purpose of the outline is to give you a roadmap so you can visually see where you are going with your paper.

Then, to prepare your draft, type up this information in an orderly fashion based on the order of your outline. For example, type a heading and follow it by adding the appropriate supporting details that you have collected for this heading category. Do the same for the remainder of your headings and subheadings. The purpose of your first draft is to get your ideas on paper. Remember that this is a rough draft; don’t worry if all of your ideas are not yet in order.

Tip: If possible, get at least one or two other people to look over your rough draft. They can probably give you some good feedback for your final draft. Your professor is usually happy to look at your rough draft during office hours. Take advantage of this input.

Step Five: Review, Return, and Revise

If you were able to get feedback from your instructor and/or peers, you probably have a better idea of what you need to do with your paper to get it ready for the final draft. You will probably need to revise grammar and spelling, but more importantly, you may need to look over your sources. If you do not have enough supporting material, you may need to return to the library or find some alternate ways of obtaining information that will support your topic/research questions (i.e. conducting interviews, surveys, etc.). 

Step Six: Proofreading & Editing

After adding enough supporting material, make sure to proofread your paper again and ask yourself these questions:

  1. Does my research question and supporting answer fit the assignment?
  2. Is the research question clearly stated in my paper?
  3. Does my paper adequately answer the research question?
  4. Does the formatting of my paper meet the requirements/guidelines of the assignment (margins, font, spacing, MLA/APA writing style, etc.)?
  5. Does my paper meet the length requirement of this assignment (example: research paper should be 5-7 pages in length)?

If you are unclear or unsure about any of the above questions on your paper, see your instructor.

Tip: Don’t forget to use spell check, grammar check, and any other tools that can assist you with editing, including more instructor and/or peer reviews.

Step Seven: Final Draft

Make sure all references are listed on your bibliography/reference page, pages are numbered, and your name is on the paper. Also, make sure to include and properly label any attachments.

Step Eight: Turn it in (on time)

After putting in so much effort, make sure that your turn your paper in on time. Take the extra effort to make sure your paper is in your folder, and that your folder is in the backpack that you will take to class. It is always a good idea to print/make an extra copy of your final draft.

Tip: As a courtesy, make sure to thank all the people that helped you with this paper. This way, they’ll help you again next time!


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