Describe The Process Of Writing A Research Paper

Steps in Writing a Research Paper

A series of steps, starting with developing a research question and working thesis, will lead you through writing a research paper. As you move through these steps and actually create the research paper, you may find that you can't move through all of them in chronological order, and that's o.k. In fact, you may change the order of the steps depending on the subject, your knowledge of the subject, and your sources. For example, sometimes you need to do just a bit of background research and reading before you can develop a research question. Sometimes you need to go back and find additional sources to corroborate your viewpoint. The research writing steps that we offer represent a general, ideal, movement through the research writing process. In reality, writers often repeat or circle back as needed.

Hey, wait a minute. . . why did we say "ideal?" In our opinion, these steps represent the best way to move through the writing process because they ask you to think and develop a research question before you actually do a lot of research. The one big mess that you can get into, as a student, comes from doing too much unfocused research before identifying your own viewpoint, the one that you will eventually need to support. If you do too much unfocused research first, then the tendency is to try to include all of it in the paper. The result is a hodgepodge of information that's not focused, developed fully, or indicative of your own thoughts. It's also not efficient to do too much research before you really know what you're looking for. Try it our way--develop that research question first--to cut out a lot of research paper mess.

These steps will lead you through writing a research paper:

  1. One Big Mess...
  2. Developing a Research Question
  3. Developing a Research Thesis
  4. Finding Sources
  5. Evaluating Sources
  6. Taking Notes
  7. Working with Quotations
  8. Writing Summaries & Paraphrases
  9. Building the Essay Draft
  10. Documenting Sources
  11. Revising and Proofreading the Draft

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STEP 8: Cite your sources

Your paper should include reference notes that identify a specific source for everything that you included in your paper except arguments and conclusions that you created yourself. The reader should be able to use your reference notes to answer "Where did you find that?" for every single fact in your paper, and every opinion that is not your own. If your paper contains an opinion, and you provided no reference note for it, the reader will assume that it is an opinion that you developed during your research. If that is not true, and you obtained it from someone else's work, the failure to cite the source is an act of plagiarism. Note that if you have several statements of fact in the same paragraph, and they all come from the same source, it is acceptable to use a single reference note for the whole paragraph.

Example: If, in the research paper on canoes in the Middle Niger Valley, you included a statement like "Somono sailors operated freight canoes as large as thirty tons for Maraka owners who sold transport services to local merchants," you may use a single reference note:

Richard L. Roberts, Warriors, Merchants and Slaves: The State and the Economy in the Middle Niger Valley, 1700-1914 (Stanford University Press, 1987), 74.

There are rules for how to refer to a large variety of sources -- books, articles, interviews, unpublished masters theses and more. For complete information on how to do this, see The Chicago Manual of Style, 14th edition (Chicago & London: University of Chicago Press, 1993), 487-635 or Kate L. Turabian, A Manual for Writers of Term Papers, Theses, and Dissertations, 5th edition (Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 1982), 111-174, available on reserve at the university library's reference desk. (If you find a newer edition, feel free to use it.) You may use the following examples as a general set of guidelines for the most common type of sources:


Author's first and last name, Title of the book (City of publication, State and/or Country: Publisher's full name, Date of publication), pages.

Sanche de Gramont, The Strong Brown God: the Story of the Niger River (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1976), 127.

Chapter in a book

Author's first and last name, "title of chapter" in editor's name(s), Title of the book (City of publication, State and/or Country: Publisher's full name, Date of publication), pages.

Maxim Matusevich, "Reparation and Repair: Reform Movements in the Atlantic World," in Toyin Falola and Kevin D. Roberts, editors, The Atlantic World, 1450-2000 (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2008), 348.

Magazine or journal article

Author's first and last name, "Title of article" in name of magazine or journal , Volume and/or issue number (Date of publication), page range in the issue.

Capitaine L'Enfant, "Le Niger, voie ouverte à notre empire africain" in Le Tour du Monde, tome IX, nouvelle série, n°1 (3 January 1903), 1- 96.

Archival document

Author of document, "title of document" (place, date), name of archive where the document is located, name of file where the document is located

Commandant Supérieur de la Marine, "État de Situation des Équipages de la Station locale du Sénégal au 1 Jan 1865" (St. Louis, 1 January 1865), in Archives Nationales de France, Section Marine CC3 1183.


Name of person interviewed, "interview by" name of person who conducted the interview (location, date), location of transcript or original tape recording.

Moussa Guindo, interview by James A. Jones (Ségou, April 29, 1992), tape in James A. Jones collection

Web Page or Other On-Line Source

According to The Chicago Manual of Style, 14th editon (1993), sec. 15.424, in general, a reference should contain the author, title, name of source [type of source: i.e. database on-line, electronic bulletin board], vol. no., date document was created [date document was accessed], URL or other unique source. For more up-to-date information, see International Standards Organization standards for referencing electronic documents.

Jim Jones, "West Chester's Everhart Park: A Century of Recreation," web page, August 2004 [accessed January 19, 2005],

If your final project is a web page instead of a paper, a reference note to a web page should include the same material that appears in a written report, plus an active link to the source web page.

Jim Jones, "West Chester's Everhart Park: A Century of Recreation," web page, August 2004 [accessed January 19, 2005],

STEP 9: Prepare a bibliography

The bibliography contains a list of all the sources you used in your paper. It presents them in a way that permits a prospective reader to see how you did your research.

List your sources by type: the usual categories for historical papers are Newspapers and Periodicals, Interviews, Archives, Unpublished Theses, and Secondary Sources. Within each category other than Archives, list them in alphabetical order by author's last name, or the author is not known, the first word in the source's title. For archival documents, organize them by the name of the archive and the archive's file number in numerical order. For instance, the index page to secondary sources on this Web Site is presented in the form of a bibliography. For an example of archival documents, look at this index page for documents from the Senegalese National Archives.

To format entries in a bibliography, begin with the entries in reference notes. You will need to write the last name of the author (or first author in multiple author works) before the author's first name, to make your alphabetization clear. For additional information on how to format bibliographic entries, see The Chicago Manual of Style or Turabian's A Manual for Writers of Term Papers, Theses, and Dissertations.

STEP 10: Print out a final draft

By the time it is finished, your research paper will contain a complete, logical argument about a historical topic. The question that you have answered should be clearly identified in the opening paragraphs. The middle paragraphs should contain a clear and logical presentation of your argument. The concluding paragraph(s) should clearly explain the result of your argument. Your research paper should also contain complete reference notes for all sources used to construct the argument. Following the conclusion of your argument, you research paper should include a bibliography at the end of the paper which lists all of the sources used to create your argument.

To submit your research paper, it should be typed or laser-printed with one-inch margins on all size, and composed in a standard 11 or 12-point font such as Courier, Arial, Helvetica or Times Roman. All of your pages should be numbered. Fancy covers are unnecessary -- a staple in the upper left-hand corner will suffice. Do not include any blank pages, and do not use a separate title page. Instead, type (single-space) your name, the course number, the date and the title of your paper at the top of your first page, skip a line, and then start your paper (double-space).

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