The Stages of Writing Research Papers
1. Identifying and Refining a Researchable Topic or Question
2. Gathering Primary and Secondary Sources
3. Organizing Your Notes and Other Research Information
What system will you use to keep track of your bibliographies? Your
reading notes? The quotations, images, or other specific items that
jumped out at you during the course of research? If you are writing
about a complex event that unfolds over time, constructing a chronology
can be helpful.
It can be useful to group your materials in a way that relates to
your questions and to the story you plan to tell. Try categorizing
them so you can easily recall which are more important and which are
What relevant background to your subject must your reader have to
understand your argument?
What organizational scheme makes the most sense for your subject
and intellectual goals? Chronology is often useful in historical writing,
and some historians prize narrative writing. Thematic forms of organization
are also very common and can make a lot of sense. If your paper proceeds
by way of a comparison, how will that comparison be structured?
Are there terms you will need to define at the outset? Characters
you will need to introduce? Periodization you will need to explain?
If so, where should these go?
Will you be placing your subject in the context of historiography?
If so, where in the paper should this be presented? (Some historians
devote considerable text to this; some utilize footnotes.) Historiographical
questions include: What are the major interpretive debates about your
subject? Who are the key commentators on your subject? What makes
your approach and argument original and different?
Outlines are good places to sketch out several kinds of “balance”
in your paper.
Balance between general context and the heart of your research.
One common error is to get so involved in telling the background
story that you forget to mention your actual subject until page
15! Aim for proportionality in your outline. The most important
themes and questions should get the most attention and space.
Balance between more general assertions and concrete evidence
and examples to back those assertions up. Another common error
is to gravitate toward either overly general or overly detailed
writing. The former results in vagueness that cannot sustain an
argument. The latter results in failure to develop an argument
Remember that evidence helps you answer questions about who, what,
where, when, and why.
Be careful not to expect your sources to do more than they can. Use
multiple sources to support a claim you think is especially unusual
or controversial. Consider tackling the weakness of your sources directly,
anticipating obvious criticism rather than ignoring it.
5. Formulating Your Argument
What exactly is your subject?
What exactly is your argument (sometimes also called a “thesis”)?
Your subject and your argument are not identical. Your argument
is the original point you are making, the result of all the thinking
you have done during the course of research. It is a claim about the
significance of a historical subject (or problem or question) and
a promise that you will demonstrate that your approach to the subject–your
interpretation--is persuasive and compelling. An argument is more
than an announcement about what your subject will be. It is an assertion
about what your subject means and why it matters.
6. Writing an Introduction
The introduction should introduce your subject, state your argument,
and reveal for the reader what you plan to accomplish in the paper.
You can also explain briefly why the paper is organized as it is
so that the reader will know exactly what to expect. Think of the
introduction as a textual map for an intellectual journey.
7. Drafting the Body of Your Paper
8. Writing a Conclusion
Return to your argument and remind your reader of the most compelling
evidence presented to support it.
Excellent papers are drafted far enough ahead of time so that you
have time to re-read, reflect, and revise–all of which will
make your paper better than it would have been without revision.
Consider asking trusted colleagues to read and comment on your work.
Think about the overall organization of your paper. Does is flow
logically and cohere throughout? Are there bumpy spots that need reworking,
better transitions, and reorganization?
Think about each paragraph. Does it go where you say it will go?
Do you offer concrete evidence and examples when you make general
points? Is the transition from the paragraph before smooth? Is the
transition to the next paragraph equally smooth?
Think about each sentence: grammar, spelling, punctuation, word
choice, etc. Ask yourself if your writing is as bold and direct as
possible. Be ruthless about eliminating pompous language, jargon,
and fussy constructions. They will not impress your reader or do justice
to your ideas.
Use your computer’s spell checker, but don’t stop there.
Many people find that it is easier to catch errors on paper than
on a screen.
Try reading your work aloud. It can be a little embarrassing at first,
but it is a great technique for zooming in on errors, weak spots,
and awkward phrases.