Writing a Research Paper: Sections & Length

Instructor: Tommi Waters

TK Waters has a bachelor's degree in literature and religious studies and a master's degree in religious studies and teaches Hebrew Bible at Western Kentucky University.

In this lesson, we will focus on how to write a research paper, particularly focusing on the sections you should include in the paper. We will also review the differences in length and expectations from a short research paper to a more in-depth one.

How to Begin

Writing a research paper can seem like a daunting process. You have to choose a topic, do the research for it, then try to write about everything you found--and if you are like many people, you try to do this the night before it is due. So, is there a better way?

Instead of thinking of the research paper as one big project, try thinking of it as a process. You would not try to drive across the country without making preparations like packing, getting your oil changed, filling your gas tank, and buying or printing maps. Similarly, you should not just jump into a research paper.

The best place to start is to think about what you want to write about. Don't worry about grammar, formatting, or even if everything relates to your main idea; just focus on what you 'think' might work so you have all your thoughts on paper to pull from. While doing the actual research for your paper, it is often helpful to create an annotated bibliography, (whether formal or just jotted down) which provides correct citation of the sources you consulted and briefly explains what each source is about and how it can be used in your project.

Once you have all your research together, you should write an outline for your paper and include subpoints and supporting evidence. All of this will help you stay organized when writing and editing your rough draft to produce your final draft. Starting with a plan and working through the process typically produces better results than sitting down and writing it all at once.

Choosing a Topic and Paper Lengths

If you are writing for a school assignment, your instructor will sometimes assign you the topic, but often, you have to decide for yourself. Choosing a good topic is the most important part of writing a paper. You do not want a topic that is too broad, or you will not be able to cover enough information about it in your paper. However, you also do not want a topic that is so specific that you cannot meet your length requirements. For example, you would not want to write your 7-10 page literature research paper on ''Theatre in the Renaissance'' because you would have to cover not just playwrights like Shakespeare (whose writings are already extensive), but 'all' playwrights during the entire Renaissance. At the same time, you would not want to write your paper on Lady Macbeth saying ''Out, damned spot!'' because you would not be able to write enough about that specific line to meet your length requirements. Instead, you should find something in between, perhaps the role of guilt in Lady Macbeth's character in this instance.

Choosing your topic also depends on what type of research paper you are writing. If you are writing a short research paper for middle school or early high school, you will not be expected to research quite as extensively and will probably not have to pick an incredibly narrow topic. As you progress, you will be expected to write more detailed and extensive papers. In high school and 100 level college classes, you will probably be writing 5-10 page research papers, and as you progress to upper level college classes, you will begin to write 10-20 page papers. The major difference between these levels is in specificity. The more you progress in your education, the more you will be expected to write more specific yet longer papers.

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