Paper Writing Tips for the Busy Student

Writing research papers might be one of the most daunting tasks students face; writing research papers in addition to working a part- or full-time job and juggling other personal responsibilities makes the process feel about ten times more intimidating. Never fear! Often, the most difficult parts of the task are choosing a topic and actually getting started writing. We’ve outlined some writing tips to overcome those hurdles and make the process manageable. Keep reading to see how.

1. Understand the Assignment
It may sound obvious, but you must first understand the writing assignment thoroughly before progressing to the writing stage. All too often, students want to hurry in and tackle the assignment, but not knowing what exactly is expected jeopardizes the writing—and the grade—in the long run. Read the assignment carefully; ask your instructor questions to clarify, and even ask questions of classmates (in discussions, chat, email, etc…), to ensure you are starting off on the right foot.

2. Choose a Topic
The next step is to choose a topic (unless your topic is assigned by the instructor). We suggest brainstorming to get some ideas written out. Once you have an idea in writing, it’s easier to build on it later. Remember, writing about something about which you are passionate or interested will usually elicit a more thoughtful paper.

One of the best ways to help you identify the right topic is to brainstorm using a mind map—creating a visual diagram to show the relationships between ideas or information. You can use a digital mind mapping tool or brainstorm on paper while writing and drawing ideas with colored markers and pens (color helps your brain remember things more vividly). Here is an example of a mind map made with the online tool Mindmeister:

mindmap outline

A topic should be broad enough that you are able to locate sources relevant to it, but narrow enough that it has a unique focus. The ultimate hope is that it will contribute in some small way to the body of knowledge in the field.

3. Outline the Paper
Outlining your paper is essential to getting the writing process going, as it helps you get ideas on paper while organizing your thoughts. The outline does not have to be long and detailed, it can be short phrases placed in the order you wish to discuss the information about your topic. Just be sure it flows logically and makes sense. Here is a brief outline that was written before this article was started:

Intro – Challenge of Writing

  • Research topic
  • Analysis
    • Brainstorming
  • Outline
  • Intro
  • Content
  • Concluding thoughts
  • Citations
  • Other Tips –
  • Speech to text dictation strategy
    • How it works on Mac/How it works on PC – programs available
  • Mobile devices – write on the go
  • Time management – Chunk of a day or write an hour each day

As you can see, the outline above is very short; however it provides a solid framework for this article. It may not reflect the exact end result, but it was a place to start.

Specific organizational patterns can be used to help you outline your paper and to assist in the flow of the information. Some organizational patterns include topical (in which the outline is ordered by topic), spatial (ordered by location or region), cause/effect (what happened first and then what the result of it was), problem/solution (what needs to be changed, then how it can be changed), and chronological (ordered in the sequence it occurred). Choose an organizational pattern that makes sense for your topic (e.g., a topic about “Cultures in Regions of China” might fit well into a spatial organization pattern).

4. Find Sources
Finding sources is the treasure hunt of paper writing. It can be fun, but also challenging. Searching online for sources is the fastest way to find information, however special attention must be paid to locating quality, credible, sources as well. You need to refer to your writing assignment guidelines to see what is expected for sources.

The important question is: how many peer-reviewed sources are needed? Peer-reviewed sources come from journals usually found in the library or via open source journals and websites such as Google Scholar online. Peer-reviewed sources are considered credible because they have been reviewed by a team of academics to ensure they meet standards of quality in research and writing. The more peer-reviewed sources you can use on your topic, the better the research paper, academically speaking. Question whether the source is recent and timely, credible, and relevant to your topic.

As you find sources, you will want to stay organized. We recommend using a free research tool called Zotero that allows you to easily collect, organize, share, and cite research content. This program is free, works on Mac, Windows, and Linux, and includes browser plugins for Chrome, Safari and Firefox. You can use a Google Drive or Excel spreadsheet to organize your sources and citations as well. The spreadsheet can include columns for the author, date, title of the article, title of the publication, issue/volume number, page numbers and quotations and/or paraphrased material. Most sources on the web or from the library offer an automatic citation feature where you can easily cut and past the pre-formatted citation into your references list. A word of caution: be sure to select the appropriate citation format (e.g., APA, MLA, Chicago, etc.) and double check each citation to make sure it’s correct (sometimes the automatic citation wizard is wrong!).

Most research papers require some type of formatting as part of the assignment. Formatting your paper is important to educated readers so they can understand the organization and flow of information. The formatting style is chosen based on the discipline in which you reside, or in which your topic resides. For detailed information on formatting your paper, look at this helpful guide.

5. Time to Write
As mentioned earlier, getting started is the hardest part, but finding time to write can be equally challenging. Schedule time on your personal and work calendars to sit down in a quiet location and write. Turn off your cell phone and email notifications and set a timer for 20 minutes. Write everything you can in 20 minutes, and then take a five minute break—a “check your messages break” or a “social media break.” Then, set another timer for 25 minutes this time and write again, and so on and so forth. Rewarding yourself with small breaks and treats (lattes are a good incentive!) will train your brain to focus when it is needed, and to break when it is allowed. It is a simple B.F. Skinner positive reinforcement technique that really works.

If you begin these short bursts of writing weeks in advance of your paper’s due date, you will find it much easier to write well and finish on time. Schedule one to two hours a day of writing time, two to three times per week, and suddenly the mountain of work of writing the paper will turn into a molehill. Small chunks of work assist your brain in focusing on getting the job done. As a reminder, allow a few hours to edit toward the end of your writing schedule. Have a friend read the paper to catch any hidden typos or grammatical errors, and re-read it yourself at least once.

6. Just DO IT!
Breaking down the task of writing a research paper into the steps below makes it manageable and doable, even if you’re working or have other obligations. Recommended time frames are listed next to each step below to assist you in planning your writing journey.

Writing Process Steps

  1. Read the assignment (10–20 minutes)
  2. Choose a topic – brainstorm and mind map (1–2 hours)
  3. Select an organizational pattern and outline your paper in brief (40 minutes)
  4. Find sources (allow an hour per source, i.e. 8 sources = 8 hours)
  5. Schedule time to write (1–2 hours 2–3 times per week, beginning 4–6 in advance of the paper due date).
  6. Edit and format the paper (4–6 hours)

The time guidelines above are estimated recommendations; adjust them based on your specific assignment, your schedule, and other obligations in your life.

Having a positive attitude and being diligent about adhering to your scheduled writing times are keys to success in writing a research paper. Research paper writing is challenging but it can be fun when you feel prepared and feel empowered to manage the process!

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