Writing Research Papers: Part Two — Formatting Your Paper

Once you have decided on a topic for your paper and developed an outline and thesis statement (get tips in Part One of our guide to writing research papers), you are ready to begin writing the paper itself. Here are some tips on structure and format.

Starting point: the introduction  

Introductions should get the attention of your reader, introduce your main idea, and capture your argument. This part of the paper sets up the remainder of the material.

A few elements you may want to include in an effective introduction:

  • a hook to get readers’ attention
  • background (if necessary) of the topic
  • your main idea or thesis
  • a preview of the body of your essay (often contained in or found near a thesis statement)

Most introductions present a paper’s main point, but the rest of the details may vary. The introductory paragraph of a sociology exam may not include a “hook” but get right to the main claim of your essay. A longer essay may contain a significant introduction. You will want to evaluate your situation and choose what works best.

Not sure where to begin? If you’re stuck, try these strategies:

  1. Start writing the body of your paper. If the first paragraph isn’t coming to mind easily, look at your outline and start writing a paragraph that you feel more confident about.
  2. Think about your audience. For example, pet owners may be more invested if you explain why your proposed dog park helps their pets stay healthy and happy.
  3. Use trial and error. Your first introduction may not be your best, and that’s fine. Try listing several ideas at once and see which one seems best.
  4. Talk it out. Have friends and family read your work. Email your instructor. Read your work out loud.
  5. Take a break. Try one of these de-stressing suggestions from World Campus students.

If you’re stuck on your introduction, reach out to your instructor, your classmates, and your tutors. They can provide feedback on what you have written and may help you improve your text.

Ending on a good note

Endings can also be tricky when writing a research paper. Many students struggle with figuring out how to wrap things up, especially because you may feel pressure to end with a memorable line or important takeaway. And it is true that this will be one of the most important parts of your paper.

Every paper needs a convincing and memorable ending. Like a great punchline caps off a good joke, your conclusion will be the last thing that your readers read and remember about your paper. You want it to reinforce your point and drive home why your argument matters. But how do you do that?

You may take several approaches to writing a conclusion. There is no single “right” way to end a paper. A lot will depend on the tone and style of your paper — just as there are different ways in which you would end a verbal conversation, depending on the situation. The point is the same for conversations and for papers: help your reader (or listener) remember your main point and (hopefully) be persuaded by it.

When you draft your conclusion, try to ask yourself these questions about your paper. Your answers may help guide your conclusion.

  • What should your reader remember? Summarize the most important information.
  • What should your reader do in response to your paper? Call for that action.
  • Why should they care about your main point? Appeal to your readers’ self-interest.

Depending on the goal of your paper, your conclusion may change its focus. If you’re writing a paper about recycling, you may want your reader to do something, such as call their city council members, write a letter to a center, or start recycling.

One final tip: Sometimes, less is more! If you get stuck with your conclusion, remember it doesn’t have to be long to be effective. You may be able to write a shorter conclusion and get the same effect.

For more on conclusions, check out this video.

Rubrics and grading

Being truly successful in writing a college paper — and earning a good grade — requires more than just good writing and research skills. You also must be sure to meet all of the requirements specified by your instructor. These are often detailed in what is known as a rubric.

A rubric is a ranking system used by instructors to grade an assignment based on specific criteria. A rubric can also tell you what your instructor expects from a quality assignment and can guide you as you write a paper. Other times, the instructor will simply explain the guidelines or grading criteria via written instructions.

As you prepare for a paper or any assignment, read and reread the assignment description or rubric provided by your instructor. Check to make sure you have understood each piece and addressed it. All of these tools can help you understand your instructor’s expectations for the assignment.

Here are a few other ways that rubrics or assignment instructions can help you:

  • Follow directions. Your instructor includes only important information in a rubric, and a rubric can remind you of important pieces of an assignment that you may have missed.
  • Focus on significant areas of an assignment.
  • Revise effectively. A rubric can remind you of an area for revision.


Penn State University Libraries has created a collection of Information Literacy Modules that provides helpful information that can guide you in writing papers and completing other assignments. Modules include:

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