Writing Research Papers: Part One — Your Topic and Outline

Research papers can be intimidating for many college students. That’s understandable. Writing a research paper takes some work and may require skills that are new — or perhaps have gone rusty. Crafting a good research paper involves planning, organization, research, writing, and editing. Time management can also play a critical role, as these assignments often must be completed over an extended period of time and submitted by a firm deadline. If you do not allow sufficient time for each phase or you fail to stick to your schedule, you may find yourself in a rush to finish at the last minute, meaning you’ll be unlikely to do your best work.

Preparation can go a long way in helping you succeed. Self-discipline is essential, as well. You must focus, stick to the timeline, and avoid distractions.

Establishing your position or topic 

Most papers are based on an argument, position, or theory. Or you may be exploring a specific topic (or person) to offer detailed insight on why it was important, or the role it played in a larger event. For example, in your sociology class, you may assert that the internet has changed our definitions of privacy. In the process, you might:

  • gather evidence to support your claim. Maybe you would look at studies on the meaning of privacy, interview classmates about their internet use, or conduct a survey on what people post to social media.
  • think about your audience, perhaps persuading them that they should be careful about what they post on the internet.

A well-organized outline is essential

Once you have gathered some initial thoughts and ideas, you will embark on perhaps the most important step of this entire process — the outline. Developing a good outline is imperative, as it will guide you along the way, helping you figure out what material you need and ensuring that you stay on track.

An organization structure for a paper on internet privacy, for example, might look something like this:

In the first paragraphs, you might identify a question:

How does social media change our definition of privacy?

In your thesis (often found in the introduction), state your argument:

The advent of social media has changed our definitions of privacy and encourages us to be more strategic about what information we share with others.

In the rest of your essay, use evidence to support your point (body paragraphs).

  • You might look at what privacy meant at different times in history.
  • You might cite a study that explains how people’s perspectives on privacy have changed.

In the conclusion, keep your audience in mind. Why should they care about the changing definitions of privacy?

Identifying your thesis statement

The thesis statement is the heart of your research paper. Depending on what sort of paper you are writing, your thesis statement may take different forms. You could:

  • explain an idea to your audience
  • argue a claim
  • analyze a concept
  • take a stance on an issue

For example, an English assignment may ask you to take a stance on student loan debt. Should the first semester of college be free? Should all students receive more substantial federal aid? This paper is asking you to take a stance and argue for a solution to student loan debt.

A thesis statement is the road map of your essay. It gives your paper a structure and gives your readers a direction. If you could only tell someone the thesis of your paper, that person should be able to understand the topic and focus of your paper from that one sentence.

Your first draft of a thesis on the above topic might look like this:

We need to fix student loans now!

After you’ve done research and outlined your paper, a stronger thesis might read like this:

Given the sharp increase in student loan debt over the last 30 years and the staggering number of loans in default, the Office of Federal Student Aid must change its policy on deferment to include medical and financial hardship for recent graduates.

Getting from the first version to the second one will take brainstorming and some time to contemplate the deeper issues involved with your topic.

A few tips:

  1. Start with an idea — such as, “We need to fix student loans” — and think about how you can make it more specific by asking questions. How can we fix the crisis of student loan debt? What part of that solution will you focus on? Why does this solution matter? Who needs to make a change?
  2. Do research on your topic and find out more details about your topic. Use that research to make your thesis more specific.
  3. Return to your thesis statement throughout the process.

See other examples of thesis statements and suggestions on how to develop your thesis statement.

Style Guides

The Penn State University Libraries website includes citation guides and links to the Modern Language Association, APA StyleChicago Manual of Style, and other common style guides.