Tips for Grads: Subtle essentials to writing research papers

By Emily Azevedo-Casey, PhD student

Research papers are often required and can be valuable opportunities to deepen your understanding of your field or topic, contribute to a larger body of knowledge, and develop essential skills for future careers in academia, industry, or other research-intensive professions. These tips aim to help demystify the process of completing a research paper by focusing on some of the subtleties of planning.

  • Get clear on assignment guidelines. Don’t overlook specific requirements like formatting, citation styles, and other details, especially if you are considering submitting your work to a scholarly journal. Ask questions about the guidelines and keep in mind your audience, whether it is your professor or potential peer reviewers.
  • Set intermittent deadlines. Work backwards from the date you want to submit your paper (or when it is due in class) and set deadlines for essential steps like choosing a topic, conducting background research, writing an outline, drafting your argument, completing the first draft, and revising. Don’t forget to plan breaks and time for your healthy habits like proper sleep, nutrition, exercise, and social activities. Give yourself two to three times more time than you think for each step to build in room for unanticipated challenges.
  • Prioritize data and information management. Consider folder file management, naming conventions, and tools like citation managers to keep all your research organized and ready to be added into your drafts as efficiently as possible.
  • Use templates when available. If you’re like me, then you might be driven to find new ways of writing research papers each time you set out to do it. While this can be fun and exciting, sometimes we really don’t need to reinvent the wheel and our time might better be spent on the actual assignment. Consider templates to form your outline and draft. Ask your professor for examples or model after published research papers in relevant journals. If you really want to try something new, try adding only one or two changes like using a different literature search engine or brainstorming activity.
  • Protect your work time. Reflect on when you work best and avoid interruptions or distractions during your research and writing time. Communicate your limited availability to friends, family, or work. While you probably can’t meet your loved ones as much as they would like, avoid missing very important events with them and schedule time with them after your assignment is done.
  • Get support. Use resources like The Writing Center or UW–Madison Libraries to get feedback on your work. Ask people you trust to give constructive feedback to read over your work, especially if they are not in your field to help improve your writing clarity and strength of connecting your points.

As you probably have experienced, writing a research paper can be a very involved process. These tips are meant to complement some of the other essential planning steps you might already know like conducting your literature review, writing an outline, and crafting your argument. For more help, consider working with folks at The Writing Center, using the writer’s handbook, or meet with your professor.

Tips for Grads is a professional and academic advice column written by graduate students for graduate students at UW­–Madison. It is published in the student newsletter, GradConnections Weekly.