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In at least one of your classes, your professor will ask you to write a paper. Writing a research paper is one of the ways that you prove you understand the material. A good research paper answers a question clearly and concisely. While it can seem challenging at first, writing a paper is easier than it looks.

Here are seven steps to writing an excellent paper. Follow them, and you’ll end up with a well thought-out paper and get great marks too!

Step 1: Understand expectations

Different professors have different expectations for papers. Some might ask you to write a simple five-paragraph essay, while others want a 10-page report. Read directions carefully, and ask questions. This way, you’ll know how long the paper should be, what topics it should cover, and whether there are any special sources of information your professor would like you to use.

Professors will also ask you to cite your sources. That means they want you to correctly note where your information came from. There are different styles of citing. The most common are: ChicagoAPA, and MLA. Your professor should tell you which style to use; if  not, ask. This will be important as you research your paper in step three.

Step 2: Select a topic

In some classes, your professor will assign a topic. In other classes, you will need to choose one for yourself. To pick a good topic, ask yourself: what would I like to learn more about? For longer papers, comparing two ideas can be a great topic. Shorter papers might present one idea and then support it with well-researched facts.

A good topic can easily be described in a single sentence. For example: How do the psychological concepts described by Carl Jung differ from those of Sigmund Freud? If you can’t turn your topic into a clear question, you need to simplify it.

Step 3: Find reliable sources of information

For most papers, your professor will expect you to do more than state your opinion. They’ll want you to include facts, data, or quotes from other sources.

You can look for information in books, online, or in magazines. You could also talk to an expert in the subject.

Make sure that you only use reliable sources. Especially on the internet, it can be hard to tell which sources are factual and which are not to be trusted. Look for these characteristics:

  1. The information comes from an established institution. Research from the National Center for Disease Control is a good source. A blogger’s opinion post is not.
  2. The writer is an expert in the topic. People and organizations that are well-known in their industry are often good sources. If you’re not sure if someone is an expert, look for university credentials, years of experience, and other people writing about that person’s work.
  3. The website is not selling a product. Websites that are selling products or services may give biased information that benefits their product or service. Be careful with these sites.

When in doubt about the reliability of a source, ask your professor or a librarian.

Read through your sources and write down or save information that might be useful. Make sure you record all of the information you need to cite the source later. That means you have the writer’s name, name of the book publisher, title of the book or website, and date that it was written.

Step 4: Create an outline

Open a document on your computer or get a piece of paper. Write your main question at the top of the page—this is called your thesis statement. Then, write down all of the ideas you want to talk about in the paper. Organize these ideas to create an outline.

All papers have at least three parts:

  1. Introduction: Usually a paragraph or two that states the main idea and explains why this idea is worth exploring.
  2. Body: Explores the idea. The body ranges from three paragraphs to multiple pages depending on the length and complexity of the paper.
  3. Conclusion: A paragraph that restates the main idea and summarizes important points.

Step 5: Write the Paper

Write an introduction. Support your thesis statement with facts and research. Then write a conclusion that summarizes everything. Each paragraph or section of your paper should build around one key concept.

Make sure you cite your sources correctly. By know you should know what style of citation your professor prefers. Follow the directions for that style.

Step 6: Reread and rewrite

You’ve worked hard on your paper, but it’s not quite ready to submit. First you need to make sure that you’ve done your best work. Read your finished paper and ask yourself these questions:

  1. Are the ideas clearly explained?
  2. Have I included all the relevant information?
  3. Have I put in any details that are irrelevant or not essential?

If your ideas are clearly explained, you’ve included all of the relevant information, and left out anything that wasn’t essential, you can move on to the next step. Don’t be discouraged if your paper isn’t perfect yet—most students need to rewrite parts of their papers to make ideas clearer.

Rewrite any section that isn’t clear. If you’re not sure how to fix it yourself, ask a professor or other students to read and offer suggestions.

Step 7: Check for spelling and grammar errors

You should always do a final check to make sure your paper is as perfect as you can make it. Check spelling, grammar, and punctuation. This is especially important when you’re writing in a language that is not your primary language.

Some students skip this step and end up with lower grades. Get the best grade you can by checking your work before you pass it in. That’s it! You’re ready to pass in your paper. Good luck!