The first step in writing a research paper is, of course, selecting a topic. Several questions should be considered when you make your choice.

A. How long is your paper going to be?

Select a topic which can be adequately covered in the length of your paper. If your paper is limited to ten pages, for example, a topic like "History of Navigation" is going to be too broad.

B. How difficult is the research going to be?

Before you choose any topic you should be sure that gathering research for your subject is not going to be too difficult, if not impossible. You might check in a few local libraries to make sure that they have material on your subject. If you are going to base some of your paper on interviews, make sure the people you want to interview are available and willing. If some of your paper depends on field work or experimentation you yourself will perform, make certain that you can obtain all the necessary materials in plenty of time.

C. How complex is the subject of your paper?

It is important to select a topic which is within your grasp intellectually. If you do not thoroughly understand your topic, then you are going to have a difficult time explaining it to your readers or listeners. Casually look over some of the material you think you might use. Does it seem too difficult? If your topic requires that you have a sophisticated understanding of physics, for instance, and you have never taken a physics course, it is probably wise to change topics.

This advice is not intended to discourage you from being ambitious, or to suggest that you select a topic in which there is no challenge whatsoever. One of the main purposes in writing a research paper is to discover and learn something new. If you are not sure if you are capable of handling a certain subject, consult your instructor.

D. How interesting is your topic?

Try to select a topic in which you have a genuine interest. If you are bored while writing your paper, you will inevitably convey your boredom to your reader. Remember you will be working with your subject for several weeks. If you choose a topic for which you feel no enthusiasm in the beginning, by the time you are finished you will be thoroughly sick of it.

E. Helpful hints.

Many people feel stuck at the very first step -- in choosing a topic. But truly, it is hard to go wrong. Almost anything you would care to pursue will probably be interesting and have lots of work that needs to be done. Just follow your nose toward something that sounds interesting to you, and it will probably work out. But you will need to do some reading before your topic gets finalized in your head, and that is as it should be. You need to become immersed in a subject in order to learn all that is known about it; only when you have this knowledge do you arrive at the frontier of knowledge where research begins. You will want to consult not only books but journal articles. A good way to find a subject is simply to browse what has been written, looking for things that sound interesting to you. This means reading the journals in the field, and also looking through the research symposia that exist. These are collections of papers that were originally given at a meeting by researchers, and they are organized into a printed volume under the supervision of an editor. Once you find a paper that you think is interesting, it will contain references to other work that came before and those references will contain other references, etc. and you will soon have all the information you need to be informed in some area and formulate a good topic.

F. Can you do research?

Research means "finding out or contributing something new." This means that it is not just a book report, where you look up certain information in sources and then repeat it in your paper. You already know how to do a book report. The paper should have some original contribution from YOU in it to qualify for an A grade.

Now, this does not mean that you have to produce something publishable but on the other hand, do not assume that all knowledge is already known and written down somewhere: that was the medieval attitude.

Realize that an original contribution can come in the form of new ideas or a critical analysis. Examples of such analysis could be: examining in critical detail an author's discussion of a topic in light of what you know from the class or contrasting what several sources have said and creating your own synthesis, or proposing a new idea of your own (even if you are not able to go verify it at present).

Here are a few specific examples just for illustration of how you might construct a paper topic that is more than a "book report" -- one that satisfies the criterion of having some original contribution that is YOU and not just being a rehash of what is already in print. Note key verbs like "compare" as contrasted to book-report verbs like "describe".

1) Find controversy in the literature and discuss it, including your own viewpoint
2) Discuss the changes in theories about some concept
3) Compare the symbolism of the cosmology of two separate cultures
4) compare Russian astronomy before and after the revolution
5) Discuss Plato's influence vs. Aristotle's influence on medieval astronomers
6) Compare the cosmology of Dante with that of Milton in their works
7) Compare the mechanical philosophy in Astronomy and religion


Once you have chosen a topic, you are ready to begin taking notes. The following are some pointers for successful note-taking. Use standard index cards, either 3" x 5" or 5" x 8". The larger cards are somewhat easier to handle, and allow you to put more information on one card. Use the top line of the card to recall for you why you think the information on the card is important. A key word or phrase will usually be enough for you. Record the author, the work, and the page(s) at the bottom of the card. Use separate card for each different entry. Do not hesitate to "paraphrase" (use your own words) information which you do not intend to quote exactly. Copy exactly those entries which you intend to quote verbatim (word for word). Keep your notes organized.


Here are some warm up techniques designed to help you get your thoughts flowing and down on paper. Use them to help you think up topics, get started on an outline, begin a rough draft, or work out an idea.

A. Free Writing.

Give yourself a time limit, e.g., one or five minutes. Then write out all your thoughts non-stop, everything you already know or would like to know about your topic. Write down whatever comes into your mind, even daydreams. When the time is up, throw away the irrelevant passages and organize and refine the pertinent ones.

B. Free Listing.

Write out lists as fast as you can without stopping: lists of possible topics, outline topics. Don't worry about the phrasing or wording. Just get the ideas down. Like free writing, the ideas of free listing is to "data dump" on paper. Once on paper, you can reorganize the items, throw some away, or add to them.

C. Clustering.

Choose a key word related to your topic. Write it in the upper third of a blank page and draw a circle about it. Then ask yourself what words come to mind when you think of the key word. Write those down, one after the other as one association leads to the next, in radiating lists outward from your key word. Don't judge or choose: simply let go and write. Draw circles around these words and draw lines from circle to circle connecting those words that seem related. Then stop and scan the clustered perceptions. Wait until something in the words suggests a first sentence to you, then write for several minutes. Write a unified paragraph triggered by your key word. Choose only what seems to fit your composition. End your writing by repeating a word or phrase or thought from your opening line.


A. Organize your notecards.

Once you have completed your research, you should organize your notecards according to sub-headings. This organization will help you prepare your outline. If, for instance, you are writing a paper on telescopes you could arrange your cards under headings like "discovery", "refractors", "reflectors", etc. Discard all cards and information which you do not intend to use.

B. Arrange your material.

Now arrange your material in a way that seems orderly and logical. Remember that your paper must have:

(1) An introduction (announcing the intention, purpose, or main idea of your paper)

(2) A main body (in which you demonstrate your evidence to support your main idea)

(3) A conclusion (in which you sum up your paper, usually reminding the reader of the main ideas in your paper)

C. Make your outline.

An outline is intended to help you stay on course and prompt your memory if you should lose your sense of direction. It is not intended to contain every word of your paper, but it should not be so general or vague as to fail to provide you with some specific pointers. An outline may be of two different sorts:

(1) a topical outline, or (2) a sentence outline. A topical outline contains key phrases and words in the development of your paper. Note that there are no complete sentences in this example:

I. Colonization of the New World

A. Spanish colonies

1. settled mainly between 1500-1625

2. settled by men who came alone, as conquerors

B. English colonies

1. settled between 1625-1750

2. settled by men who came with families, as farmers


A sentence outline contains your ideas in key sentences; these sentences are often the topic sentences in your paper's paragraphs. A sentence outline will usually contain fewer subheadings than a topic outline. The following example, for instance, is a sentence outline containing all the information contained in the topic outline cited above. Example:

I. The colonization of the New World did not occur all at once and in the same way.

A. The Spanish came alone, as conquerors, in the years between 1500 and 1625.

B. The English came later, between 1625 and 1750, with their families, to settle as farmers.

Note that in the sentence outline the contrast between the Spanish and English colonies is specifically pointed out, whereas the topic outline only suggests it by its arrangement.

Choose either of the two forms of outline, depending on your taste. Do not however, mix the two forms using a sentence sometimes and other times using only a phrase.



A. Use the outline.

Write your rough draft using your outline and your note cards. Remember that your entire paper should be constructed to support and develop a thesis.

B. Use footnotes.

Decide which notecards you wish to quote directly. Footnote everything, including the information you have paraphrased. It is very important to give credit where credit is due. Guidelines for footnotes are given below.

C. Visualize your reader.

Imagine the person to whom this paper is addressed (a professor, a classmate...). Imagine that this person is friendly toward your ideas but does not want to be bored. As you write, speak to this person. As you write this draft, speak naturally and honestly in your own words. Write quickly; don't try to impress or censor your thoughts. Just be yourself on paper.

D. Revising the rough draft with three readings.

Read over your paper four times, each time with a different focus. Look for organization first, then strong paragraphs and sentences, then consider content and finally, proof-read.

1. Organization.

Underline or highlight the topic sentence in each paragraph. Do the topic sentences by themselves form a reasonable mini-essay in themselves? Do you like the sequence of ideas? Is there continuity among the paragraphs?

2 . Paragraphs and sentences.

Do the sentences refer to the idea of the topic sentence? Are the paragraphs the proper length? Are they dull -- maybe some sentences should be cut in half, and others combined? Circle all verbs; try to use fresh, powerful verbs. Change awkward phrasing; correct spelling and grammatical errors.

3 . Content.

Have someone else read your paper and give you feedback, or read it aloud yourself. Ask yourself the following questions:

a. Does my paper develop smoothly and surely from introduction to conclusion?

b. Do I support the claims I made in my introduction?

c. Is everything in the paper relevant, and related to the main topic?

4. Proofing.

One trick used by professional proofreaders is to read the paper backwards. Then you will not be distracted by content while looking for typos.

E. The Final Copy

In your typewritten or word-processed paper avoid smeared stretches of "white-out," inked-out mistakes, ragged edges, etc. A word processor (computer) makes corrections and revisions so effortless that it easily cuts in half the labor required to produce a paper. You should:

-- Include a title page.

-- Include your outline after your title page.

-- Check to make sure your pages are numbered and in order.

-- Check to make sure that your footnotes all correspond with the right information.

-- Include your footnote page if you have one, at the end of your paper.

-- Include your bibliography last.



You must reference in your bibliography all sources for your footnotes. In addition you should list references you used in preparing your paper even if you did not use them for footnotes. A reference should list author's name; name of book or article; publisher or name of journal; for books, city of publication; and date of publication.


Footnotes are a necessary part of a research paper. They are the writer's (your) way of giving credit for using another person's work, which may include investigations, experiments, or simply his or her own ideas, directly quoted. They are an author's method of showing the reader what part of a paper is work previously done by others, and what part is an original contribution in the present paper. Footnotes are what enable the reader (or a grader) to separate out those two parts: that which you obtained from others and that which is original to you. Including footnotes and references is so important that failing to do so constitutes a form of academic dishonesty called plagiarism -- effectively taking credit for someone else s work. Plagiarism carries severe penalties at the University of Texas. In this course, papers without adequate footnoting and references will be given a grade of F, so do take this seriously.

A. How do you know when to use footnotes?

There are no absolutely rigid rules on the subject, but here are some general guidelines:

1. If you are using another writer's exact words, copied right out of a book of magazine, USE FOOTNOTES.

2. If you are using the results of someone else's experiments or investigations, then USE FOOTNOTES.

3. If you are citing another person's opinion or point of view, then USE FOOTNOTES.

4. If you are citing facts which are generally well-known, DO NOT USE FOOTNOTES. You need not, for example, footnote a statement like "Washington was the first President of the United States."

5. If you are quoting well-known phrases, sayings, etc. DO NOT USE FOOTNOTES. " A fool and his money are soon parted," and "Mary had a little lamb" are examples.

B. What Do Footnotes Look Like?

You indicate to your reader that you are referring to another person's work by putting a number (generally slightly raised above the line) at the end of a sentence. Your first footnote is number one, your second two, regardless of the source you are quoting. At the end of your paper, you should have a page entitled "Footnotes." On that page should be the numbers of your footnotes followed by the author's name, the work, and the pages from which you took the information you have cited. In years past, although less so today, the abbreviations "Ibid." and "Op. Cit." appeared in footnotes; they mean "the same" and "work cited," respectively. "Ibid." is used when you have just quoted an author, you haven't quoted anyone else since that quotation, and you are quoting the author again.


1. Michaels, Jane. The Politics of Pressure, pp. 73-74.

2. Michaels, Jane. Ibid., pp. 110-112.

"Op Cit." is used when you have already cited a particular source, but you have cited other sources since then.


1. Kelly, Erin. Ireland in the Middle Ages, p. 90.

2. O'Dowd, Michael. St. Patrick's Land, pp. 82-93.

3. Kelly, Erin. Op.Cit, p. 110.


If you prefer, you may simply restate the name of the work each time you cite it.

Footnotes may appear at the bottom of the page in which they occur or they may all be listed at the end of the paper in a separate section.

The following paragraphs may be considered as an example of part of a paper on the Black Death. The inserted numbers indicate where the writer has made a footnote.

There are several theories about the origins of the Black Death, or bubonic plague, which swept through Europe during the last part of the fourteenth century, but one of the most widely held views is that it was brought westward by sailors who had traded in the East. [1] (Opinion) Once introduced to Europe, the disease spread quickly, sometimes decimating whole villages, leaving them nothing more than ghost towns. It is estimated that by 1349 the plague had killed a quarter of the population of Europe. [2] (Fact not widely known)

In those dark times, people had no idea that the disease was caused by a bacillus carried by fleas. They believed that God was punishing them for their sins, and they shunned those who fell ill, believing them to be sinners. As Peter of Romany wrote, "It was piteous to see the poor, wretched sinners, groveling in the street in their agony, calling on God and man alike to help them, all in vain." [3] (Direct quote)



The papers will be graded on the following points:

1. mechanics of writing (including spelling, punctuation, grammar, phrasing, voice).

2. content:

a. opening and closing

b. accuracy

c. points made and supported

d. logical sequence of ideas, often indicated by topic sentences

e. transition between ideas

f. correct analysis

g. concise, clear, and a pleasure to read


Thanks to Drs. R. Robert Robbins and Mary Kay Hemenway for the use of this document.



These pages are from various handouts and excersises that I've collected from school over the years - I did not write them myself. If anyone ever finds the original teachers who wrote these (probably at some point in the 70s or early 80s), please let me know so I can credit them! If you wish to copy, print, link to or use these pages in any way, you do not need to ask me for permission.