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Step 16: Research Paper Tips

Each assignment is unique. However, there are some general tips that can be applied to improve almost any type of writing. When writing professional or high level academic material, one must maintain a consistent tone and a command of diction. The exact choice of words will largely depend on the prompt, the field’s jargon, the subject matter, or the intended audience. When reading through your sources, take note of any words or phrases that are repeated across different works. These words can be identified as jargon, for example, “deconstruction,” a word encountered in the field of critical theory that has a specifically defined meaning apart from its colloquial or common definition. Choose words wisely when discussing different subjects. A history paper might include verbose, subjective, first-person summaries of historical events. A biology project, on the other hand, is unlikely to require these types of details, instead focusing on objective descriptions of empirical data.  By choosing words carefully, an appropriate message can be delivered to the reader in a package that feels familiar, yet remains lively and unique. When writing an essay, you work within a specific genre; however, avoiding clichés and tired phraseology is also important in order to present ideas in an innovative way.

Diction refers the choice of words used by a writer.  Excellent diction means that the words in an essay are specific, varied, and rhythmically attuned to the sentence and paragraph, while also reflecting the work as a whole. One way to improve diction is through the use of a dictionary, which is a tool to help you to understand words and related terms. A thesaurus is also invaluable to look up synonyms, which mean the same thing, and antonyms, which mean the opposite, for any given word. 

Avoid the Word "Said"

Words to Use Instead of "Said"

    • Accused
    • Admitted
    • Affirmed
    • Agreed
    • Commanded
    • Conceded
    • Concluded
    • Confessed
    • Declared
    • Disclosed
    • Echoed
    • Explained
    • Fretted
    • Groaned
    • Interjected
    • Insisted
    • Implied
    • Laughed
    • Mentioned
    • Nagged
    • Revealed
    • Responded
    • Smirked
    • Snorted
    • Stammered
    • Wailed
    • Yawned

Needless to say, the word “said” is an immature method of presenting another author’s or character’s ideas. In other words, it may be better left unsaid. There are numerous creative words that capture the idea of the word “said,” each with its own nuanced connotations. Remember that in many instances, an author’s argument should be stated in the present tense. Rather than writing “Author (Year) says that this argument is sound,” replace “says” with “states,” for an immediate improvement: “Author (Year) states that this argument is sound.” A statement is pretty straightforward in terms of connotation, and a relatively neutral way to introduce someone’s idea. However, there are many other words to choose from, including those that allow quotes or paraphrased thoughts to be gracefully and cleverly massaged into place. For example:

The English language is nearly limitless in its ability to generate slight differences in meaning through the choice of words. Feel free to utilize any word to introduce an author’s idea, but try to avoid “says” or “talks about,” because these terms lack formality and may indicate an inadequate command of vocabulary and diction. Be creative and strive for clarity, rather than obfuscation, when choosing your words.    

Use Colons and Semi-colons Properly

What is a semi-colon? The semi-colon is often misunderstood because it plays a specific role that other conventions also address. A semi-colon separates two independent thoughts when a comma, “and,” or “but,” would be inappropriate, and a period would be too abrupt. For example:


A semi-colon walks into a sentence; it takes a seat near the middle.


The second half of the sentence is an independent thought, with a subject and predicate; it explains the first half of the sentence through elaboration. This is often the way that semi-colons are used, though dashes and periods can also be used and the sentence(s) will generally remain grammatically correct. The semi-colon draws the reader to the next logical thought without abrupt interruption from a period, or worse, the incessant addition of commas. Ultimately, the best way to determine whether a semi-colon is needed is to ask whether a period, comma, or connecting word would sound better. 

A colon is also used to further explain a topic, and to begin a list. There are many reasons colons are important: they separate the topic of a list from its items, they can lead into an explanation, and they can introduce quotations. For example:


In the play Hamlet, Shakespeare captures the essential existential question: “to be or not to be?”


Start Early

Time management is an important skill that is difficult to master. Some writers claim to work better under pressure. To some extent, the positive stress can provide the impetus to be creative, but procrastination will result in a final product that lacks sustained contemplation and effort. Though a deadline can provide needed motivation, starting early is always preferable to beginning a paper the night before it is due. The best way to start early is to begin by brainstorming the topic or prompt. The brainstorm can take the form of writing lists of ideas, drawing diagrams, using a whiteboard, recording your thoughts, discussing ideas with a peer or mentor, or simply taking a walk and pondering the relevant issues, making sure to take mental or written notes. Writing a short note, or even a text message, can help sum up any insights or epiphanies in a succinct and useful way. For example, if the prompt asks for an essay about the American civil war, one might come up with a few words or ideas that could be developed further: Lincoln’s presidency, speeches, impact of slavery, North vs. South, union and confederate forces, economic differences, battles, generals. Starting early will allow you to gather and digest resources pertaining to your topic and refine your thesis until it is specific, unique, and interesting. A short note or brainstorm develops into an outline, then a rough draft, and eventually, a final paper that addresses the original points in an in-depth and targeted manner.

Minimize Distractions

The author Roald Dahl had a small writing shed in the backyard of his house, where he would go to write in solitude and peace. It is important to write in a space that is comfortable, convenient, and free from distractions. A quiet library can be an excellent place to research and write a paper. At home, try to avoid writing in common areas where interruptions are likely, such as the kitchen or living room. Writing in bed can be awkward and lead to back or eye-strain. The best way to write is in an ergonomic position; for example, in an office chair with back support, sitting on an exercise ball, or standing at a standing desk. Most writers enjoy sitting at a writing desk or table, making sure that the height of the seat and the surface are suitable. 

To minimize distraction and confusion, movies or television should not be playing in the background. An exception to this rule would be when the assignment calls for an analysis of the movie or television show. Watch the media carefully before writing the first draft, taking notes, then re-watch key scenes as the paper is being written. If noise is a problem, use headphones and quiet, non-lyrical music such as classical, jazz, or ambient in order to block out auditory distractions. Appropriate music can help to break up monotony and propel writing forward.  

Save Your Sources As You Go

You are in the library and you find a book that supports your argument flawlessly. You write down the passage in your notes verbatim, but when you get home you realize that there is no author, title, or page number. Nowadays, a search engine might help you find the  source of this passage, but this is not always the case. In the case of paraphrasing, because the words are different, it can be very hard to find the original source if it is not properly recorded. An excellent habit when conducting research is to log all useful sources in a preliminary references page, with any quotes or paraphrases located directly beneath the citation for the source. For example:


Author, I. (Year). The book on writing (1st ed.). New York: Random Mouse. 


Author (Year, p. #) “wrote the book on writing,” delivering “numerous strategies for effective composition” in an easy-to-use guide.


The main point of this source is that writing can be accomplished by following simple steps and refusing to be intimidated (Author, Year). 

By saving sources as you go along, you can then build the foundation of your essay on the framework of solid, topical resources. Remember to cite each source in the text and the references page as well. 

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Find Multiple Viewpoints

The philosopher Marx believed that by fully explaining and exposing the opposing argument, your own argument can be strengthened. Avoid building up a straw-man or misrepresentation of the counterargument to your thesis. Instead, try to present both sides of an issue objectively. Let your reader decide that your argument is stronger on the basis of your logic and the available evidence, rather than the absence of any counterargument.  Oftentimes, scientific literature will note any weaknesses in the methodology or results. This process sheds light on the validity of the paper in contrast to its flaws.  

Research First, Then Outline

Rather than impose assumptions on the research you encounter, withhold crafting topic sentences and listing main points until you have adequately explored the topic by reading and taking notes. Reading and understanding other sources of information on a topic will help to structure and delineate your own argument. If additional research is needed as the paper is written, feel free to read it thoroughly and incorporate it carefully into the paper in a way that complements and reinforces the preliminary research. 

A Strong Title is Important

Do not underestimate the power of a strong title. A title is a headline, a brand, a summary, and a tantalizing hook rolled into one. Famous books like War and Peace, Lolita, and Farenheit 451 form examples of titles that entice the reader to delve into the text.  A book or article’s title should reflect the topic, the argument, and the methods that the text utilizes to reach its findings. The traditional title for academic articles is in the form of:

Topic: Points of Interest

For example:


Hawaiian Folklore: Myth and Mysticism


Congestive Heart Failure: An Exploration of Novel Treatments


Use your imagination, but try to keep titles brief and on topic. Although it is tempting to deploy jargon and verbosity when crafting a title, try to clearly, briefly, and creatively state what the paper will be about in a way that encourages further reading. Another way to strengthen your essay is by using appropriate verbs and avoiding repetition.  For example: 


The farmer plants corn, then plants tomatoes, and finally, plants carrots.


The verb “plants” does describe the farmer’s actions, but could be swapped out for highly charged words that closely examine how or why the actions take place. 


The farmer sows corn seed, then gently transplants tomatoes, and finally, cultivates the ground in preparation for the carrots.


If the same boring verb is being used repeatedly, it signals the presence of dull writing and signifies an opportunity for improvement. 

Use Abbreviations Correctly

Abbreviations can save valuable space and allow readers to quickly digest larger concepts. The first time an abbreviation is used, it must be preceded by the full term. The abbreviation should then be used in place of the full phrase in each sentence afterwards. For example: 

Automated Teller Machines (ATMs) allow consumers to withdraw money from the bank. ATMs can be found in malls and convenience stores worldwide. 

Avoid Overusing Quotes

 Quotes should make up no more than 20% of your paper. Heavily relying on quotes makes your essay look more like a collection of notes and collected passages than a novel synthesis of thoughtful research. When quotes are used sparingly, they enhance an argument by presenting the original opinions and terminology of a cited author. When quotes are used repeatedly, the text reads like an abridged version of the original work, rather than a new study. 

Avoid Passive Language

The passive voice is a roundabout way of explaining actions and descriptions because it places the object ahead of the subject in terms of importance. For example, the following joke uses the passive voice to demonstrate the weakness of its usage:


The bar was walked into by the passive voice.


The active voice walked into the bar.


The passive voice is appropriate in some cases. For example, when the subject is unaware of the action taking place, or when the attention is focused away from the person responsible for an action:


The man was mugged by an unknown assailant


The sink was left full of dishes last night.


In general, the active voice sounds simpler and smoother than the passive voice. 

Avoid “I” and “You”

Academic writing strives for objectivity and impartiality, despite the obvious problems presented by bias and the intrusion of personal opinion. Do not use the word I, as it is redundant. An essay is, by definition, an opinion, so one does not need to say “I feel that the argument is true”, when simply stating that “the argument is true” is sufficient. Using the passive voice or distancing oneself and one’s audience from the discourse through the use of “the author of this study,” “some,” or “one,” is an effective strategy to avoid the words “I” and “you.” 

Take Breaks

In the middle of a paper, a quick break will help to refocus your argument and gather your thoughts. Writer’s block can be overcome with a quick walk around the house, or by pausing to make a cup of tea.  Taking breaks is good for both mental and physical health, because sitting too long is associated with numerous problems. 

Think For Yourself

Do not simply copy the thoughts and arguments of your sources. Elaborate on these resources; critique them. Describe the author’s findings in your own words, and relate them back to your thesis. By tying together disparate sources, an essay becomes a unifying web of meaning. The main thesis of your essay should contribute something new and important to the field by casting the current body of literature in a fresh light. Editing can help turn lengthy quotes into nifty paraphrases, and help to develop your own unique writing style that integrates, but never imitates, its source material. 

Do Not Turn In Your First Draft

Even literary geniuses make some small changes to their texts prior to publication. You should always proofread and edit an essay to correct mistakes and improve overall flow. There are an unlimited amount of drafts between the first one and the final one, so make use of the writing process to reformulate ideas, trim the fat of unnecessary sentences, or add additional support to arguments that appear weak. A final draft should be the result of vigorous effort and contemplation. This process takes place over a period of time and through multiple modifications and iterations. Follow the aforementioned guidelines in order to perfect your essay. After your drafts and revisions are complete, turn in a polished final draft that shines with truth, meaning, and persuasive power.

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