Research Papers

In the past couple of weeks I’ve been editing research papers. Not a happy experience. I’m realizing I need to add some research-paper resources to this website. I’ve done enough research myself to do that there are many pitfalls to watch for, and an experienced guide can be a big help.

But I also know that there are some obvious mistakes that nobody should be making. Here are some tips for student researchers:

1.  Find out what documentation system you should be using. If you’re a high school or college student, your institution has adopted a handbook that lays out the approved system. Buy the handbook (or camp out in the library, which surely owns a copy) and follow it slavishly.

2.  In general, English and humanities courses require MLA. Science courses use APA.

3.  End every Works Cited entry with a period. I know: Picky, picky, picky. But it’s the first thing many instructors (including me) look for.

4.  There are online aids for documentation. You can go to my college (, click on the How to Cite link, and scroll down for the Citation Machine.

5.  Check and double-check your work. The Citation Machine occasionally inserts extra periods, for example.

6.  Use capital letters. I shouldn’t even have to say this, but it’s a big problem with many papers.

7.  Your introductory paragraph should include the following: A catchy opening (an interesting quotation or a story), background about your topic, a statement by an expert about the importance of your topic, and your thesis statement. If there’s a lot of background, your introduction can be two paragraphs long.

8.  No matter what – even if you’re writing a book – get the thesis on the first page.

9.  Begin every paragraph with a topic sentence that a) relates to your thesis and b) predicts what the paragraph will be about. Stick to that topic through the whole paragraph.

10.  Wrap up your paper in the last paragraph. Don’t introduce anything new.

11.  Find out the big names in your field, and find a way to include them in your paper. Librarians can help you with this. You can also find top experts’ names in the Encyclopedia Britannica. Just find the entry about your topic and go to the end. The bibliography there will list the best books. If it’s a strictly American topic (Abraham Lincoln, Lizzie Borden), use the Encyclopedia Americana.

12.  Be strong and emphatic. Recently I read two research papers that started out with “not” statements, explaining what something or somebody wasn’t. Bad idea.

13.  Don’t stray from your topic. I read a paper about Shaw this week that included several paragraphs that didn’t mention Shaw or his writings at all. Nope.

14.  Librarians are research experts. You’d be surprised how often I go to librarians for help with my research projects. If I’m a professional writer, and I rely on librarians for help, shouldn’t you be doing the same?

15.  Ask a friend or family member to read your paper before you submit it.

 Today’s Quiz ANSWER

The sentence is correct, but it could be better.

Here’s the original (correct) sentence: I served coffee after my husband cleared the dinner dishes.

It would be better to insert “had” to show that clearing the dinner dishes happened before I served coffee. Here’s the improved sentence:

I served coffee after my husband had cleared the dinner dishes. IMPROVED


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