Research Essay

A research paper is an essay driven by an argument (thesis statement) and supported by sources (research). The key is to make it more than a summary of studies by providing something more—your own analysis. The process of a good research paper requires equal time spent researching and writing.

Purpose. The purpose of a research essay is to understand a subject in more depth, to learn the way(s) of working in a particular discipline, and to argue for a new understanding by synthesizing and integrating the research and your own ideas.

Note. There are general principles of research essays, but specific requirements may vary by discipline and purpose. When in doubt, or if something conflicts, check with your professor or TA.

Plan your assignment now:

Add your assignment plan to your calendar or download a PDF copy:



Before you start researching, make sure that you understand that assignment and that you have a workable topic.

Understand your assignment

This should take about 1% of your time

Before you do it, make sure you know what you’re being asked to do. What are the requirements?

  • How many and what type of sources?
  • How many pages? What format/reference style?
  • What are some of the keywords used in the assignment write-up?
  • What are the rubric categories or grading criteria?
  • What are the expectations in your discipline for argument structure in a research paper? (For example, it’s likely you’ll be expected to go beyond a simple five paragraph essay format.)

If you have questions after reading through the assignment write-up and syllabus, check with your professor or TA.


Select a topic

This should take about 5% of your time

What will you research and write about? Here are some tips on how to choose a topic.

Be sure to do some initial research to make sure you have a good (workable) topic. You can also check in with your professor or TA about your topic choice.



Don’t rush through this phase! Your research paper will only be as strong as the research you do for it. New to research essays? Queen’s Libraries has a great introduction to research (including specific resources on writing research papers).

Develop a research plan

This should take about 12% of your time

Develop a research strategy.

Get expert help from a subject librarian with relevant content-area expertise. The librarian can help you figure out how and where to search, what keywords and which databases to use, and how to know when you’re done searching.

HINT: Use the reference list from seminal or particularly relevant papers as a springboard for more research! Keep track of the papers you find with citation management programs from Queen’s Libraries.

Keep track of the papers you find with citation management programs from Queen’s Libraries.

Reading and note-taking

This should take about 20% of your time

To read effectively you need to read actively. Keep a specific purpose in mind when you read (e.g., finding the answer to a question, looking for connections or relationships; summarizing in your own words). Try the three-pass method:

  1. First, PREVIEW the paper. Read the title, the abstract, and the discussion. Is it relevant for your topic? (Not sure if it’s relevant? Try using the CRAAP test.)
  2. If it is relevant, READ the paper. Keep notes to a minimum; focus on understanding it.
  3. Then, READ it again, this time taking NOTES with a specific purpose in mind (e.g., summarize, short quotes, evaluations) in mind.

Reading a lot of journal articles? Here’s some guidance on how to (effectively) read a scientific paper.

Develop a thesis statement

This should take about 5% of your time

Based on the research you’ve done and your improved understanding of the topic, draft a one or two sentence statement summarizing the central point or argument you want to make. Your aim is to state a position and your paper will provide the evidence to support it.

Your thesis statement may still change. Think of it as a work in progress—more of a working thesis statement than one carved in stone.

Need some examples? Here are three models of thesis statements.



Now that you have researched your topic, it is time to start writing.


This should take about 8% of your time

Develop an outline. If you’re having trouble organizing and connecting your ideas, try brainstorming or using a mind map. Using your working thesis statement as a guide, reflect on what you know and how it all fits together.

Make sure to connect every paragraph to your thesis! Here are some tips on how to organize the body of an essay.

If you’re having trouble organizing your ideas, get some help from a writing consultant at SASS.

Write a first draft

This should take about 20% of your time

Right now your only job is to get words on the page. Don’t worry about making it perfect. Try not to edit as you go—just write. Use your outline as a guide, but start with whatever part you like—it doesn’t have to be written in order!

Having trouble? Check in with some of the reasons why that might be, or try some of the strategies listed here, like free writing, goal setting, and positive reinforcement.

TIP: Write your thesis on a sticky note and keep it beside wherever you’re writing. It’ll help to keep you on track! Don’t forget that your thesis statement is a work in progress, though. As you write, you may need to tweak or change it to better reflect your developing argument.

Construct a reverse outline

This should take about 2% of your time

TIP: To help you gain some perspective, take time between writing and revising (e.g., go have lunch, take a walk, or wait until the next day).

Start the revision process by constructing a reverse outline to make sense of what you’ve written.

Remember to use your thesis statement as a guide; your argument is at the heart of your paper, and it should be reflected in the paper’s organization.

Revise / Write a second draft

This should take about 20% of your time

Keep your eye on the big picture of your research essay: whether your argument is clear, whether the evidence supports your thesis, the logic flow of the paper, etc.

  • Recall that the focus of a research essay is analysis, not description.
  • Research essays benefit from multiple revisions: think of it as happening in stages. To focus the task and make it more useful/helpful, pick a specific goal each time you revise (e.g., “This time, I’m only paying attention to content—next time I’ll check the organization”).
  • Revisions might be done both by you and with feedback from others. (TIP: Revise your own paper first, at least once, before giving it to someone else.)

Resources to support revision: Paragraph structure and coherence; improve flow and coherence with strong transitions; organize the essay body; and integrate sources in your writing.


This should take about 5% of your time

Once you’ve finished revising, you can turn your attention to your paper’s sentence structure, word choice/vocabulary, and grammar. You’re aiming for style and coherence, correcting awkwardness, making sure transitions are clear, etc.

Here are some of the most common errors in style, grammar, and punctuation.

Finalize your essay

This should take about 1% of your time

One last look! This is your chance to find that annoying typo.

It can help to read your paper backwards (sentence by sentence or paragraph by paragraph); you’re more likely to catch typos this way because you can focus on form, not content.


This should take about 1% of your time

Congratulations—you did it!

This might have been your first research essay, but it probably won’t be your last. Think about what went well, what didn’t, and how you might like to do it next time.