Research papers come in many sizes and levels of complexity. There is no single set of rules that fits every project, but there are guidelines you should follow to keep yourself on track throughout the weeks as you prepare, research, and write. You will complete your project in stages, so you must plan ahead and give yourself enough time to complete every stage of your work.
Your first step is to write down the due date for your paper on a big wall calendar, in your planner, and in an electronic calendar.
Plan backward from that due date to determine when you should have your library work completed. A good rule of thumb is to spend:
- Fifty percent of your time researching and reading
- Ten percent of your time sorting and marking your research
- Forty percent of your time writing and formatting
Timeline for Researching and Reading Stage
- 1 week for short papers with one or two sources
- 2-3 weeks for papers up to ten pages
- 2-3 months for a thesis
It's important to get started right away on the first stage. In a perfect world, we would find all of the sources we need to write our paper in our nearby library. In the real world, however, we conduct internet queries and discover a few perfect books and articles that are absolutely essential to our topic-only to find that they are not available at the local library.
The good news is that you can still get the resources through an interlibrary loan. But that will take time. This is one good reason to do a thorough search early on with the help of a reference librarian.
Give yourself time to collect many possible resources for your project. You will soon find that some of the books and articles you choose don't actually offer any useful information for your particular topic. You'll need to make a few trips to the library. You won't finish in one trip.
You'll also discover that you will find additional potential sources in the bibliographies of your first selections. Sometimes the most time-consuming task is eliminating potential sources.
Timeline for Sorting and Marking Your Research
- 1 day for a short paper
- 3-5 days for papers up to ten pages
- 2-3 weeks for a thesis
You should read each of your sources at least twice. Read your sources the first time to soak in some information and to make notes on research cards.
Read your sources a second time more quickly, skimming through the chapters and putting sticky note flags on pages that contain important points or pages that contain passages that you want to cite. Write keywords on the sticky note flags.
Timeline for Writing and Formatting
- Four days for a short paper with one or two sources
- 1-2 weeks for papers up to ten pages
- 1-3 months for a thesis
You don't really expect to write a good paper on your first attempt, do you?
You can expect to pre-write, write, and rewrite several drafts of your paper. You'll also have to rewrite your thesis statement a few times, as your paper takes shape.
Don't get held up writing any section of your paper-especially the introductory paragraph. It is perfectly normal for writers to go back and complete the introduction once the rest of the paper is completed.
The first few drafts don't have to have perfect citations. Once you begin to sharpen your work and you're heading toward a final draft, you should tighten your citations. Use a sample essay if you need to, just to get the formatting down.
Make sure your bibliography contains every source you've used in your research.