Richardson's Rules of Order, Part VI: Tips for Writing Research Papers for a College History Course

Heather Cox Richardson

My first, and maybe most important, piece of advice for writing a research paper is to give yourself the room and the time to enjoy the process. We use harsh words in our society for writing assignments—“I have to write an essay,” “how many words does it have to be?”—but writing is, at heart, a creative enterprise that should be, at some level, fun. Think about it. If you were asked to paint a picture, or act out a play, or make a video, you wouldn’t groan, and yet those activities require far more practice than you’ve already had with writing. So try to think of an essay as an enjoyable assignment, rather than a hurdle to throw yourself over, groaning. (If you need more of a pep talk than that, read Stephen King’s On Writing).

A research paper is not a book report, or a journal entry, or a reflection paper. Those have formats and rules that are different than those I’ll discuss here.

Here I’m not covering grammar or much structure. You should read Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style every year, and keep it handy on your desk, next to your dictionary and your thesaurus. The Elements of Style covers all the most common grammatical errors in clear, interesting prose. It also offers great tips on structuring essays. If you don’t want to invest in a copy, Professor Strunk’s original write-up of grammar rules for his college classes is available on-line at Google books. Take the time to read it (it doesn’t take long). Paying attention to it will improve your writing by at least one letter grade on each essay.

These are just some of the tips I’ve told students over the years, gathered into some sort of order.

Beginning your research paper:

First of all, be certain you understand the assignment. You need to know exactly what the professor expects before you begin your work. What kind of research is appropriate? How long should the paper be? What kind of citations and bibliography should you compile? (This is much easier to do while you work than to recreate after the fact).

You should begin your research paper THE DAY IT IS ASSIGNED. I hear you laughing, but let me tell you why this is important. There’s a practical reason, first. Most students put off long-term assignments, so early in the process that the library tends to have all the books they’ll need, the microfilm readers will all be free, university wifi networks will be empty and fast, librarians will have plenty of time. In contrast, in the panic in the week before the paper is due, the library will be stripped bare and everyone will be fighting over resources.

There are also academic reasons for starting early. The hardest part of writing an essay is not the research, it’s the thinking. You need to let things percolate in your head, which they simply can’t do if you try to write a paper in a week. You need to give yourself plenty of time to let your ideas gel. You also need to leave yourself time to chase down those things that occur to you as a project develops. How many times have you finished a paper at the last minute and thought, “If only I could do these last few things, it would be a better paper”? Give yourself the time to do those last few things.

Plan to work on your research paper a little every day, or at least a bit every other day. This way, you will remember where you are in the process, and won’t waste time redoing what you did before or trying to remember what needs to be done. Keep a record of the questions your day’s work has raised, and jot down what you plan to begin with in your next session, so you can start right up.

Always plan to have your project finished a full week before it’s due. That will leave you time for revisions (even a thorough reorganization if necessary), for proofreading, for tracking down final points. It will leave time for someone to read it for you and tell you what works and what doesn’t. LEAVING ENOUGH TIME TO REVISE A PAPER IS CRITICALLY IMPORTANT.