How to Write a Research Paper

Using Color-Coded Index Cards

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A research paper is primarily a discussion or argument based on a thesis, which includes evidence from several collected sources.

While it may seem like a monumental project to write a research paper, it is really a straightforward process that you can follow, step by step. Before you get started, make sure you have plenty of note paper, several multi-colored highlighters, and a pack of multi-colored index cards.

You should also read over the checklist for research ethics before you begin, so you don't head down the wrong path!

Organizing your Research Paper

You'll use the following steps to complete your assignment.

1. Select a topic
2. Find sources
3. Take notes on colored index cards
4. Arrange your notes by topic
5. Write an outline
6. Write a first draft
7. Revise and re-write
8. Proofread

Library Research

Become familiar with the services and layout of the library. There will be a card catalog and computers for database searches, but you don't need to tackle those alone. There will be library personnel on hand to show you how to use these resources. Don't be afraid to ask!

Select a Research Paper Topic

Once you narrow your choices to a specific subject area, find three specific questions to answer about your topic. A common mistake by students is to choose a final topic that is too general. Try to be specific: What is tornado alley? Are certain states really more likely to suffer from tornadoes? Why?

One of your questions will turn into a thesis statement, after you do a little preliminary research to find theories to answer to your questions. Remember, a thesis is a statement, not a question.

Find Sources

Use the card catalog or computer database in the library to locate books. (See Sources to Avoid.) Find several books that seem to be relevant to your topic.

There will also be a periodical guide in the library. Periodicals are publications issued on a regular basis, like magazines, journals, and newspapers. Use a search engine to find a list of articles relating to your topic. Make sure to find articles in periodicals that are located in your library. (See How to Find an Article.)

Sit at your work table and scan through your sources. Some titles can be misleading, so you’ll have some sources that don’t pan out. You can do a quick read over the materials to determine which ones contain useful information.

Taking Notes

As you scan your sources, you will begin to zero in on a thesis. Several sub-topics will also begin to emerge. Using our tornado topic as an example, a sub-topic would be the Fujita Tornado Scale.

Start taking notes from your sources, using color coding for the sub-topics. For instance, all information referring to the Fujita Scale would go on orange note cards.

You may find it necessary to photocopy articles or encyclopedia entries so you can take them home. If you do this, use the highlighters to mark the useful passages in the relevant colors.

Every time you take a note, be sure to write down all bibliographical information to include author, book title, article title, page numbers, volume number, publisher name and dates. Write this information on each and every index card and photocopy. This is absolutely critical!

Arrange Your Notes by Topics

Once you have taken color-coded notes, you will be able to sort your notes more easily. Sort the cards by colors. Then, arrange by relevance. These will become your paragraphs. You may have several paragraphs for each sub-topic.

Outline Your Research Paper

Write an outline, according to your sorted cards. You may find that some of the cards fit better with different “colors” or sub-topics, so simply re-arrange your cards. That’s a normal part of the process. Your paper is taking shape and becoming a logical argument or position statement.

Write a First Draft

Develop a strong thesis statement and introductory paragraph. Follow through with your sub-topics. You may find that you don’t have enough material, and you may need to supplement your paper with additional research.

Your paper may not flow very well on the first try. (This is why we have first drafts!) Read it over and re-arrange paragraphs, add paragraphs, and omit information that doesn’t seem to belong. Keep editing and re-writing until you’re happy.

Create a bibliography from your note cards. (See citation makers.)


When you think you are happy with your paper, proof read! Make sure it is free of spelling, grammatical, or typographical errors. Also, check to make sure you’ve included every source in your bibliography.

Finally, check the original instructions from your teacher to make sure you are following all assigned preferences, like title page directions and placement of page numbers.