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Writing a Research Paper

Grasping What You're Being Asked to Do

The first step to successfully completing any college-level writing project is to CAREFULLY read the assignment prompt.   

Regardless of the individual assignment is important to start with these two steps:

Read immediately


Read the assignment as soon as you receive it!

You may need to access time-sensitive materials, or develop new skills. Reading the prompt early will save you time, and problems later.

Ask questions


Ask the instructor about anything you do not understand!

Instructors want to hear from you at the beginning, when their feedback is most useful, rather than right before the assignment is due.

Things to consider when reading your assignment prompt:

Submission Guidelines

What is the due date? Do you have multiple due dates for a thesis statement or rough draft? Do you need to upload your assignment to Canvas?

Make sure you know when and where all parts of your assignment should be submitted!

Technical Details

What kind of font, citation style, and page length does your instructor require?

Remember also that page length tells you something important: your instructor is telling you how many pages it should take for you to analyze your topic—either briefly or in-depth.

Make sure you know the style requirement: MLA, APA, or Chicago!

Writing Style / Audience

Should you write from the first-person using "I" ? Does the prompt specify the audience for your writing?

Tone refers to the voice of your paper. You do not have to sound like Plato, but you also do not want to write, like, the way you speak with friends, you know? Keep your vocabulary formal, but never use words when you don’t understand their meaning.

Audience refers to the reader of your assignment. Remember, even if your instructor knows everything there is to know about your topic, he or she still has to read your paper and assess your understanding. In other words, "teach" the material to your reader.

Make sure you match your tone to your audience!

Material(s) to Include

Does the assignment prompt specify a piece of literature that you need to respond to? Do you need to include scholarly sources in your paper, or passages from your textbook? How much and what type of evidence needs to be included in your assignment?

There are many kinds of evidence, and what type of evidence will work for your assignment can depend on several factors—the discipline, the requirements of the assignment, and your instructor’s preference. Should you use statistics? Historical examples? Do you need to conduct your own experiment? Can you rely on personal experience?

Make sure you know what counts as acceptable evidence for this assignment!

Purpose of the Assignment

What is your instructor hoping you will gain from writing this paper? Your instructor wants you to think about something in a particular way for a particular reason. Is it to gather research from a variety of outside sources and present a coherent picture? Is it to take concepts from class discussions and apply them to a new situation? 

See the assignment not as a vague suggestion of what to do but as an opportunity to show that you can handle the course material as directed. 

Make sure you are clear about what types of skills and knowledge need to be demonstrated!

Get started with this video from The Writing Center, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

As this video illustrates, keywords from the assignment can help you figure out precisely how you should approach the assignment. Pay particular attention to active verbs:

Ask you to demonstrate what you know about the subject, such as who, what, when, where, how, and why.

define provide a subject’s meaning according to the perspective of a particular person, movement, institution, or school of thought. Sometimes you have to give more than one view on the subject’s meaning
describe provide details about the subject by answering question words (such as who, what, when, where, how, and why); you might also give details related to the five senses (what you see, hear, feel, taste, and smell)
explain give reasons why or examples of how something happened
illustrate give descriptive examples of the subject and show how each is connected with the subject
summarize briefly list the important ideas you learned about the subject
trace outline how something has changed or developed from an earlier time to its current form
research gather material from outside sources about the subject, often with the implication or requirement that you will analyze what you have found

Ask you to demonstrate how things are connected.

compare show how two or more things are similar 
contrast show how two or more things are dissimilar
apply use details that you’ve been given to demonstrate how an idea, theory, or concept works in a particular situation
cause show how one event or series of events made something else happen
relate show or describe the connections between things

Ask you to defend ideas of your own about the subject. Do not see these words as requesting opinion alone (unless the assignment specifically says so), but as requiring opinion that is supported by concrete evidence. Remember examples, principles, definitions, or concepts from class or research and use them in your interpretation.

assess summarize your opinion of the subject and measure it against something
justify give reasons or examples to demonstrate how or why something is the truth
evaluate/ respond state your opinion of the subject as good, bad, or some combination of the two, with examples and reasons
support give reasons or evidence for something you believe (be sure to state clearly what it is that you believe)
synthesize put two or more things together that have not been put together in class or in your readings before; do not just summarize one and then the other and say that they are similar or different—you must provide a reason for putting them together that runs all the way through the paper
analyze determine how individual parts create or relate to the whole, figure out how something works, what it might mean, or why it is important
argue take a side and defend it with evidence against the other side