Academic writing: Research papers: A quick guide


Welcome back! Student Learning Commons services are here for you -- both in-person and online.


Four important things to remember

  1. Writing a research paper is a process, so you sometimes have to backtrack. It requires patience and time management.
  2. Start your research early
  3. Ask for help from the Research Help desk and the Student Learning Commons
  4. There is no such thing as a stupid question!

Understand the assignment

  • Determine the objectives and scope
  • Look for key words that describe main tasks for the assignment

Choose a topic that motivates you

  • Educate yourself … find something new. Originality does count!
  • Defend yourself … justify a position
  • Establish yourself … expand your expertise

Ask a research question

  • A sound research question (why? how? when? What if?) can help you work toward a solid thesis statement
  • Avoid too narrow a question, or you may not find many research sources

Focus/refine your topic

  • Break the project into chunks of work (Hint: schedule those chunks into your calendar)
  • Review class notes/assigned readings
  • Use the Library databases to find relevant journal articles and other resources

Identify appropriate sources

  • Work from the general to the specific, e.g. find background information first
  • Critically evaluate what you have found

Start thinking about a thesis statement

  • A thesis expresses your main position and forecasts what your paper will discuss
  • A solid thesis is debatable, requiring supporting evidence (e.g. your research)
  • You don’t need to finalize your thesis until you’ve gathered your materials and written at least one draft!

Use the Catalogue to find …

Search the Library Catalogue for:

  • Books (e.g. The Hours, by Michael Cunningham) | Films & Music | Reports
  • Journals and journal articles

Tip: If the SFU library doesn’t have what you’re looking for, you can request it online from another library.

For more tips, see the Library Catalogue search guide.

Evaluate what you have found

  • Found too many sources? You may need to narrow your topic
  • Found too few sources? Broaden your topic or choose other relevant keywords
  • Choose scholarly journals over popular magazines
  • Are your sources relevant? Biased? Too old?
  • Is the information you found on Google from a reliable source?

Make sense of your research sources

  • Use key words to help you organize your materials logically
  • Refine your thesis statement based on research materials
  • Create a “working” outline to reflect your evidence and order of presentation
  • Draft your paper based on this plan

Revise your draft

  • Check for coherence …the overall “connectedness” of ideas; paragraph unity
  • Check for cohesion … logical connections between sentences
  • Check your style … is your tone appropriate for your audience?  Is your wording clear and concise?  Are you appropriately using terms and concepts in your discipline?
  • Check for common errors. Hint: print out your draft and go through it line by line, and/or read it aloud.

Cite your sources

  • Avoid plagiarism: take the self-directed tutorial
  • Use one of the standard citation styles: APA, MLA or Chicago; check with your instructor if you are unsure which to use. The Library has guides for each.
  • Record all your citations as you go. You’ll be glad you did when the time comes to write a bibliography!

If you get stuck . . .

If you’d like help with your writing process . . .


See also: The Assignment Calculator, a time management tool to help you break down your writing assignments into a series of steps.