Julia M. Garrett
Department of English and Language Studies
University of New England

How to Develop a
Research Plan
to Complete
a Term Paper


The following list provides a detailed research plan of manageable tasks to help you to complete a term paper or long research paper. I will continue to add to this site as other suggestions arise. If you have suggestions or "research tips" that you have picked up this semester that you'd like to share, email them to me and I'll post those on a linked page. Keep in mind that if you follow even some of the tasks and suggestions below, you will certainly produce a much better term paper than you would have without any research plan at all.

1) Read the assignment sheet. Yes, it always helps to begin by pointing out the obvious, but you would be amazed by the number of students who try to write 15-page research papers without the benefit of knowing what the professor has actually asked them to do. I'm hoping that the rest of you are more clever than this. Read with a highlighter in hand, and mark any important details that you think you might forget during the next 48 hours. More specifically, note the following: (a) key deadlines (write them into your calendar), (b) stages of work due, (c) how many sources and (d) what type of sources are required, and (e) whether a presentation of your research will be included.

If an assignment sheet warns you not to do something, don't do it. If we've taken the trouble to point out something to avoid, it means that when students go ahead and do such things anyway, well, perhaps there's a Calvin and Hobbes cartoon to illustrate the effects of that on your professors.

2) Start early! / buddy up with someone. Do at least two items on this list on the day that you receive your assignment sheet. You may need to revise your research strategy at a certain point, so it's best if you have a reasonable amount of time to change gears (e.g., if you cannot find enough sources for a topic you've chosen). Also, many students work very effectively on their own, but working with someone else in the class and setting deadlines for work may help to keep you on schedule with your research plan.

3) Narrow the field of research / Consult the professor / Work with LAC tutors: there are plenty of people on campus to help you get on the right track with this project. If you need clarifications about the assignment, it's best to go ask the professor about this soon after receiving the assignment (as opposed to the night before the thing is due. Yes, that happens). As you narrow down the possible topic, choose something that really seizes your interest, something you might actually enjoy researching (that happens, too).

4) Collect sources / Choose a Research Focus: begin collecting possible sources, read the first few pages of each to give you a more precise sense of the topic, and choose a research focus (primary topic of research). Make sure that you can find enough sources on that topic to compose a long research paper. If not, go back and tinker with the research focus.

5) Read some sources in full / Finalize list of sources: at this point you should start reading some of your sources in full with notations, in particular creating a list of key terms and phrases for each article. It is from these lists of key terms and phrases that you should be able to create some possible subtopics (a subtopic is something you could analyze or explain in a paragraph or two). Finalize your list of sources for the paper, print all your sources, and draft your bibliography or "Works Cited" list. It's good to do that early since sometimes when you print out an article it may mysteriously leave out some important citation information -- catch that early on.

6) Estimate total reading time: calculate approximately how long it will take you to read each article or book chapter: count the number of pages, estimate how long it will take to read and notate a single page (no more than 4–5 minutes) and then do the math. For example, a 12-page article at 4 minutes per page = about 50 min. of reading. Write the total time needed to read each source on the top page of each article.

7) Create a Research Schedule: figure out how many days you have until your final deadline for the paper, consider how many hours it will take to complete your stages of reading and drafting the argument and create a Research Schedule -- week by week, or day by day (hopefully not hour by hour!), set specific goals for your research process. If you are working with someone else in class, both of you can keep each other on track. Agree to meet at a certain time at the library to complete the next stage of work.

8) Read all sources with notations / start writing some notes: as you read each source, definitely locate all the following:

  • thesis statement / central argument
  • argument abstract (at the beginning) or encapsulating summary (towards the end)
  • key terms and concepts (ones that several of your sources discuss)
  • possible passages or statistics to cite or quote in your paper
  • stockpile some interesting images (if you will be doing a presentation)

9) Develop subtopics / Draft a working thesis statement: as you continue reading, use your list of key terms and concepts to start organizing possible subtopics. Be looking for connections among subtopics and among articles. Draft your working thesis statement and keep refining it as you continue to read and take notes. Some students draw their topics on a large piece of paper and draw in the connections -- if you're writing about a particular debate, create a two-column chart and list the key arguments for each side under a heading. By the time you're done reading your sources, you should have a good sense of which subtopics will work, so create an outline of those. Revise the central argument into a carefully worded and focused thesis statement. This is a good moment to review the Assignment Sheet to make sure that you're fulfilling all the requirements of the assignment.

10) Fill in research with new sources (optional): once you have a much clearer sense of what your central argument and thesis statement are, you may decide that you would like to locate a couple more articles that relate directly to that new focus. If you're lucky, you will already have all the information you need.

11) Compose a Rough Draft: all the notes that you have written so far and the outline of subtopics should make it pretty easy for you to jump into writing your first draft. Remember that you do not need to begin by writing the introductory paragraph -- it's often easier to do that after you've written your first draft. But do keep your thesis statement on hand and keep coming back to it to keep you focused. If you're unsure about which section of the paper to write first, you should pick whatever subtopic you feel will be easiest to write first -- that may be a more explanatory paragraph in which you discuss the background or history of your topic. Or it may be a particular subtopic that is just very interesting to you. Having the outline of subtopics to guide your writing process is good, but you don't have to draft those subtopics in any sort of rigid order. Many students finish writing the rough draft by composing the Introductory paragraph.

Building Blocks Model: this list summarizes how to build your own rough draft from your academic sources

(a) for each source that you read, create a list of key terms and concepts (at least 8 for each source)
(b) take the most important key terms and concepts and group them together
logically =
subtopics
(c) each subtopic = 1 to 2 potential paragraphs (perhaps more) in your own argument
(d) organize your chosen paragraphs = outline of rough draft
(e) formulate a working thesis statement as you create your outline
(f) compose your rough draft with your outline and your developing thesis

12) Compose a Draft Outline: once you have completed a lengthy rough draft, do the draft outline exercise to assess how the structure of the existing research paper is shaping up. You may decide to move some paragraphs around, combine others, take some out.

13) Evaluate your existing draft: after composing a draft outline, do some of the following to evaluate your existing draft:

14) Final Editing: your final round of editing will be most effective if you read the entire paper aloud (really out loud, maybe to your roommate): work on clearer, more streamlined sentence style; proofread (perhaps with a tutor) and spellcheck! Check the webpage titled, Final 15, for a list of very simple editing tasks to do at the very end that should take you no more than 15 minutes. Review your notes on Assignment Sheet one last time before handing in your final draft. Make sure that you have numbered each page and that the ink is dark enough on each page to be clearly readable. Remember, your professor will likely be reading hundreds of pages of final papers; anything that you can do to make reading that paper logistically easier will be much appreciated.