Short Research Papers: How to Write Academic Essays

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This document focuses on the kind of short, narrowly-focused research papers that might be the final project in a freshman writing class or 200-level literature survey course.

In high school, you probably wrote a lot of personal essays (where your goal was to demonstrate you were engaged) and a lot of info-dump paragraphs (where your goal was to demonstrate you could remember and organize information your teacher told you to learn).

How is a college research essay different from the writing you did in high school?

This short video covers the same topic in a different way; I think the video and handout work together fairly well.

The assignment description your professor has already given you is your best source for understanding your specific writing task, but in general, a college research paper asks you to use evidence to defend some non-obvious, nuanced point about a complex topic.

Some professors may simply want you to explain a situation or describe a process; however, a more challenging task asks you to take a stand, demonstrating you can use credible sources to defend your original ideas.

  1. Short Research Papers: How to Write Academic EssaysPlan to Revise
  2. Choose a Narrow Topic
  3. Use Sources Appropriately
  4. Avoid Distractions

Outside the classroom, if I want to “research” which phone I should buy, I would start with Google.

I would watch some YouTube unboxing videos, and I might ask my friends on social media. I’d assume somebody already has written about or knows about the latest phones, and the goal of my “research” is to find what the people I trust think is the correct answer.

An entomologist might do “research” by going into the forest, and catching and observing hundreds or thousands of butterflies. If she had begun and ended her research by Googling for “butterflies of Pennsylvania” she would never have seen, with her own eyes, that unusual specimen that leads her to conclude she has discovered a new species.

Her goal as a field researcher is not to find the “correct answer” that someone else has already published. Instead, her goal is to add something new to the store of human knowledge — something that hasn’t been written down yet.

As an undergraduate with a few short months or weeks to write a research paper, you won’t be expected to discover a new species of butterfly, or convince everyone on the planet to accept what 99.9% of scientists say about vaccines or climate change, or to adopt your personal views on abortion, vaping, or tattoos.

But your professor will probably want you to read essays published by credentialed experts who are presenting their results to other experts, often in excruciating detail that most of us non-experts will probably find boring.

Your instructor probably won’t give the results of a random Google search the same weight as peer-reviewed scholarly articles from academic journals. (See “Academic Journals: What Are They?“)

The best databases are not free, but your student ID will get you access to your school’s collection of databases, so you should never have to pay to access any source. (Your friendly school librarian will help you find out exactly how to access the databases at your school.)

1. Plan to Revise

Even a very short paper is the result of a process.

  • You start with one idea, you test it, and you hit on something better.
  • You might end up somewhere unexpected. If so, that’s good — it means you learned something.
  • If you’re only just starting your paper, and it’s due tomorrow, you have already robbed yourself of your most valuable resource — time.

Showcase your best insights at the beginning of your paper (rather than saving them for the end).

You won’t know what your best ideas are until you’ve written a full draft. Part of revision involves identifying strong ideas and making them more prominent, identifying filler and other weak material, and pruning it away to leave more room to develop your best ideas.

  • It’s normal, in a your very first “discovery draft,” to hit on a really good idea about two-thirds of the way through your paper.
  • But a polished academic paper is not a mystery novel. (A busy reader will not have the patience to hunt for clues.)
  • A thesis statement that includes a clear reasoning blueprint (see “Blueprinting: Planning Your Essay“) will help your reader identify and follow your ideas.

Before you submit your draft, make sure the title, the introduction, and the conclusion match. (I am amazed at how many students overlook this simple step.)

2. Choose a Narrow Topic

A short undergraduate research paper is not the proper occasion for you to tackle huge issues, such as, “Was Hamlet Shakespeare’s Best Tragedy?” or “Women’s Struggle for Equality” or “How to Eliminate Racism.”  You won’t be graded down simply because you don’t have all the answers right away.  The trick is to zoom in on one tiny little part of the argument.

Short Research Paper: Sample Topics

Bad ExampleThe Role of the Government in the Lives of Its Citizens
This paper could very well start with Biblical tribes, then move through ancient Greece, Rome, the rise of monarchy and nationalism in Europe, revolutions in France and America, the rise of Fascism and Communism, global wars, education, freedom of religion, AIDS, etc. This topic is huge!
Bad ExampleThe Role of Government in American Race Relations
While this version of the topic at least settles on a single country, it is still way too complex. Papers with titles like this tend to be filled with the student’s personal opinions about what governments should or should not do. Your professor is probably more interested in first making sure you can explain specific details, rather than make sweeping generalizations about what governments should or should not do.
Iffy ExampleThe Role of Government in American Race Relations during the 1930s
Now we are starting to get somewhere… a student couldn’t possibly write this paper without knowing something about that specific time period.
Good ExampleFederal Policies Affecting Rural Blacks during the 1930s
Even though it is still possible to write a whole book with this title, the topic is narrow enough that a student might write a short paper giving the basic facts, describing (or at least listing) the crises and conflicts, and characterizing the lingering controversies.

How would you improve each of these paper topics? (My responses are at the bottom of the page.)

  1. Environmentalism in America
  2. Immigration Trends in Wisconsin’s Chippewa Valley
  3. Drinking and Driving
  4. Local TV News
  5. 10 Ways that Advertisers Lie to the Public
  6. Athletes on College Campuses

3. Use Sources Appropriately

Unless you were asked to write an opinion paper or a reflection statement, your professor probably expects you to draw a topic from the assigned readings (if any).

  • Some students frequently get this backwards — they write the paper first, then “look for quotes” from sources that agree with the opinions they’ve already committed to. (That’s not really doing research to learn anything new — that’s just looking for confirmation of what you already believe.)
  • Start with the readings, but don’t pad your paper with summary.
  • Many students try doing most of their research using Google. Depending on your topic, the Internet may simply not have good sources available.
  • Go ahead and surf as you try to narrow your topic, but remember: you still need to cite whatever you find. (See: “Researching Academic Papers.”)

When learning about the place of women in Victorian society, Sally is shocked to discover women couldn’t vote or own property.  She begins her paper by listing these and other restrictions, and adds personal commentary such as:

Women can be just as strong and capable as men are.  Why do men think they have the right to make all the laws and keep all the money, when women stay in the kitchen?  People should be judged by what they contribute to society, not by the kind of chromosomes they carry.

After reaching the required number of pages, she tacks on a conclusion about how women are still fighting for their rights today, and submits her paper.

  • Sally has failed to notice that among the readings assigned by her professor is an article exploring how the role of women changed from the beginning of the Victorian period to the end. Those readings showed that
    • during the Victorian period, female authors were being published and read like never before
    • the public praised Queen Victoria (a woman!) for making England a world empire
    • some women actually fought against the new feminists because they distrusted their motives
    • many wealthy women in England were downright nasty to their poorer sisters, especially the Irish.
  • Sally’s paper focused mainly on her general impression that sexism is unfair (something that she already believed before she started taking the course), but Sally has not engaged with the controversies or surprising details (such as, for instance, the fact that for the first time male writers were writing with female readers in mind; or that upperclass women contributed to the degradation of lower-class women).

On the advice of her professor, Sally revises her paper as follows:

vague original:
“The Role of Women in Victorian Society”
focused revision:
“Mary Wollestonecraft’s Revolutionary Ideas”
Women can be just as strong and capable as men are.  Why do men think they have the right to make all the laws and keep all the money, when women stay in the kitchen?  People should be judged by what they contribute to society, not by the kind of chromosomes they carry.In "The Rights of Woman," Mary Wollestonecraft said women appear weak because they lack men's rights: "Let woman share the rights and she will emulate the virtues of man" (136).  She questioned the assumption that womanly jobs, such as breastfeeding, were inferior to manly ones, such as war.  Now that we have packaged baby formula and female fighter pilots, we may have to rethink some of her specific points, but her overall argument is still valid.

(Paper concludes with a bibliography)

Sally’s focused revision (right) makes specific reference to a particular source, and uses a quote to introduce a point.  Sally still injects her own opinion, but she is offering specific comments on complex issues, not bumper-sticker slogans and sweeping generalizations, such as those given on the left.

Documenting Evidence

Back up your claims by quoting reputable sources.  If you write”Recent research shows that…” or “Many scholars believe that…”, you are making a claim. You will have to back it up with authoritative evidence.  This means that the body of your paper must include references to the specific page numbers where you got your outside information. (If your document is an online source that does not provide page numbers, ask your instructor what you should do. There might be a section title or paragraph number that you could cite, or you might print out the article and count the pages in your printout.)

Avoid using words like “always” or “never,” since all it takes is a single example to the contrary to disprove your claim.  Likewise, be careful with words of causation and proof.  For example, consider the claim that television causes violence in kids.  The evidence might be that kids who commit crimes typically watch more television than kids who don’t.  But… maybe the reason kids watch more television is that they’ve dropped out of school, and are unsupervised at home. An unsupervised kid might watch more television, and also commit more crimes — but that doesn’t mean that the television is the cause of those crimes.

You don’t need to cite common facts or observations, such as “a circle has 360 degrees” or “8-tracks and vinyl records are out of date,” but you would need to cite claims such as “circles have religious and philosophical significance in many cultures” or “the sales of 8-track tapes never approached those of vinyl records.”

Don’t waste words referring directly to “quotes” and “sources.”

If you use words like “in the book My Big Boring Academic Study, by Professor H. Pompous Windbag III, it says” or “the following quote by a government study shows that…” you are wasting words that would be better spent developing your ideas.

In the book Gramophone, Film, Typewriter, by Fredrich A. Kittler, it talks about writing and gender, and says on page 186, “an omnipresent metaphor equated women with the white sheet of nature or virginity onto which a very male stylus could inscribe the glory of its authorship.”  As you can see from this quote, all this would change when women started working as professional typists.

The “it talks about” and “As you can see from this quote” are weak attempts to engage with the ideas presented by Kittler.  “In the book… it talks” is wordy and nonsensical (books don’t talk).

MLA style encourages you to expend fewer words introducing your sources, and more words developing your own ideas.  MLA style involves just the author’s last name, a space (not a comma), and then the page number.  Leave the author’s full name and the the title of the source for the Works Cited list at the end of your paper. Using about the same space as the original, see how MLA style helps an author devote more words to developing the idea more fully:

Before the invention of the typewriter, “an omnipresent metaphor” among professional writers concerned “a very male stylus” writing upon the passive, feminized “white sheet of nature or virginity” (Kittler 186).  By contrast, the word “typewriter” referred to the machine as well as the female typist who used it (183).

See “Quotations: Integrating them in MLA-Style Papers.

Avoid Distractions

Stay On Topic

It’s fairly normal to sit and stare at the computer screen for a while until you come up with a title, then pick your way through your topic, offering an extremely broad introduction (see Glittering Generalities, below).

  • You might also type in a few long quotations that you like.
  • After writing generalities and just poking and prodding for page or two, you will eventually hit on a fairly good idea.
  • You will pursue it for a paragraph or two, perhaps throwing in another quotation.
  • By then, you’ll realize that you’ve got almost three pages written, so you will tack on a hasty conclusion.

Hooray, you’ve finished your paper! Well, not quite…

  • At the very least, you ought to rewrite your title and introduction to match your conclusion, so it looks like the place you ended up was where you were intending to go all along.  You probably won’t get an A, because you’re still submitting two pages of fluff; but you will get credit for recognizing whatever you actually did accomplish.
  • To get an A, you should delete all that fluff, use the “good idea” that you stumbled across as your new starting point, and keep going.   Even “good writers” have to work — beefing up their best ideas and shaving away the rest, in order to build a whole paper that serves the good idea, rather than tacking the good idea on at the end and calling it a day.

See: Sally Slacker Writes a Paper, and Sally’s Professor Responds

Avoid Glittering Generalities

Bad ExampleThroughout the ages, mankind has found many uses for salt.  Ancient tribes used it to preserve meat; around the world it adds flavor to food; the Bible uses it as a symbol of zest for life.  Salt became such an important part of people’s diet that a way was needed to allow early nomads to carry salt with them on their perilous travels; such a device ideally also helped ancient gormandizers to distribute portions of the precious flavor enhancer onto their foods.  Thus was born the salt shaker.
(Some writers appear to believe that the introduction should provide a sort of cosmic overview; however, you are not required to stun and amaze your professors.  Just do the assignment.)
Broad, sweeping statements (“In our society today” or “It is a growing problem that…”) may make a short paper seem grander and more substantial, but the flashy words won’t fool your instructor.

In a similar vein, resist the urge to call the Great Depression the “saddest chapter in American history,” or T.S. Eliot “the most famous modern poet.”

If your paper does not actually examine all chapters in American history, or all famous modern poets, such a vague claim adds nothing to your argument.

Don’t Patronize the Great
Don’t waste time talking about why Shakespeare is a genius, or why Napoleon is important to history, or why The Great Gatsby is the greatest American novel ever written. After ten, twenty or maybe forty years of study, few professors will claim to be able to to answer such huge questions in three or four pages.  They won’t expect you to do so, either, after only a couple of weeks of classes!
Don’t Summarize [Excessively]
Unlike high school, where you got credit for proving to your teacher that you actually did the assigned readings, in college, the assigned readings are not important because of the facts you contain, but rather because they are the raw materials, the ingredients, that you will be expected to work with to build you own essay.
Summarizing a brilliant scientist’s experiment or describing in detail what the main character did are easy ways to churn out half a page. Summarizing a textbook chapter that focuses on your topic is an easy way to frame an argument, but your professor knows that it requires much more mental effort to apply what you learned, to analyze a situation, to synthesize opposing viewpoints, to evaluate an argument.  Summarizing is, by comparison, a very simple intellectual task.  (See “Bloom’s Taxonomy.”)
Don’t Regurgitate Your Lecture Notes
…I’d much rather read your original thoughts (backed up by your frequent reference to the source materials, of course).  I can’t speak for other professors, but when I lecture, I am primarily trying to give you background information that will spur you into thinking for yourself.  I will not reward you for simply parroting back to me the example I suggested off the top of my head three weeks ago in response to a student’s question. I suppose students wouldn’t keep trying to do this if it didn’t sometimes work.  Nevertheless, If you pull out your lecture notes and serve them to me like so much warmed-over meatloaf, I’m bored and frustrated — probably even more bored than you were when you wrote it in the first place, since I have thirty other papers to grade.
Don’t Inflate Your Prose
Simplify.  Most first drafts are about 50% deadwood.
Bad ExampleAnother factor that should be considered is the fact that in most cases, utilizing an excessive amount of words creates multiple negative outcomes.
Good ExampleWordiness stinks.
My phrasing is too informal, but you get the idea.
Bad ExampleIn the 1992 book, Cooking Disasters of the 20th Century, by Fred Smith, page 102 talks about why an important state dinner in England was ruined, resulting in a social calamity that caused the host to lose nearly all of his social status and prestige:  “Lord Alfred’s infamous celebration in honor of the Treaty of Ulm was marred when an assistant chef failed to notice that the cheese was was spoiled. As a result, Alfred’s impending marriage to the Duchess of Eberdeen was called off.” This example demonstrates how small, seemingly unimportant details can have large effects.
Good ExampleAt Lord Alfred’s infamous Treaty of Ulm Banquet, a junior chef ruined the cheese, creating a scandal that also ruined Lord Alfred (Smith 102).
In high school, you may have been praised for If the Duchess of Eberdeen is important to the point you want to make, then by all means keep her in the story.
Bad ExampleIt is clear that…
This is a weak attempt at manipulating the reader into seeing structure that isn’t there. Just present the evidence and let the reader decide whether the argument is clear.
Bad ExampleSome people may say…
Who are these people, what are their names, and why are they worth quoting in a college research paper?
Bad ExampleIn other words…
If your first try at making a point didn’t work out, cut it. Only keep the version that works.
Bad ExampleI think…
In my opinion…
A quote that supports the opposing view would be…
This is “showing your work,” which is a good thing to do in math, but a distraction in writing.

Key: Research Paper Topics

Bad Example1) Environmentalism in America (too general)
Women’s Contribution to the Modern Environmentalism in America, 1800-1950 (much better)
Good Example2) Immigration Trends in Wisconsin’s Chippewa Valley
Probably okay for a research topic, since it focuses on a specific region. A stronger paper would take and defend a stand, rather than just present information that describes something.
Bad Example3) Drinking and Driving (too general)
Judicial Attitudes Towards Drinking and Driving in the USA vs Europe (much more focused)
Bad Example4) Local TV News
Gender and Sports on Local TV News in Pittsburgh (much more focused)
Bad Example5) 10 Ways that Advertisers Lie to the Public (sounds like schlocky clickbait journalism)
The Federal Trade Commission’s Truth in Advertising under the Trump Administration (much more specific)
Bad Example6) Athletes on College Campuses (too general)
Bad ExampleShould College Athletes Be Paid?
Oversimplified; pretty much any college athlete would say “yes,” just like every college journalist or college band member or college poet or college chess player would love to be paid; but for the very specific purpose of an academic research paper, the opinion of a college student is not as credible as the findings published by experts.
Good ExampleLegal Status of Student-athletes and Professional Athletes: What Do the Courts Say?
What do the experts who study the history and the economics and the culture of higher education say about the proper relationship between the colleges and the students who play sports as a side-hack to support their studies, and the proper relationship between pro team owners and their full-time employees?)

Dennis G. Jerz
11 Apr 2011 — first posed
15 Aug 2017 — modest edits
05 Oct 2018 — proofreading and cohesion
10 Dec 2019 — reformatting, updating

15 thoughts on “Short Research Papers: How to Write Academic Essays

  1. Hi,
    I was searching for some information on how to write quality academic paper when I came across your awesome article on Short Research Papers: How to Writer Academic Essays
    Great stuff!!!
    I especially like the way you recommend sticking to the 4 basics of writing academic essays. Very few students have mastered how to avoid distractions and focus on a single topic. Many students think that the broad, sweeping statements could give them better grades but they are wrong.

    However, I came across a few links that didn’t seem to be working for you. Want me to forward you the short list I jotted down?

  2. I found the part about not using my personal opinion or generalities to be very helpful. I am currently writing a 2 page paper and was having a hard time keeping it short. Now I know why. Thanks. Stick to the facts.

  3. This seem to be old but very relevant. Most of what you have stated are things my professor has stated during class trying to prepare us to write a short thesis reading this information verses hearing it was very helpful. You have done an awesome job! I just hope I can take this and apply it to my papers!

  4. Thank you for all your effort and help. You´ve taught me a number of things, especially on what college professors´ look for in assigning students short research papers. I am bookmarking your page, and using it as a reference.


  5. I appreaciate all the help your web site has given to me. I have referred to it many times. I think there may be a typo under the headline of AVOID GLITTERING GENERALITIES: “Throughout the ages, mankind has found many uses for salt. Ancient tribes used it preserve meat;” This is in no way a slight – I thought you might want to know. Please forgive me if I am incorrect. Thank you again – you rock!

  6. i would like to say thank you for your detailed information even though it takes time to read as well as we’ve got learnings out from it . even though it’s holiday next week our teacher assigned us to make a short research paper in accordance of our selected topic ! I’m hoping that we can make it cause if we can’t make it, right away, for sure we will get a grade’s that can drop our jaws ! :) ♥ tnx ! keep it up ! ♪♪

  7. Hello I am the mother of a high school student that needs help doing a paper proposal for her senior project. Her topic is Photography. To be honest I have done this for years and I am trying to help, but i am completely lost. What can you recommend since she told me a little late and the paper is due tomorrow 11/11/11.

    • This page is designed for college students, but I am sure your daughter’s teacher has assigned readings that will guide your daughter through her homework.

      Any paper that your daughter writes herself, even if it is late, will be a valuable learning experience — showing her the value of managing her time better for the next time, and preparing her for the day when she will have to tackle grown-up problems on her own.

  8. I am having a hard time with my government essay. I am 55 taking a college course for the first time, and I barely passed high school. Last year I took this course wrote the essay, and did many things wrong. It was all in the typing. I had good story line, excellent site words, and good points of arguments. It wasn’t right on paper. My format is off. Where can I find and print a format. also I need to learn site words.

    • Most teachers will provide a model to follow. If it’s not already part of the assignment instructions, you could ask your prof. Better yet, bring a near-complete draft to your prof’s office hours, a few days before the due date, and ask for feedback. Your school probably has a writing center or tutoring center, too.

  9. I would like to thank you for such detailed information. I am not a native speaker and I am doing a research paper;so, as you may think, it is really a hard job for me. A friend of mine who saw my draft of Lit. Rev asked me what type of citation format i was using, MLA or APA and I was puzzeled; then I decided to check the net and came across to this! It is being such a help

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