How to write great research papers

Advice for Students: How to Write Research Papers that Rock! –

Dustin Wax has some great advice for students facing the writing of a research paper. Some of the tips are applicable from undergrad through doctoral research.

Fifty tools which can help you in Writing

Fifty (50!) Tools which can help you in Writing –

Roy Peter Clark from Poynter Institute has posted up 50 tools that can help you when you do any kinds of writing. This is a extensive list of writing tools, but by no mean you need to apply all of them when you do any writing. You will become handy with these tools over time. You will begin to recognize their use in the stories you read. You will see chances to apply them when you revise your own work. Eventually, they will become part of your flow, natural and automatic.

How to write in plain English

Plain English Campaign: Free guides: How to write in plain English

So what’s plain English?

First let’s say what plain English isn’t and destroy some of the myths about it.

  • It’s not ‘cat sat on the mat’ or ‘Peter and Jane’ writing. Almost anything – from leaflets and letters to legal documents – can be written in plain English without being patronising or over-simple.
  • It doesn’t mean reducing the length or changing the meaning of your message. Most of the UK’s biggest insurance companies produce policies that explain everything fully in plain English.
  • It’s not about banning new words, killing off long words or promoting completely perfect grammar. Nor is it about letting grammar slip.
  • It is not an amateur’s method of communication. Most forward-looking senior managers always write in plain English.
  • And finally, it is not as easy as we would like to think.

Sadly, thanks to the bureaucrats of public service industries, local councils, banks, building societies, insurance companies and government departments, we have learned to accept an official style of writing that is inefficient and often unfriendly. But in the last few years, many of these offenders have started to put things right, either rewriting their documents clearly or training their staff in the art of plain English or both.

The main advantages of plain English are:

  • it is faster to write;
  • it is faster to read; and
  • you get your message across more often, more easily and in a friendlier way.

If you spend more than an hour a day writing, you are to an extent a professional writer. So it’s vital that you get it right.

Microsoft Word’s Hidden Tags Reveal Once-Anonymous Peer Reviewers

The Chronicle: 4/21/2006: Microsoft Word’s Hidden Tags Reveal Once-Anonymous Peer Reviewers

The peer-review process at many academic journals is intended to be blind, meaning that authors do not know who is reviewing their work. But a little-known setting in Microsoft Word has led to the unmasking of some peer reviewers, compromising the anonymity of the process.

Elmore Leonard’s Ten Rules of Writing

Easy on the Adverbs, Exclamation Points and Especially Hooptedoodle

Being a good author is a disappearing act. By ELMORE LEONARD

These are rules I’ve picked up along the way to help me remain invisible when I’m writing a book, to help me show rather than tell what’s taking place in the story. If you have a facility for language and imagery and the sound of your voice pleases you, invisibility is not what you are after, and you can skip the rules. Still, you might look them over.

Online Technical Writing

Online Technical Writing: Online Textbook–Contents

Here’s an online-only book about technical writing. It’s a book about writing, so it’s well-written. You can expect lots of short, declarative sentences, tons of practical real-life examples, and more. Although it’s not available as a download, there are multiple ways to view the examples, which is a nice touch. Sadly, no search feature, which is odd considering there is a chapter on indexing.

Writing annotations

Write a concise annotation that summarizes the central theme and scope of the book or article. Include one or more sentences that (a) evaluate the authority or background of the author, (b) comment on the intended audience, (c) compare or contrast this work with another you have cited, or (d) explain how this work illuminates your bibliography topic.

You can begin evaluating a physical information source (a book or an article for instance) even before you have the physical item in hand. Appraise a source by first examining the bibliographic citation. The bibliographic citation is the written description of a book, journal article, essay, or some other published material that appears in a catalog or index. Bibliographic citations characteristically have three main components: author, title, and publication information. These components can help you determine the usefulness of this source for your paper. (In the same way, you can appraise a Web site by examining the home page carefully.)

    1. Author
      1. What are the author’s credentials–institutional affiliation (where he or she works), educational background, past writings, or experience? Is the book or article written on a topic in the author’s area of expertise? You can use the various Who’s Who publications for the U.S. and other countries and for specific subjects and the biographical information located in the publication itself to help determine the author’s affiliation and credentials.
      2. Has your instructor mentioned this author? Have you seen the author’s name cited in other sources or bibliographies? Respected authors are cited frequently by other scholars. For this reason, always note those names that appear in many different sources.
      3. Is the author associated with a reputable institution or organization? What are the basic values or goals of the organization or institution?
    2. Date of Publication
      1. When was the source published? This date is often located on the face of the title page below the name of the publisher. If it is not there, look for the copyright date on the reverse of the title page. On Web pages, the date of the last revision is usually at the bottom of the home page, sometimes every page.
      2. Is the source current or out-of-date for your topic? Topic areas of continuing and rapid development, such as the sciences, demand more current information. On the other hand, topics in the humanities often require material that was written many years ago. At the other extreme, some news sources on the Web now note the hour and minute that articles are posted on their site.
    3. Edition or Revision — Is this a first edition of this publication or not? Further editions indicate a source has been revised and updated to reflect changes in knowledge, include omissions, and harmonize with its intended reader’s needs. Also, many printings or editions may indicate that the work has become a standard source in the area and is reliable. If you are using a Web source, do the pages indicate revision dates?
    4. Publisher — Note the publisher. If the source is published by a university press, it is likely to be scholarly. Although the fact that the publisher is reputable does not necessarily guarantee quality, it does show that the publisher may have high regard for the source being published.
    5. Title of Journal — Is this a scholarly or a popular journal? This distinction is important because it indicates different levels of complexity in conveying ideas. If you need help in determining the type of journal, see Distinguishing Scholarly from Non-Scholarly Periodicals. Or you may wish to check your journal title in the latest edition of Katz’s Magazines for Libraries for a brief evaluative description.
  2. CONTENT ANALYSIS — Having made an initial appraisal, you should now examine the body of the source. Read the preface to determine the author’s intentions for the book. Scan the table of contents and the index to get a broad overview of the material it covers. Note whether bibliographies are included. Read the chapters that specifically address your topic. Scanning the table of contents of a journal or magazine issue is also useful. As with books, the presence and quality of a bibliography at the end of the article may reflect the care with which the authors have prepared their work.
    1. Intended Audience — What type of audience is the author addressing? Is the publication aimed at a specialized or a general audience? Is this source too elementary, too technical, too advanced, or just right for your needs?
    2. Objective Reasoning
      1. Is the information covered fact, opinion, or propaganda? It is not always easy to separate fact from opinion. Facts can usually be verified; opinions, though they may be based on factual information, evolve from the interpretation of facts. Skilled writers can make you think their interpretations are facts.
      2. Does the information appear to be valid and well-researched, or is it questionable and unsupported by evidence? Assumptions should be reasonable. Note errors or omissions.
      3. Are the ideas and arguments advanced more or less in line with other works you have read on the same topic? The more radically an author departs from the views of others in the same field, the more carefully and critically you should scrutinize his or her ideas.
      4. Is the author’s point of view objective and impartial? Is the language free of emotion-arousing words and bias?
    3. Coverage
      1. Does the work update other sources, substantiate other materials you have read, or add new information? Does it extensively or marginally cover your topic? You should explore enough sources to obtain a variety of viewpoints.
      2. Is the material primary or secondary in nature? Primary sources are the raw material of the research process. Secondary sources are based on primary sources. For example, if you were researching Konrad Adenauer’s role in rebuilding West Germany after World War II, Adenauer’s own writings would be one of many primary sources available on this topic. Others might include relevant government documents and contemporary German newspaper articles. Scholars use this primary material to help generate historical interpretations–a secondary source. Books, encyclopedia articles, and scholarly journal articles about Adenauer’s role are considered secondary sources. In the sciences, journal articles and conference proceedings written by experimenters reporting the results of their research are primary documents. Choose both primary and secondary sources when you have the opportunity.
    4. Writing Style — Is the publication organized logically? Are the main points clearly presented? Do you find the text easy to read, or is it stilted or choppy? Is the author’s argument repetitive?
    5. Evaluative Reviews
      1. Locate critical reviews of books in a reviewing source, such as Book Review Index, Book Review Digest, OR Periodical Abstracts. Is the review positive? Is the book under review considered a valuable contribution to the field? Does the reviewer mention other books that might be better? If so, locate these sources for more information on your topic.
      2. Do the various reviewers agree on the value or attributes of the book or has it aroused controversy among the critics?
      3. For Web sites, consider consulting one of the evaluation and reviewing sources on the Internet.

Writing abstracts

An abstract is a brief preview of the content and argument of an academic paper. The purpose of an abstract is to give other readers a chance to get a sense of your work before reading the full work. It’s a time-saving feature that limits the amount of unnecessary reading by experts who already have immense amounts of reading required of them. Because you are trying to fit as much information into as little space as possible, clarity and economy of language are vital to the success of an abstract.

For advice on writing abstracts in APA style, visit one or more of the following sites: and are two brief but useful overviews of the elements of a successful APA abstract. A more detailed overview of abstracts, complete with an example at the bottom of the page. is a similar page, with a bibliographic resource cited at the bottom of the page.

©2004 Capella University


Many writers might expect to see a section titled “Revisions” in this Toolkit under “Fine-tuning and Troubleshooting,” alongside “Grammar and Punctuation,” “Editing,” and “Proofreading.” But revision is not one of the last stages of writing-it is not fine-tuning your essay before submission. Instead, revision is a vital part of the writing process, involving the movement of sentences, paragraphs, and even entire sections to different (but more effective) places in the essay. It even involves the removal and replacement of such elements of the essay.

Revision-if we take the word apart, we can see the key to understanding this process: “Re-vision,” or “seeing again”-involves challenging ourselves to look at our written work from many different angles, to distance ourselves from our position as writer, and try to look at our essay as a reader, even a skeptical reader. When we do this, we often gain a perspective that reveals the ways in which our writing fails to accomplish its goals. Having seen how our writing fails, we are then better equipped to develop strategies to make our writing succeed.

It’s far from easy-in fact, revision is consistently the most difficult part of the writing process for many writers, not least because writers are reluctant to surrender any of the hard fought text they’ve sweated to get on the page.

But revision is also the key to writing success-with effective revision strategies as a part of your writing repertoire, you can improve the quality of your writing more than focus on the rules of grammar will ever allow you to. See for further discussion of the benefits of revision.

One effective strategy in revising is to make your essay more manageable. Find out more about a useful technique for breaking an essay into more easily manipulated chunks.

For a set of useful questions to consider when revising, go to, or visit for another useful checklist for revision.

For a more detailed look at the purpose of revision, as well as useful tips for revision, visit Dartmouth University’s online Composition Center.

©2004 Capella University

Writing conclusions

Like introductions, conclusions present their own set of challenges to the writer. Foremost among these is how to gracefully exit the essay without becoming too broad, remaining too narrowly focused, or making connections that you haven’t encouraged in the body of the paper. Requirements for conclusions vary across disciplines, so be sure to check with your instructor about the expectations in your field. Despite this variety of requirements, guides to writing conclusions often focus on two strategies for concluding the essay:

  • Restate in condensed form what you’ve proven through the body of your essay. This has the benefit of leaving the reader with a short “takeaway” version of your argument.
  • Expand slightly beyond the scope of your essay to look at what your argument implies for future exploration. This has the benefit of situating your work in a larger context, emphasizing its relevance to the field and suggesting a next step or set of steps.
  • Note: These are not mutually exclusive, and can be effectively combined in a conclusion.

For other resources on writing conclusions, see the University of Richmond’s Online Writing Center . This page offers several effective strategies, as well as some “don’ts” for writers of conclusions.

From St. Cloud State University, this page looks at and analyzes examples of several successful conclusions:.

An interactive exercise on conclusions aimed at writers of English as a Second Language (ESL) .

For Purdue University’s advice on writing conclusions to research reports visit the Online Writing Lab.

©2004 Capella University

Writing style

Style should not be confused with grammar and mechanics-you can write many grammatically correct sentences that are murky and confusing. That said, there are many different kinds of successful writing styles for many different kinds of successful writing. Journalism, for instance, has its own set of stylistic guidelines, as does creative writing-even instant messaging has spawned new written “style.”

Style-the way you write-is largely dependent upon your audience, and the arena in which your audience operates. Academic and professional writing both require that your writing be clear, active, direct, and logical. The challenge then becomes how you meet those goals through the written word. That challenge is made greater by the fact that professions and academic disciplines tend to use a lot of language specific to their fields-language that you may never encounter outside the field, but language that you need to become comfortable using. Using unfamiliar language can be uncomfortable, and often leads writers to feel that they must use overly complicated words and syntax in order to successfully mimic the best writing in their fields.

Fortunately, almost all available advice on style argues that you should write as directly and simply as is possible, given the constraints of your chosen field. For instance, the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Writing Center offers a set of handouts that suggests how you might write clearly and effectively: A similar resource is available from Purdue University’s Online Writing Lab:

For a more general online resource for style, see the classic style guide by William Strunk, Jr., The Elements of Style, made available on

©2004 Capella University

Paragraph structure

Paragraphs are the building blocks of every essay; as such, they are one of the most important elements to pay attention to when writing and revising an essay. Too often writers judge paragraph breaks by the number of sentences since the last one, rather than presenting each paragraph as a unified, developed step in the development of an essay. Well-structured, coherent paragraphs are vital to the success of academic papers. They function to guide your reader through your written work; the more effectively you guide your reader, the greater the likelihood that your reader will view your writing as successful.

Read this handout that utilizes a mnemonic device to encourage writers at all levels to build thoughtfully structured and coherent paragraphs.

For a definition of what a paragraph is as well as descriptions of the various necessities of successful paragraphs, visit Purdue’s Online Writing Lab at

For a detailed if basic introduction with examples to the elements of the paragraph, visit

For a discussion of how to think in terms of the function of your paragraphs, visit

For a classic discussion of the paragraph’s importance and structure, see this excerpt from William Strunk’s The Elements of Style (1918):

©2004 Capella University

Writing introductions

Writing paragraphs for the body of your essay can be difficult enough, but introductions (and conclusions) present special challenges. In an introduction you must gain your reader’s attention, identify the subject of your essay, and present the basic substance of your argument for the essay. Writers are always struggling with introductions, asking themselves questions about how specific or general they should be in defining their subject, whether they have adopted the correct tone to draw their reader in, what kinds of questions they are trying to answer in the body of the paper, and how those should be presented in the introduction, etc. Many writers leave writing the introduction until the very end of the writing process, when they are most sure about what they have written and can be clearest about laying it out for their reader. Below are several guides to writing introductions that will help you think about the shape and content of this all-important part of your essay.

For a detailed handout on writing introductions, including a section on “less-effective” introductions, visit the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill’s Writing Center at For more examples of both successful and unsuccessful introductions, try

For a list of strategies when writing introductions, try MIT’s

For a useful introduction to the “funnel” structure of an introduction, as well as a few examples of what not to do, go to

For a clearly defined set of strategies for writing introductions, go to

For advice on writing introductions for more scientific papers (and to see how the general principles of introduction remain relatively constant across disciplines), visit another MIT site at

©2004 Capella University

Writing arguments

Much of academic writing is structured in the form of arguments-not quarrels, but reasoned, logical, claims supported by expert testimony and factual evidence. It is in this way that members of academic (and professional) disciplines not only communicate with each other, but work to advance their fields. In their definitions of argument, John Ramage and John Bean claim that argument has three defining features: it “requires justification of its claims, it is both a product and a process, and it combines elements of truth seeking and persuasion.” That is, argument demands:

  • that you support your claims with a combination of logic and evidence
  • that you understand that an argument is both a thing (“product”) and an action “process”)
  • and that an you look for truth even as you persuade readers of that truth

For an introduction to the “elements of argument” visit Youngstown State University’s These pages have relatively brief and accessible introductions with examples to the main parts of an argumentative essay.

A more detailed approach to argument is provided by The University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill’s Writing Center at See also Utah Valley State College’s website:

For a brief overview of argumentative writing strategies with links to student examples, visit Longman Publishers’,5006,309198-,00.html.

For an overview of the value of logic in developing arguments, visit Purdue University’s Online Writing Lab at Here you will find useful vocabulary, techniques, and pitfalls to avoid when developing logical arguments.

For a more comprehensive look at what are known as “logical fallacies” (i.e., traps that we can fall into that will make our arguments less effective), visit “Stephen’s Guide” at or “The Fallacy Files” at

If you are someone who benefits from thinking about tasks in terms of analogies, visit for a comparison of academic argumentative writing and the preparations for trial by a courtroom attorney. This page has limited utility for detailed approaches, but may help you wrap your mind around the expectations of academic writing.

©2004 Capella University